Many of the distinctions between Anglo-Saxon culture and that of the Middle East come down to individualism on one side and communal living on the other. This is typified in the most basic prop of social interaction and key element of first impressions, the names we give during introductions.
The British – and even more so the Americans – work hard to find an individual name for their children. This name will, they feel, express the child’s uniqueness and help it to be viewed by others as an individual.
So they can’t call it Joe – there’s already an Uncle Joe. They can’t call it Emma – there will be three Emma’s in its class at school. They can’t call it Jonathan because people will shorten it to Jon and there are so many Johns. They can’t call it a whole range of wonderful names simply because they are just too common. Common is the worst insult for a name. They want their kid to be special. But not too special. Not strange.
It’s a hard balance to strike. It is surely easier to have a regional shortlist of top names, all of which – within the given community – are beyond criticism, true classics. Names like Muhammed (and Mahmud, Hamad or Ahmed, all variants of the word praise) and Ali. Or on the Lebanese Christian side, Georges, Eli and Tony.
Evidently, the approach of the Lebanese (in fact, of Arabs and Jews in general as well as many Mediterraneans) is diametrically opposed to the Anglo-Saxon belief in and quest for singularity. Here, the community identity takes precedence over the individual identity.
In The Naming Game, I wrote about the traditions relating to inheriting family names, according to which a first grandson takes the name of his paternal grandfather and as a middle name that of his father. Although this pattern is not always adhered to, the emphasis is still consistently on generally accepted, dare I say conventional names which have a long history in the community, often with a religious stamp of approval (after a prophet or a saint).
Amusingly, things don’t appear to have changed much since John the Baptist nearly didn’t get called John because it was too individualistic. It took divine intervention to breach family tradition and override the strong-willed relatives and neighbours who thought they had things under control.
The time now became due for Elizabeth to give birth, and she became mother to a son. And the neighbors and her relatives heard that Jehovah had magnified his mercy to her, and they began to rejoice with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the young child, and they were going to call it by the name of its father, Zechariah. But its mother answered and said: “No, indeed! but he shall be called John.” At this they said to her: “There is no one among your relatives that is called by this name.” Then they went asking its father by signs what he wanted it to be called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote: “John is its name.”
While in one culture the name is a tool to distinguish a person from others in the community, in the other it is a means to cement the links between an individual and the community into which it was born. Naming babies is of course not the only opportunity for friends and family to intervene in one’s life. In Britain, holding our individual rights so preciously, we might prefer to term this interfering. But those who proudly reinforce the identity of the network they live in are repaid by a strong social community, free with their opinions but also with their efforts in times of need.