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A Family Name That Walks Ahead of Me

Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is a writer in Los Angeles.

Because my father, a U.S. Army officer, was stationed in France in 1965, I was born in Paris.

Bebe Sa’adah was wrapped in a pastel blanket and taken home from the hospital without a first name. My parents soon settled on one, and the prenom Marjorie was entered on my French birth certificate, a delicate carbon- paper page affixed with a stamp that indicated the payment of a one-franc tax. I was only a day or two without a first name, but in some ways, I feel as if my last name has walked ahead of me ever since.

Sa’adah is an Arabic name. I say my name, and I watch as Americans listen to it, write it down on forms and enter it into computers. I pronounce it and spell it and make a little hooking motion with my finger to help explain the apostrophe.

To Americans, the name is difficult, but I’ve found that through all the flashing colors of terrorism alerts, few Americans seem to have the cultural fluency to identify its source. I wish they did, that the distance between us and the far-away, seemingly foreign people we are at war with was shortened in this way.

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The root of my name is sa’eed, “happy”; sa’adah is “true happiness.” But the spelling of my name just approximates Arabic letters, transcribed by immigration officials. My Syrian grandfather immigrated to the U.S. after World War II when my father was a boy. My grandfather’s brothers arrived in different years, met different immigration officers, and the spelling of the name -- A’s and E’s and apostrophes -- varies across the family.

The apostrophe stands for ayin, an Arabic consonant the English alphabet lacks. Technically, an ayin is a “laryngeal voiced fricative,” a sound my Arabic textbooks caution is difficult for the non-Semitic tongue. It is a stopping sound, somewhat like the catch between the two halves of “uh-oh.” Meeting me can be a slow business of articulated syllables and repeated A’s.

I first attempted Arabic in graduate school, in a class so difficult I dropped it before it sank my GPA like an anchor. Arabic calligraphy flows right to left, each consonant is a choice of four intricate letter forms, and vowels usually go unwritten -- which makes for difficult reading, let alone comprehension: lt ln cmprhnsn.

I tried again, on Sunday mornings at the Islamic Center in Los Angeles. This time, I set a modest goal. I wanted to be able to greet people: my grandfather, the Arabs and Arab Americans of my parents’ generation who correct me with a “tsk” when they hear me flatten out my ayin, dulling the sound of my own name.

The classroom was tiny, windowless, filled by a dozen people. There was an African American man and his teenage sons, learning Arabic to help them study the Koran. There was a hip white woman who played drums in a world music band and wanted to small-talk and joke with her Arabic bandmates, and a teenager, wearing her coffee shop uniform for her afternoon job, sent by her parents. A thin white man who complained about the center’s coffee, noted everyone’s name and never bought the textbooks. Our teacher taught him the words for “I will walk to Starbucks,” but after three weeks the man stopped coming.

Except for him, my classmates and I came to know each other. We were all from more than one place: “Ana min Misr; ana Amrikeah,” said an engineer who lives in Riverside. “I’m from Egypt; I’m American.”

The most recent arrival was Farida, an Azerbaijani fleeing war between ethnic Azeris and ethnic Armenians. On the airplane coming to the U.S., she told us, the man seated next to her was Armenian. They looked at each other, acknowledging their common destination -- peace.

“He is not my enemy,” she said. “He is more like me than he is different.”

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None of us in the class were alike. The drummer smoked Marlboros during breaks, Farida tucked stray hair back under her hijab. But we were more alike than we were different.

We unfolded a map of the world and looked at the wide part of it that speaks Arabic -- countries that stretch across North Africa, through the Middle East, into Asia. We learned the names of homelands and wars and family members, and we traced all those lines toward Los Angeles.

In 1965, I had a few days without a name, and, as it turned out, a month without a country. That’s how long it took for my parents to receive the official document that confirmed that I was a foreign-born American citizen.

It’s tied with two long red ribbons, stamped with a glossy medallion, embossed with the seal of the U.S. Department of State. It looks like a prize, like a promise. It’s postmarked France, it’s written in English, it says my name and, in one language of many, “Ana Amrikeah.”

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