The name games

Israel/Palestine
on 23 Comments

The Name Games are on in Israel. On the eve of the 5775 Jewish New Year the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced the winning first name most commonly given to a newborn boy in Israel in the preceding year as Youssef, which is used by both Arabs and Jews. The spokesperson neglected to mention that what the Authority had in mind was names among Jews only. When questioned the woman hid behind explanations of who her regular customers demanding the statistics were. Of course, her motives were pure and egalitarian.

You can’t really blame this one branch of government. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, an institute reputed for its precision and comprehensiveness, would have done the same. After all, everyone knows that Israel is the state of the Jews and that the negligible Arab minority of over 20% is only that, a minority, a mere impurity and a blemish on the wholesomeness of the state’s exclusive ethnicity. The CBS, like other branches of the system in the state of the Jews, has always labored hard at actualizing the dream of ethnic purity with all the means at its disposal: It has always kept its statistics for the minuscule minority split by religion: Moslem, Christian and Druze. On occasion it throws in other random lines of division such as Bedouin versus settled non-Jews. It is not long now before we will have Aramean Christians. Anything but the ‘A’ word because that would imply the presence within our borders, holy and inviolable even if still undetermined, of a non-Jewish contaminant of the same ethnic substance like the sea of undesirables surrounding us on all sides (except, of course, for our Mediterranean escape route to our former cradle of civilized bliss for which we have never stopped longing.)

Then one unprincipled Haaretz correspondent (Ilan Lior, September 22) insisted on toppling the applecart, right on the eve of the holiday when apples are so much in demand: He looked closely at the statistics and as a misinformed non-statistician discovered that the actual winner should have been Muhammad. Oy-ve!! as we say in Yiddish. What the hell!! What that means is that the 16-or-so% Muslims in Israel use the name Muhammad more than six times as often as its Jews use Youssef. Boy! That is fidelity all right! But I could have told you that without the bother of statistics. My three oldest brothers, may they rest in piece, were named after the prophet. And there are dozens of families in our village with multiple children named after the prophet.

Back in my younger days I taught school in the neighboring village of Sakhnin. We lacked textbooks and I spent a lot of time writing on the blackboard. Whenever the class got too noisy I would shout without turning around: “Muhammad and his neighbor, stop talking.” And for a minute or two you could hear a pin drop. And in the British Mandate days, before Israel elevated our individualistic consciousness with its numbered ID cards, the name Muhammad and its derivatives wreaked havoc with our subsistence farming in the fertile Battouf Valley. You see, Bedouins had the nasty habit of letting their cattle feed on the crops in our land at the peak of its productivity. When a farmer took a Bedouin to court the latter would produce a verifiable alibi proving that the accused, Muhammad the son of Ahmad the son of Mahmoud Mrisat, was in Jordan that day. There simply were ten Bedouins with the same string of the prophet’s alternate names.

Which reminds me: The correspondent of Haaretz also discovered that among the ten top-ranking names Ahmad actually came in at number nine. This is the place to divulge a closely guarded secret of our community. Endearing nicknames, derived from twisting the actual name around to a catchy and playful-sounding shortened version, are a relatively recent phenomenon in our community, an Israeli fad if I am not mistaken. Anxious to maintain our lead position in the Name Game, our leaders have come up with the trickiest of tricks. All three forms of the interrelated prophet’s names, Muhammad, Ahmad and Mahmoud are given the cutie nickname of ‘Hammoudi.’ Now let your flaky ‘Yossi’ compete with that! Muhammad alone beat the s… out of your lead name.

But you try, I know. I just read that the administrators in Safad (I know, you call it Tzfat) College have appointed a student council, the only unelected one in the country, to preempt, I presume, the likelihood of a Mohammad being elected by the 70%-Arab student body.

Recently, in one of his op-ed pieces, Oudeh Bsharat related a personal incident with his son to illustrate a point. His son wanted to know the meaning of ‘mumis,’ a high Arabic term for a sex worker. He hummed and hawed and couldn’t come up with an appropriate explanation. A while later the child came back shouting ‘sharmouta!’ the vulgarity of the same meaning used colloquially as a cuss word.

Well, let me tell you: regardless who asks for what and who supplies the statistics to whom, It is a fucking sharmouta! Shameless apartheid, denial and exclusion of the other.

About Hatim Kanaaneh

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian doctor who has worked for over 35 years to bring medical care to Palestinians in Galilee, against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. His collection of short stories entitled Chief Complaint was released by Just World Books in the spring of 2015.

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23 Responses

  1. just
    September 28, 2014, 11:37 am

    Thank you Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh!

    I always treasure your contributions here– yours is a unique perspective.

  2. Hatim Kanaaneh
    September 28, 2014, 12:21 pm

    Thanks for your note of appreciation. I do value your comments.

  3. Shmuel
    September 28, 2014, 12:24 pm

    Anything but the ‘A’ word because that would imply the presence within our borders, holy and inviolable even if still undetermined, of a non-Jewish contaminant of the same ethnic substance like the sea of undesirables surrounding us on all sides (except, of course, for our Mediterranean escape route to our former cradle of civilized bliss for which we have never stopped longing.)

    As a matter of fact, the ‘A’ word can be very useful — in avoiding the ‘P’ word for example, or in arguing that the ‘A’s have already got 22 or 37 or 193.666 states and why don’t these ‘A’s just move in with those ‘A’s and leave us alone or, better yet, “go back where they came from” (the ‘A’ Peninsula, of course)? It’s also convenient shorthand for graffitti (“A good ‘A’ is a …”) or bumper-stickers (“No ‘A’s — No …).

    • Shmuel
      September 28, 2014, 12:29 pm

      To avoid misunderstandings: My previous comment was meant in the same vein as Dr. Kanaaneh’s post.

      • just
        September 28, 2014, 12:34 pm

        That was clear Shmuel!

        The good doctor’s gift of the written word is truly something to behold.

      • Hatim Kanaaneh
        September 28, 2014, 12:46 pm

        Thanks Shmuel. I certainly understood it to be in the same vein with the same tongue-in-cheek style.

  4. Annie Robbins
    September 28, 2014, 12:29 pm

    Back in my younger days I taught school in the neighboring village of Sakhnin. We lacked textbooks and I spent a lot of time writing on the blackboard. Whenever the class got too noisy I would shout without turning around: “Muhammad and his neighbor, stop talking.”

    i love your writing Hatim.

  5. Citizen
    September 28, 2014, 1:15 pm

    zTkere’svodeppmYitibtjatwo;;ovetef;apvprpfng sharmouta!

  6. Horizontal
    September 28, 2014, 2:27 pm

    Hatim ~

    You’re one hell of a story-teller. I’d buy you beer — if you drink, that is. Maintaining a sense of humor in the face of darkness is gift worth sharing. I tip my hat to you.

    • Hatim Kanaaneh
      September 28, 2014, 3:50 pm

      You ware on, Horizontal. But where do we meet? I will make it in early spring to the East coast and the SF Bay area (And perhaps Chicago as well) for my forthcoming book launch. Are you in any of these locations?

      • MHughes976
        September 28, 2014, 3:56 pm

        Is your book being launched in the UK?

      • just
        September 28, 2014, 4:11 pm

        How very gracious you are to ‘drop in’ today, Doctor. I’m looking forward to the launch of your next book. I’d love to be there to cheer you on and to thank you in person for your dedication & devotion to the lives of others.

      • Horizontal
        September 28, 2014, 5:40 pm

        Hatim ~

        Dang, by early spring I’ll no longer be in the SF Bay area, relocating to the desert SW. Best luck on your tour . . .

      • Annie Robbins
        September 28, 2014, 11:36 pm

        the bay area?!! it’s a date! finally we can meet ;)

  7. DaBakr
    September 28, 2014, 8:19 pm

    well. Mohammed it is then. But in all fairness-its hardly a topic worthy of more then a features column and light entertainment to the Israeli public. If Israeli Jews more customarily named more then one of their living children the same name-it might be more then a humorous piece. It more or less reminds me of US boxer George Forman naming all his many sons: George Forman. But since the left-wing here is so focused on absolute and scrupulous disclosure of the new year popular name contest then by all means-correct the winner to make it Mohammed. Or a better idea-only count one child name per married couple (meaning-multiple Moises and Mohammeds won’t count) and then see what the results are.

    • Annie Robbins
      September 28, 2014, 11:43 pm

      Or a better idea-only count one child name per married couple (meaning-multiple Moises and Mohammeds won’t count)

      umm, i’m almost certain the list of names reflects the most popular names of newborns in the given year. something tells me limiting it to one child per couple in a given year won’t make much of a dent on outcome. unless they are twins name mohammed and mohammed….or the woman gives birth in january and another the following november or december, which is not that common.

      beyond that i’ve never heard of parents naming the siblings the exact same name, unless one of those children dies or something.

      • Hatim Kanaaneh
        September 29, 2014, 2:16 am

        I guess I didn’t make myself clear. The prophet was known by multiple names at least three of which derived from the same source ‘hamada’ meaning ‘top praise.’ Muhammad, Mahmoud and Ahmad are different derivatives of the same source but they are different first names, though they all are popularly nicknamed ‘Hammoudi.’ I hope that clarifies the issue for thee judges in the competitions.

    • Shmuel
      September 29, 2014, 2:35 am

      But in all fairness-its hardly a topic worthy of more then a features column and light entertainment to the Israeli public.

      Funny choice of words, “in all fairness”, because there is absolutely nothing fair about the reality reflected in the Population and Immigration Authority’s “slip”, post-factum justification or the suggestion that it’s nothing more than a cute animal story for the viewing pleasure of “the Israeli public” (another funny choice of words, particularly in this context). A biblical quote is begging to come out, but I wouldn’t want to scare Mooser, so I’ll leave it at that.

      • Mooser
        September 29, 2014, 1:23 pm

        “A biblical quote is begging to come out, but I wouldn’t want to scare Mooser,”

        Now, I saw a movie once, in which somebody said, “there’s a lot of good things in the Good Book” but for the life of me, I can’t find that scene on you tube. It was a cowboy movie. I’m not much of a searcher, tho.
        But don’t worry about scaring me, Schmuel, (although the thought bears witness to your innate consideration, thank you.) it’ll become an intolerable burden, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Everything scares me.

      • just
        September 29, 2014, 1:34 pm

        This is a favorite quote:

        “Tevye: As the good book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.”

        and so is this:

        ” Tevye: As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.

        Mendel: Where does the book say that?

        Tevye: Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken.”

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067093/quotes

  8. pabelmont
    September 29, 2014, 10:05 am

    As to the “A”-word. Arab, I dare say, not Apartheid. But still.

    Here I sit, as English-speaker born and raised. Am I an American, as I always supposed, or will someone tell me that there are many Anglophone countries (UK, including I suppose Scotland, NZ, Australia, USA, Canada — pace Quebec, south Africa (or is that an Africans country, you know, among the non-natives).

    What I meant to ask is: Can I call myself an American, even if I am sometimes considered a Jew, no, sorry, an English-speaker (Anglophone)?

    Can an Israeli be a Palestinian (nationality) or an Arab (language of ancestors if not indeed of self), because we know the one thing he cannot be — in terms of officially recognized nationality — is an Israeli.

    So delightfully confusing.

  9. Mooser
    September 29, 2014, 1:28 pm

    “So delightfully confusing.”

    Wait a minute, I thought he could be an “Israeli”, he just couldn’t be a “Jewish” Israeli.
    And some Israelis are more equal than others.
    But I make no claim to understand it.

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