What’s in a name?

Note: As of June, 2016, I am now aware of my family name, which I am using professionally while looking into a more official name change. I am hoping that eventual contact with maternal cousins might shed light on what might have been my given name.

Adoptees are inherently bearers of many identities. We are born into a name that links us to our family, even if it go unrecorded in any way. It still exists, despite its absence. And thus I have a name that I don’t know.

I was bestowed by the orphanage staff a French first and middle name (implying a father, whose first name is carried down) and a completely random Arabic word as a last name in order to facilitate my travel from the country. These efforts fabricate out of whole cloth a literal non-existence.

I remember a period of time when I took to this as a “connection”. I remember finding the piece of paper, the name-changing decree from my orphanage, that revealed that this name was useless, empty; meant nothing. The name is in fact borrowed from a list of rotated names; a bureaucratic convention; a trifling inconsequence.

I’ve come across adoptees with the same “last name” as mine. Bizarrely, this connects us to each other but to no one in the country. This is strikingly similar to the French legal process which allows a child to be born “sous X”—”under X”—thus severing any connection to forebears.

This is of no small import. This discovery, it should be pointed out, was the devastating event that led to my decision to return here.

Upon naturalization as an American citizen, my name change to my adoptive family name was approved by the court, and I became Daniel Drennan. I still use this name, of course. It is an Irish name, reflecting my father’s immigrant roots; on my mother’s side I “am” Dutch and English.

I was revealed the importance of family names in my adoptive parents’ zeal for genealogy and tracing roots. So our adoptive culture likewise tells us how important our name is.

In attempting to re-establish my nationality here in Lebanon, it will be inscribed in the civil registry that I am “currently known as” my now given name. There is no such thing as “name change” in Lebanese society.

None of this brings me any closer to a sense of family or belonging here, especially given the importance of one’s name in all of one’s social dealings.

For example, the question to ask after someone is min aya bayt?—from which house? In this way a [family] name is closely tied to place, and in fact many family names reflect a place name as their basis: Masri (from Egypt), Traboulsi (from Trablous), Sidaoui (From Saida), etc.

The formal way to ask for someone’s name is not “shoo ismak/ismik”—”what is your name?”, but instead “shoo al-ism al-karim”—what is the beneficent naming”, which implies a bestowal of large import.

To not be able to answer is infinitely painful, especially when Anglo-Saxon notions of adoption have no validity in my local culture.

I realize the likelihood of finding my name grows smaller with each passing year, and thus the sheer magnitude of what it means to rename a child through adoption takes on overwhelming significance.

To this end, I have taken on yet another name, a pen name, a pseudonym, referred to locally as a “[political] party name” or alias, with no reference to any Lebanese family, but which has local validity, and great meaning to me.

“Zayd” was the “taken-in” son of the Prophet (ﷺ); an example of guardianship that did not destroy any of these basic links that predominate in our thinking as adult adoptees. I choose “Ibn” to show that I am attempting to follow in such noble footsteps.

I am reminded of this passage from Malcolm X’s biography:

My application had, of course, been made and during this time I received from Chicago my “X.” The Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my “X” replaced the white slavemaster name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil name Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this “X” until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.

My neighborhood friends, when I told them I was able to regain my nationality at long last, asked me right away: “Can you change your name?” I replied that despite my use of a pseudonym (not culturally foreign here, and tied more to politics than literary use), I would want my name to be my original (unknown) one, reflective of place and family, which they understood. And so I wait. “Ibn Zayd” is my “X”; the middle realm between names unknowable.

In the meantime, you can call me “Daniel”.


13 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Snow Leopard says:

    For a very long time now, I have used only my first name as my signature. Originally, this was out of a quite honest failure on my part to come up with anything like an aesthetically pleasing (in my eyes) version of my last name. So in defeat, I stopped.

    I realize that in large measure signatures mean less now than they used to, but I still experience a feeling of transgression when I sign an official document (like my passport) without my full name. I don’t think it would be stretching things to say that, on some level that was most assuredly not conscious earlier on, I realized (I appreciated) that my last name was not really my last name. So at this point it seems wholly on-point that I don’t use it.

  2. It is strange how powerful the “signing” is. I had to sign some paperwork for my lawyers using the first-step establishment of my identity under my orphanage-given name. I printed the name in Arabic, but I didn’t sign the document. My lawyer said, “You don’t want to sign?” and I said, “it’s not a question of whether I want to or not; I can’t.” I felt physically impeded from signing “into” a false sense of self.

  3. I’ve probably read this before, but I happen to have ended up here again (having clicked through to the rusted bicycle piece from my email and then to here), having within the hour read the following:

    “At the beginning of an evaluation of a ten-year-old boy in foster care at our Child Trauma Academy clinic, I asked him his name:
    ‘Which name do you want to know?’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘Well, I don’t know my name, I guess. My new mum calls me Thomas. My last mum called me Leon. And when I visit my grandmother she calls me Robbie.’
    ‘What name do you tell your friends to call you?’
    ‘I don’t have any friends at this new house.’
    ‘Do you know what your biological mother named you?’
    ‘I think she named me Baby.’”

    Now the two narratives, yours and this boy’s, are swirling around together in my head, together with my own. Not sure yet how it will all shake out.

  4. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Thank you for your timeless post from a fellow adoptee. I wrote a post that talks about the importance of naming:


    I love the Malcolm X quote and what he says about reclaiming his name from his colonizers.

  5. ktolund says:

    Hi Daniel, it’s been awhile, not sure if you’ll get this, it’s Katie, What’s in a name? Got me thinking about Shameka, who we call Meka, another sad conforming of our own doing, as we give into ‘what society thinks?’ Well, we didn’t go with ‘Oliva’ as my sister-n-law suggested, not that we asked! Always appreciate your writings!

  6. This is so powerful! I can totally relate and have made the decision to change my name to something original that suits me, and I feel fabulous about it! :) So glad someone else “GETS IT”. Thanks for sharing Daniel!

  7. As the likelihood of reunion looms larger with each passing day, inch’allah, I find myself obsessing again on name, and of re-establishing an original name. I believe now that “place” and “name” are equally “of” us, as much as blood; as much as DNA.

    • Rosine says:

      May this reunion bestow on you the knowing, the knowledge of your first name, your original name, that you may live into it and it may be a freeing experience. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.

  8. Her says:

    I struggle with this often. We adopted a newborn from the hospital. His parents didn’t name him and until the adoption was finalized he was known as Baby Boy. After meeting him, we chose a name that we think suits him. It might help that we have the same cultural background so hopefully he won’t feel too “off” about this name. I do worry though … I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to help him feel comfortable with his name …. or if that’s even appropriate to try. This will be a road we’ll take for a good long while and I’m trying to read all I can about it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. ridicuryder says:

    Hello Daniel,

    I have known my birth name for a few decades and my adoptive name still fits me better than my original, but I know what you mean about the awkwardness of not having a house. Then I suspect you and I and millions of others are “of the wind” not without a house or without a heritage as much as released into a realm of fluidity.

    This is our house…that’s not really a house ;)


  10. Mara says:

    Dear Daniel, I long for the day to come, when you have the correct documentation that has your name given you by your mum. Alas my dearest son taken for adoption…HATES my family name, and would NEVER use it. Here in Scotland our custom is to name our first baby after our own father. I MUST TELL YOU, LIKE MYSELF, AND MANY MANY MOTHER OF LOSS TO ADOPTION, who were never allowed back home, as we had DISGRACED the FAMILY NAME, we had to make our own way in life, many like myself 8 years of age, became fugitives for our SIN, never being allowed home ( in my case it was a small rural town, I had never left home in my life, let alone into another country) I was terrified, this whole experience SEARED me to the marrow, and had DEEP psychological hallmarks that never erase, and indeed begin to eat in, and change completely your psychological wellbeing and health, many women like myself were addressed as DIRTY BRAZEN HUSSIES, for daring to have a baby out of wedlock, shunned by family, community, and BANISHED…oops to painful now to type more..triggers…

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