Fikri Alkhatib is from Singapore and studies politics in the UK, navigating spaces that used to belong to old white men and making them her own. She says yes to too many things and is particularly fond of planting trees, travelling on impulse, taking photos, and writing the occasional thing on the internet. You can find her on Twitter (@metafiktion) or on her blog (Typical, Really).
IN A NAME: FIKRI
Age 13: an orientation game at my new school involved having us line ourselves up according to the length of our names without talking. I immediately moved to the back of the queue, awkwardly balancing myself by holding the limbs of others, taking care not to step beyond the imaginary line we were arbitrarily confined to. Some of my classmates, old friends, unquestioningly let me through. Others hesitated briefly, only shifting to the side, visibly astonished, when I held up three fingers on each hand. Thirty-three.
Nur Fikri Binte Mohamed Rafik Alkhatib. Count that.
It was always easy to pick my name off class registers: not only was it the longest, often taking up two lines, it was also one of the only ones that didn’t follow the near-standard template of [English/Christian name] [Chinese surname] [Chinese name] template (Chinese naming conventions place the family name before first/personal names). I was Other – an actual racial category used in Singapore, to which I belong – in places dominated by Chinese Christians, and you didn’t even need to look at my pale brown face to tell it.
I didn’t like my name as a kid. It was awkward and always needed to be repeated to be understood and didn’t lend itself to fancy MSN screennames. I actively resented it every time an exam required me to shade my full name in on a bubble sheet or write it at the top of every submitted page.
The name I go by, “Fikri,” didn’t seem to fit — it was a boys’ name, for one, chosen by parents who couldn’t tell “what” I was in utero (human, perhaps?). I enjoyed performing masculinity as a child; I still do, often flippantly describing myself as “like a teenage boy.” In the environments I grew up in, though, it was rarely a compliment when someone chose to talk about me in these same terms. And it was an Arab Muslim name (فكري meaning “intellectual”), bestowing upon me identities & heritage that contradicted my own experiences of ethnic ambiguity and religious dissociation.
Learning my full name came to be a marker of accomplishment of sorts among friends who otherwise simply knew me as “Fik” — a sign that they were dedicated (or bored) enough to commit it all to memory. I use it as a cheap trick to entertain those I’ve just met:
“Hi, I’m _____.”
“Oh, I’ve never heard that before — what’s the rest of your name?”
“I– okay then!”
(I’ve never quite understood the impulse behind asking for the “rest” of my name, but y’know. Since they ask.)
All of this hides the fact that there is very little name in my legal name with which I actually identify. I don’t respond to “Nur” (نور meaning “light”), a common name given to Muslim-born kids in Singapore. “Binte” means “daughter of,” and accordingly, “Mohamed Rafik” is my father’s name. For reasons similar to mine, he goes simply by “Rafik.” “Alkhatib” is my (father’s) surname, signalling affinity to a larger family I’ve never really known and don’t think I ever will.
My name is a patriarchal lovefest, containing in it both a patronymic (as per Malay convention) and a surname (as per Arab convention). As is unsurprisingly the case when men get to call the shots, in my own name, the bit of it that I’m really entitled to call my own is the smallest.
I moved to the UK a couple of years ago. If I thought explaining my name in Singapore was hard enough, it’s impossible here.
Sometime between having to e-mail multiple agencies to ensure all my documents reflected the exact same name to apply for a student visa (I am, in fact, the same person even if one certificate spells it “Binte” and another shortens it to “Bte”) and being asked to spell my name thrice at an airport counter (again exactly as it says on the passport, please & thank you dear), I decided to drop everything but what would fit in a first name-last name field: Fikri Alkhatib.
My father protested when I changed my e-mail handle from “nurfikrirafik” to “fikrialkhatib,” but this symbolic step away probably still paled in comparison to the 11,000km I’d literally travelled away from home. It was still his name, after all, just a different part of it. Going by an abbreviated name was my compromise between adopting an entirely new name (as many of my Chinese Singaporean peers who were not given English names at birth did) and explaining my atypical, painfully long name every time I met someone new in London — a way to fit in without giving in.
I started Arabic lessons, and for the first time in my life felt that small-but-significant sense of insider status that comes from recognising the names and titles textbook characters use, once even seeing my own name in it. I recall this conversation with an American classmate:
“So if ahb (أب) means “father,” what does Zainab (زينب) mean?”
“That’s his name.”
“Oh. Why can’t they just be all named things like John & Jane, it’d be so much easier.”
“…welcome to how the rest of the world feels always.”
(I didn’t actually say the last line out loud. I just like to imagine I did.)
I’ve met people here who immediately recognise the origins of my name: they smile in surprise when I introduce myself, and they pronounce my last name with a hard “t” (ط) instead of the softer “t” (ت) I’m used to. It’s made me feel newly connected to a larger ethnic heritage, but at the same time has made me more deeply appreciate my Southeast Asian roots and Malay socialisation that sets me apart from those more closely affiliated with the Arab world.
Now that the textbook meaning of my name has become more common knowledge, I’ve found new solace in the specific significance it holds for me: it’s a combination of my parents’ names, Rafik & Sri. My parents were very fond of this sort of wordplay. My brother’s name, Rifqi, is essentially a rearrangement of mine; my youngest sibling, Fariq, gets not only hand-me-down toys & clothes but a name derived from the four who came before him: Fikri Adri Rifqi [generic I] Qarinah. You won’t find these origin stories in a baby names book.
I like that my “new” name simultaneously says a lot about me and nothing at all. I like that it makes it impossible for people to know what to expect before they meet me — that my appearance subverts their gendered assumptions, and that my asymmetrical haircut and rainbow necklace makes them rethink what they expect people whose last names start with “Al-” to look like. I like that it makes Singaporeans think twice before filing me into the Chinese-Malay-Indian boxes they’re wont to do; I like that it makes my new Arab Muslim peers curious about diaspora identities.
Most of all, I like that twenty years in, I’m finally learning to make my name my own.
I started with a name I resisted as much as I could and perceived those around me doing the same. When my life was uprooted, I found a way to make it better for myself & my circumstances, finding what worked within what I’d already been given. It’s a work in progress: deciphering what others meant for it to mean to me, what it really means to me, and what others make of its meaning (and me, by extension).
The next step from here, it seems, would be to make my name — in whatever form — wholly & truly mine, but I don’t think that’s how it works: my name is just as much a function of how I relate to those around me & the environment/s I’m in as it is a representation of my self.
It will never be fully mine. Neither, arguably, will my life ever be.
As a gay woman, I don’t expect to have to make a decision with regard to taking a male spouse’s name, and to have my feminist credentials questioned or lauded for it. (Nor do I condone this practice.) I will, however, likely be bridging some sort of cultural divide — not least because I can count on one hand the number of ethnocultural kin I’ve met who weren’t relatives. Even from a non-queer/feminist perspective, the specific practice of taking on your partner’s name is alien to me. Malay Muslims (and those of associated communities) in Singapore often don’t have surnames or don’t use the ones they do: my father goes by Mr Rafik and my mother Mdm Sri. Surnames, and the interchanging thereof, have always been the realm of people who aren’t like my family.
Similarly, without a male head in my hypothetical household and with an ever-deepening skepticism of heteronormative models of marriage & parenthood, the act of “passing down” a name to the next generation, too, is not one I readily accept. When (if?) the time comes, maybe I/we’ll just choose whatever sounds prettiest, y’know? Maybe we’ll form an amalgamation of our sur/names (as my parents did); maybe we’ll pick favourites & decide over rock-paper-scissors. Most likely we’ll be aiming for something that reflects who we are, where we are, and what we hope for — but won’t get the kid bullied in school. Queer radicalism, unfortunately, doesn’t existed in a protected, judgment-free bubble.
So I have no ready answer as to the future of my name or that of anyone who might someday define (or have defined) their own in relation to mine. The norms aren’t established for people like me, and people like me aren’t so good with those that are.
In my own life, I reject a fully or even predominantly individual-centred conception of names & naming, and believe it’s still important to have names embody stories & relationships that extend beyond the self. At the same time I’ve also come to appreciate the comfort & confidence that comes from having a name that feels like it’s really yours. What’s most important to me in a name, then, is fluidity — to keep finding new ways of fitting & to be able to change or not-change, whether in literal form or attached meaning, as I too do the same.
A quick note about images in this series: each essay includes an image of a place that holds personal meaning for the author.
Let’s Talk About Names: Britni is the previous post in the series.
The entire series is available at the Let’s Talk About Names Tumblr.
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