Excerpt: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque
"What do you think of the name Maysa?" I asked my mother.
"I don't like it. Call her Munzal."
"What? Munzal's a horrible name," I said, flabbergasted."Why don't you like Maysa?"
"It's not Islamic."
I was nine months pregnant with our first child. Sami and I had scoured all the halal meat shops for every Muslim baby book we could get our hands on. (I know that sounds weird, but that's the only place you could buy them.) We had started our search for the perfect name the moment I knew I was pregnant. One name stood out to us: Maysa--a woman who walks with pride. There was no second choice. We didn't even know at the time that we were going to have a girl. If we had had a boy, I guess he would have toddled with womanly pride. My mother's declaration devastated me.
"How Islamic is Zarqa?" said my father.
"It's very Islamic," countered my mother. "Lots of Muslims choose it."
"Nobody had heard of Zarqa before you chose it," said my father. This was true. I had hated my name growing up. It was a really odd name, even for Muslims.
The only other Zarqa I ever met was when I was ten, and she was a sad-faced girl who looked like she couldn't believe her fate either. And that was it. The only other Zarqa I've ever encountered is the henna brand sold in my local halal meat shop. (Yes, halal meat shops sell the most bizarre things.)
My mother had chosen my name because she read a story about a woman named Zarqa al-Yamama when she was pregnant with me. Zarqa al-Yamama was a legendary Arab woman who lived in ancient times and was able to see great distances. Because she could see so well, she would warn her tribe when danger was approaching. But word of her powers got out, so one day the enemy tribe hid behind tree branches. When Zarqa warned her people that the forest was moving, they laughed at her. As a result, the enemy was able to defeat Zarqa's people. Members of the enemy tribe plucked out her eyes with the ancient culinary equivalent of a melon baller so that they could never be used in battle again. It was a pretty gruesome story.
"Why did that name appeal to her?" I asked my father.
"The problem is that your mother's name was so common. There were at least four Parveens in all of her classes growing up."
"It was the Britney of its time," I said, thinking about it. My mother had been searching for a unique name, just like I was now. "Fine. But Ummi, Zarqa's story predates Islam. Which means that she wasn't even Muslim, so how Muslim could my name be?"
"She didn't even exist," said my father. "That legend exists in almost all cultures."
"Jordan named a city after her," retorted my mother. "So she could have existed. It is a beautiful name--you were lucky to grow up with a name that didn't sound like any of the others."
Somehow, as a child, I didn't feel lucky.
"It didn't sound like any of the names at school, but every time I watched TV as a kid, there was a creature from outer space who had a variation of my name like Zarkon or Zirkonian," I complained.
"I can't help what white people do," said my mother. "They take perfectly good names and ruin them."
But it wasn't just white people who had a problem with my name. Zarqa actually means "blue," because Zarqa al-Yamama was named for her beautiful blue eyes. For Arabs,the name Zarqa is synonymous with blue eyes.
"It's like my face is a disappointment to every Arab Muslim I meet. It's false advertising--my eyes are brown, not blue."
"I didn't know it meant 'blue,'" said my mother. "I thought it meant 'brave woman.'"
She probably did. Pakistanis have a bad habit of picking Arabic names without understanding their meanings. Sometimes they open the Qur'an and plunk their finger down on a word and name the child. I have known a Fig Tree and a Table. Both were lovely people, considering. One summer at Muslim camp, I met a guy named Ahmer, which means "red." We were teased about getting married and naming our child Banafsaji, which is "purple" in Arabic. Muslim summer camp humour is very sophisticated.
I looked at my father.
"Why didn't you stop her?"
"I wasn't there! I never got a chance to weigh in." It's true--he wasn't there when I was born. My parents were living near Liverpool, and my father was on his way to work as an engineer on the Mersey Tunnel. It was a rainy day and he was stopped at a red light when a tractor-trailer across the intersection lost control and hit him head-on.
My father's injuries were extensive. His knees and ribs were broken, and all the skin and muscle were torn off his forehead. Miraculously, his skull was not crushed. At that exact moment half- way around the world, my mother's parents were on their way to a wedding close to Faisalabad, Pakistan. Their car was also hit head-on by a truck, instantly killing the groom and my grandfather and critically injuring my grandmother, who died a few dayslater.
My mother gave birth alone on October 1, 1967, in Liverpool University Hospital, not sure if her husband would survive his car accident, unaware that her parents had not survived another in Pakistan. No one would tell her the truth about her parents until they were sure my father would survive his injuries. Her friends could not bear to give her more bad news. In one fell swoop, my mother's life as a privileged, bourgeois daughter ended forever. To this day, whenever someone tells my mother what a wonderful place England is, she gets agitated and says that the rain made herlife unbearable.
"You know I was dying in a hospital across town when your mother named you," my father said.
"Let's not be so dramatic," said my mother. "He always told me I could choose the name." And she had. My motherhad fallen in love with Zarqa because of a romantic legend, and I bear the consequences.
My brothers, Muzammal and Muddaththir, didn't escape the naming hell either. They were named after two chapters in the Qur'an. No one can pronounce either name properly. I was trying hard to avoid the fate all three of us had suffered by choosing a name for my baby that was both pronounceable and had a good meaning.
As I lay in bed at 6 a.m. staring at my bulbous belly and wondering if I had squandered nine months when I could have been thinking of a backup name, I suddenly felt the contractions. I didn't want to give birth to a nameless baby, but Sami insisted we go to the hospital. The contractions started five minutes apart, and within hours I was fully dilated.
"Could I have an epidural?" I asked.
"Too late," said Dr.McMaster.
"No," I yelled, "it's not too late!"
My doctor urged me to push. I bore down one more time and a baby came out of me. There was an overwhelming wave of physical and emotional relief.
"Now you just have to deliver the placenta," said Dr.McMaster matter-of-factly.
"Could I get an epidural first?" I asked.
Sami seemed overjoyed by the whole process."That was so easy," he said as he stared in wonder at our new daughter. Luckily for him, I couldn't reach the scalpels from where I lay shivering on my too-narrow table. Sami whispered the call to prayer in our daughter's tiny ear, as is the custom. And then I remembered she was still nameless.
"What's going to happen if we don't name her right away?" I asked Sami. "Does the hospital name her?"
"I doubt it. I'm sure we have time."
"Is it wrong for Muslims to name their baby Christian?"
"It may be confusing for some people," replied Sami, as he swaddled our nameless newborn.
"It's like an atheist naming their child Muhammad."
Muslims can use any name as long as it doesn't have a negative connotation like "piece of garbage." As a result, Muslim names run the gamut. For some reason, Natasha had really caught on among Pakistani Muslims. It means "born on Christmas day." Some Muslims disapprove, though I heard one mother tell a critic that the real meaning was "gift from God," which was a brilliant comeback. But with Maysa out of the running, I was still searching for my baby's perfect name.
"I think we should avoid names used by terrorists," I told Sami.
"We won't name her Osama or Adolf to be on the safe side," he replied, "which shouldn't be hard since she's a girl." "We need a name," I said anxiously.
"We have a name," said Sami. My mother's objection made me nervous, so I phoned my old Islamic schoolteacher and asked if there was anything about the name Maysa that I should be aware of. He looked up a compendium of names of people who lived during the time of the Prophet. "There was a Maysa who was a poet back then,"he said. "What did she write about, love?"
"She never had her eyes plucked out, by chance?" It never hurts to ask.
"Not that I know of," he replied.
After some further agonizing, I decided that my mother had had her chance at naming her kids and now it was mine. "I'm naming her Maysa," I told my mother.
"They'll call her Mess-up," she said in her final attempt to dissuade me.
"That's better than what people called me," I said, determined not to waver.We took Maysa out for a walk in her stroller one day and ran into a neighbour who had moved to Canada from Chile.
"What a beautiful baby," she said. "Can I hold her?" Sami handed her over.
"She's got beautiful brown eyes," said the neighbour. I felt smug. I hadn't named her after the colour of her eyes, which, unlike my mother, I'm sure I would have gotten right.
"What's her name?"
"Maysa," I said proudly.
"Ah," said the neighbour frowning. "That's an odd choice."
"Why?" I asked, suddenly panicked. "It doesn't mean 'blue' in Spanish, does it?"
"No, it means 'table.' In the southwestern U.S., the large flat- topped hills are referred to as mesas."
"When she meets Spanish-speaking people, they might think it's a strange choice, that's all."
"It also means 'gift from God,'" I said as Sami eyed me.
"Sure it does," said the neighbour, and gave Maysa a quick kiss before handing her back.
I decided not to tell my mother.
Excerpt from Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved.