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”.