In the fall of 2016, my wife and I found out we were having a girl. There are new blood tests that reveal this information very early in a pregnancy, and while some parents opt not to know, we welcomed the news. It had been a difficult year, the two of us confined to that silent sort of suffering reserved for couples who try repeatedly to start a family, come close, then fail. This time around, the pregnancy having progressed past its most precarious first weeks, we were happy to receive these periodic updates. With each new detail, this tiny seedling of a human around whom our whole lives had begun to revolve became a little more real.
I was in New York in October of 2016 when my wife called to tell me the news. We live in Portland, Oregon, on the other side of the continent, and I had travelled east that week to meet with my editor ahead of the April 2017 publication of my debut novel. I’d just finished a meeting in midtown and decided to walk back to my friend’s place in Brooklyn. It’s a long walk, two hours or so, about fifty blocks south down the island and then east across the bridge.
New York City is one of those places the rest of America takes turns embracing or deriding based on the whims of the national mood. In the jarring strangeness of that fall, with the Republican presidential nomination having gone to Donald Trump, a local boy despised by the city that birthed him, not even New York knew how to feel about New York. The prospect of an openly racist, militantly ignorant supermarket tabloid of a man assuming the presidency being too much to bear, most of the people I talked to that week had by then retreated into a kind of self-defensive rejection – there’s no way he’ll run; fine, he’ll run, but there’s no way he’ll be nominated; fine, he’ll be nominated, but there’s no way he’ll win. One common (if not particularly healthy) American survival strategy is to believe until the bitter end that any given calamity will not come to pass, and then, when it does, immediately go about the business of forgetting it has.
I wandered around Brooklyn and thought about the daughter I would soon meet. What I felt in that moment, overwhelmingly, was happiness. But I also felt, for reasons that betray my own cowardice and the way my lifelong relationship with American otherness has shaped my cowardice, a sense of relief.
These are things that are difficult for me to say. They have to do with the realities of raising a Brown, Muslim girl in this country, in this world. And they have to do with the power of names.
My earliest memories of America are memories of teachers, and war. I am Egyptian by birth and by genealogy dating back perhaps a dozen generations, but I belong to the class of the placeless, an immigrant since the age of five. That’s how old I was when my mother and I left Egypt to join my father, who had, the year before, taken a job as an accountant in nearby Qatar. At the time, the young Gulf monarchy was just starting to spend its massive oil wealth, and the job my father chased paid far more than any comparable work back home.
Within a few years, I had forgotten Cairo entirely. My parents, like so many Arabs taking stock of the world in the mid-eighties, concluded that an English-language education would give me the best chance at success. They enrolled me in the American International School, at the time a tiny operation run out of a repurposed villa and intended mostly to cater to the children of Western expats. It was at the American International School where I developed the accent that I have to this day, the accent that still gets me through Western airport security with far less hassle than the vast majority of my relatives.
A few years later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we were thrust into the first Gulf War. With the conflict came the opening of a U.S. military base in Qatar. Our teachers had us write the American soldiers thank-you letters, and we went to the base to deliver them by hand. The men at the base looked like the men we’d seen in countless American films. They dressed in the fatigues that we knew from our toy soldiers, except shaded brown instead of green. They called each other by their last names. They were cool in that way America has always been cool in the eyes of children.
From a very young age, I wanted to be American. I have given up so much of myself, trying to be American.
My full name is Omar Mohamed Ahmed Suliman El Akkad. Literally translated, my last name means ‘The Knot-tier’. It refers to a craft. Traditionally, the galabeya, a long flowing dress worn by men and women throughout the Arab world, is made with button-holes but no buttons. Instead, a thick knot is passed through the hole. Somewhere in my distant ancestry is an artisan who tied those knots.
Virtually every immigrant quickly learns to ignore the myriad daily instances in which their name might be mangled
The English ‘El Akkad’ is a phonetic approximation, and not a particularly good one, in large part because my last name, like my first, contains the letter ع, which is essentially unpronounceable by those who don’t speak the Arabic language. So instead the letter is often replaced with the closest vowel sound. When written in Arabic with an A-accent, عمر is translated into the English Amr; with an O-accent, it becomes Omar.
It wasn’t until I moved away from Qatar at age sixteen – first to Canada and then, a few years ago, to the United States – that I came to understand my name as being an entirely different kind of marker. Virtually every immigrant learns to ignore the myriad daily instances in which their name might be mangled. There are many variations of this minor indignity: the straightforward mispronunciation; the pause-in-the-middle-and-then-read-the-second-half-with-an-inflection-as-though-you’re-asking-a-question; the over-rolling of Rs because the name is Spanish or making of guttural KH-sounds because the name is Arab or Persian. This is all run-of-the-mill stuff and it doesn’t bother me that much.
Then there’s something more insidious.
About ten years ago, when I was just starting out as a journalist at Canada’s national newspaper, I was assigned to a terrorism story. Canadian police had just undertaken the largest round of anti-terror arrests in the country’s history, detaining a group of would-be jihadists who came to be known at the Toronto 18. Being one of only a couple of journalists at the paper with a Muslim background, I was put on the story and spent the next two years covering it, earning a National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting in the process.
One day I came to the office and read through the day’s paper. I found, prominently placed, an opinion piece by one of our staff writers, who at the time was perhaps the best-known columnist in the country. In it, she argued that there was something all the accused terrorists had in common: ‘They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed.’
It is always a jarring experience to find yourself penned within the confines of someone else’s bigotry. Lots of Tims and Johns and Michaels unleash all manner of evil on this world every day – no other Tims or Johns or Michaels are held responsible. But for all its plainly racist idiocy, my former colleague’s assertion was in its own way illuminating. Some names come with the privilege of individual agency, others with the penalty of collective guilt.
There is a particular kind of obsession that sometimes takes hold among members of various minority and immigrant groups in the West. It manifests itself in different ways – a desire for excessive, ostentatious wealth; a degree from a prestigious university; the procurement of Western citizenship. It’s an obsessiveness that is often mocked, the stereotype of the bling-clad rapper or the demanding Asian parents being two examples. But there a calculus behind it, a reason – these things represent a kind of armour, a commodity that, once attained, allows its holder to say, ‘Now it’s harder for them to look down on me. Now it’s harder for them to hurt me.’
There are plenty of Arabic girl’s names that also work perfectly well in the Western world – Sarah, Layla, Nadine . . . With one of those names, she’d pass
In my case the armour has taken the form of culture. From a young age I inhaled American movies, music, books, anything that could help render me fluent in the societal language of the West, the vast region with America at its centre that I took to be the pinnacle of the world. Fed a version of a white, dominant America since childhood, I strived for its acceptance.
Today I sound American. I live in America. I read, write and speak the language better than most of the people who were born here. My skin colour is such that I am either mistaken for Mexican or regarded in that passively cautious way many white Americans adopt when they’re not quite sure where you belong on the racial checklist. I wear no skullcap or beard, no outward signs of my faith. I have developed quite the armour. But my name remains unarmoured. I am and forever will be one of those men with first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed, last names like Mohamed.
It was that thought which prompted my relief the day I found out our child would be a girl. There are plenty of Arabic girl’s names that also work perfectly well in the Western world – Sarah, Layla, Nadine. We could arm her with one of those names, I thought to myself that day in Brooklyn – with one of those names, she’d have an easier go of things. With one of those names, she’d pass.
Almost thirty years after I first met those schoolteachers and soldiers, thirty years after I fell in love with an illusory amalgam of myth and ideology masquerading as a country, I finally ended up in America. My wife was offered a professorship at a university in Portland, and so we moved to the Pacific northwest, bought a home, earned our Green Cards, started a family. Fittingly, I arrived here just as I arrived in Qatar all those years ago, the relative of an economic migrant.
I still find this country as fascinating as I did when I was a child, but the awe in which I held it is entirely gone. The last of it disappeared during those years of unnecessary, illegal wars that killed so many hundreds of thousands in the first decade of this century – wars fought by the children of those soldiers to whom our teachers once told us to write thank-you notes.
After all these years, I still don’t know how to be in America. I don’t think anyone does
In truth, my attachment to this country now no longer runs through me, but through my daughter. I hope her life won’t be unanchored the way my life has been unanchored. I want her to know who she is and where she comes from and to feel ownership of wherever she calls home, to not waste energy trying to become something else.
I want for my daughter to feel joy, to love and to know she is loved, to navigate the world unburdened and unvictimised. But I want her to know the underside of life exists, and that by virtue of her gender and her faith and her ethnicity and whatever else this country chooses as grounds to discriminate against her, she will have to fight harder and face more hurdles than many of those around her. And I want her to understand that there are others who will likely suffer more than her, and that she has an obligation to work against the imposition of such suffering, though it may be easier to ignore it. I want her to feel free to speak about every aspect of her identity, what she claims from me and what she claims from her white Canadian mother, but not feel as though her identity is all she is entitled to address.
I want all of these things for my daughter but my every experience with America leads me to believe there exists here no such state of being – only the choice between varying degrees of happy obliviousness or honest rage. I don’t know if it’s possible to fully acknowledge the extent to which this country’s founding sins still mark every facet of its being, and not be angry all the time. After all these years, I still don’t know how to be in America. I don’t think anyone does.
She joined us in the spring of 2017. She arrived early, a couple of weeks after my novel was published during what turned out to be the busiest April of our lives. She came into this world healthy and happy and stubborn and curious. In her presence I melt, aware now that all I previously thought was love was in fact a kind of warm-up act, a prelude to this blinding, overwhelming thing that floors me whenever I’m with this little girl, my little girl, the newest of the Knot-tiers.
We named her after a flower: Dahlia. We picked it because we think it’s beautiful.
Omar El Akkad’s first novel, American War (Picador), was a finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize