The Power of a Name

The act and experience of living into and owning your given name.


Contradictory thought suggests that we in fact live in a society that perpetuates pseudo-diversity, the illusion that real, true acceptance of diversity and uniqueness exists. Community labeling, and box-checking forms ask us to pick and choose. It has taken this community spotlight contributor, Ghadah, real introspection and self-acceptance to know who she really is, a combination of many experiences. And accepting the combination of her experiences to live into and fully accept her Arabic name, after growing up hiding from it. The acceptance of her name Ghadah is symbolic of fully blooming into all of her influences… Iraqi, Muslim, American, daughter, mom, wife. Now as an adult that is a citizen of the world, moving several times with her family, this realization grounds her and celebrates her gifts to the world, leaving us feeling inspired by that resolution.


My name is Ghadah Alrawi. I live an extraordinary life. I love my life. I thank my parents for the life I lead today. They sacrificed much to raise me in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. At the same time, I grew up with mixed messages and a longing for some kind of identity to call my own.


I am a first-generation Iraqi-American. I grew up in a secular Muslim family, in a very non-Muslim, wealthy suburb of Detroit, Michigan called West Bloomfield. As far as I remember, I was only one of a handful of Arab families I knew. About thirty minutes from our home was Dearborn, the Arab capital of North America where thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni immigrants lived. Yet, I never knew it existed until I was a teenager and my Uncle came to live with us. My parents emigrated from Iraq, my father in 1968 followed by my mother in 1970. They came to the United States like many immigrants do, for more opportunity for themselves and the future of their children. As far as I could tell, my parents fully assimilated to life in America, fitting in as much as possible, not making a fuss, and leading a very honorable, comfortable life in little suburbia.


My given name at birth is Ghadah, yet I never used it. As far back as I remember, I was Didi. I believe my parents gave my brother and me “American” names so the kids could pronounce them correctly. It made it a lot easier on everyone. All my friends, classmates, teachers, family, cousins back in Iraq all called me Didi. On every first day of school, I made a point to tell the teacher not to use my given name Ghadah and to simply call me Didi after they butchered the pronunciation of it during roll call. I know the teachers tried their best, but it still made me feel uncomfortable—that combined with looks and stares from my classmates was enough to make me shrink down into my chair. And when I would say, “just call me Didi” I felt the collective sigh of relief in the room. Thinking back to those moments, that’s a pretty crappy way to feel. So the more I sensed “others” wanted me to fit in and not be “different,” that’s what I did. I am American, and I was born in the United States of America, so I embrace this identity 100%, but at a young, impressionable age I felt that meant hiding my Middle Eastern background from the outside world. It wasn’t until I started my early professional career at age 22 in New York City that I began to use my Arabic name.


I grew up speaking Arabic fluently and still speak it fluently today. I am pretty sure my friends never knew this about me. On Saturday nights, my Mom and I belly danced to Arabic music. Arabic music and Western pop music filled our house equally. Every day after-school, I would come home to the delicious aromas of my Mom’s Iraqi cooking. Yet, at some point, I stopped taking my Mom’s delicious Iraqi meals to school because of the constant questioning of what I was eating. As an adult, I recognize now that these questions perhaps came from curious children, but as a child, I felt I was judged by it. I stopped eating pita bread at school. I would wait to come home and devour all my mother’s delicious delicacies. I am so fortunate, my mother cooked a traditional home-cooked Iraqi meal every day of my childhood. It is one of my fondest memories. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC when I was 21 that I began to introduce my friends, and then subsequently my husband and children, to Iraqi cuisine.


When I was in high school, my Uncle came to visit us from Iraq, and that is when we began to celebrate Ramadan. This was the first time that I ever connected to my culture in a very strong and meaningful way, despite having traveled to Iraq a handful of times during my childhood. It is hard to imagine why my parents kept this extremely beautiful and meaningful holiday and tradition from me and my brother. I don’t know what their reasons were, but once I discovered Ramadan I decided that I would embrace this tradition. And I did so, religiously, for the next fifteen years, until I turned 32 and was pregnant with my first child.


What happened in the years between high school and marriage was a mix of worlds, of emotions, of cultures, of a longing to belong fully in one place, as either an American or as an Iraqi. I came to the realization in my late 20s just before meeting my husband, that I no longer had to pick and choose what my culture was because I am a mix of cultures. Being born in the United States, I grew up as any American kid in the 80s. My identity being very American. In my 20s, as the wars in Iraq were making headlines, I felt the pull to declare myself and immerse myself in my Iraqi-ness as much as possible as a badge of honor and pride. I quickly realized that by doing that, I was missing a huge part of me, my very American upbringing and secular lifestyle. So, as I’ve grown older, married someone who is not from my own ethnic background and raising bi-ethnic children, I have introduced them to the things that bring me joy from my Iraqi ethnicity—the food, the language, and dancing. My children both have Arabic names. They don’t hide it or change it to try to fit in. They are proud of their names in a way I wish I had been as a child. I share my history and story with my kids and allow them to decide for themselves what part, if any, of my culture they want to include in their lives. There are no pressures to be a certain way according to the cultural norms that were imposed on me. We are all complex beings. By the time I was 27, I realized that what other people wanted for me and to box me into was not what I wanted. That is when I began to travel the world. I have been an expat now for twenty years, living a nomadic lifestyle, and my children are third-culture kids.


I am a citizen of the world. I am my own unique being. I decide who I am and get to choose how I identify myself.


On some level, I always knew this was true, but I didn’t truly believe this until now. Now, I decide. I don’t have to choose one or the other. I create my being on my own terms. I take pride and honor now in embracing all facets of me and my life and culture. I proudly say to the world I am an Iraqi-American, but I define what Iraqi-American is for me and no longer shrink to fit in for “others.” I am my own unique self—a mix of cultures—a Ghadah and a Didi.

 

Is there a story behind your name? Tell us in the comments below.