Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! . . . How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’Arthur Miller The Crucible
This morning is choked with fog. But if it wasn’t for the chill sneaking up all the way from the ground to the backs of our necks, we’d mistake the fog for smoke – watch a nine-year-old chase a ball, from one end of the field to another, and kick it through the goal, look closely, and you’ll see fire. We, the parents, are relegated to the sidelines, watching our children dash about in combat – clearly, soccer matches aren’t training grounds for the players only.
A few over-zealous parents amongst us, myself included, have their mobile phones out. One of us has a camera set on a tripod videoing the entire thing. It’s a quick game; first score – Muhammad kicks the ball in, the second score – Sam, and the third score – Muhammad, again. I, Muhammad’s mother, stand near the goal, capturing Muhammad’s close-ups from the mobile phone in one hand, and sipping coffee, now gone cold, from a reusable cup in the other.
A forty-something man in a grey uniform walks up to me. I’m concentrating on the ball that has just missed the goal; I’m aware of the man’s presence only when he steps close enough to whisper to me. He has a grey uniform on, he even has a badge on his chest to go with it; it reads SECURITY.
‘Excuse me,’ he extends his hand, not to shake mine but to draw me in.
I keep one eye on the ball, on a roll again between ferocious kicks, and the other eye on him as he speaks softly to me. ‘I just received a few concerns from the other parents here. They’re uncomfortable with you photographing their children.’
The ball rolls over to Muhammad, then to someone else, and on to someone else’s feet; I lose track. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to put that mobile away.’ He gestures at my hand; his thick Aussie accent rolls over me.
I’ve earned a Working with Children Certificate; I’ve volunteered to teach creative writing classes to children in Western Sydney for years; and I’ve trained myself not to touch someone else’s child or let the child touch me, however natural it may feel, at the moment, to the mother that I am.
I want to tell this security man that I’m aware of the sanctity attached to a child’s image but my voice has a way of dodging me when I need it most; my hands, I’ve learnt, remain by my sides. I offer my phone to him, my fingers scroll through all eight photos that I’ve taken of my child this morning, all the eight close-ups shot with enough care not to capture the image of another child’s face. But the security guard persists; he leaves only after I’ve tucked the phone away in my handbag that’s overflowing with a water bottle and a McDonald’s brown bag still smelling sweet with left-over hot cakes.
I look around the field; Muhammad has scored another goal in the time that I was presenting what I thought was hard evidence to a stranger, a stranger who had me resorting to my hands silenced by the power vested in him by his uniform and his badge, and the assumption of guilt on my part, and the faith in the consensus amongst those who had come together that morning to voice their collective complaint against me.
I’m aware of the concerns that parents out there could have; I am, above all, a parent myself. I’m aware of the complex issues of security and the requirements of anonymity related to children who belong to all forms of familial makeup; I’m aware of the cyber hallways and the predators that lurk in their shadows. I don’t have a TV to my name, and the tablets that my children own have parental controls in place, and I still have nightmares born of the twisted ways a child’s photo can be exploited online. But when I look up again, I see a camera still sitting on its tripod at the opposite end of the field, not far from me had someone taken an aerial view of the field, and I know this: I, have been made an exception.
The surviving camera’s eye is taking a clear shot of the field. Ben or Sam or Matthew’s dad is adjusting it to get a better view of the children while the security guy, mission accomplished, is striding past. I think what I don’t say: I’m the stranger here, and this morning a security guard is deployed through the consensus of the parents who consider me a threat to their children’s interest.
Last year, Muhammad composed a class presentation on the importance of group games. Using soccer as an example, he constructed a simple, yet convincing, argument explaining the ways in which a soccer match teaches its participants to trust each other, and to work towards a common goal. Standing on the field, watching a game that, in its most elemental premise, is meant to facilitate trust and support amongst its players, I wonder – not that the answer lies in the wondrous – what part of me, Muhammad’s hijab-clad soccer mom, evokes fear.
After the match is over, and I’m walking back to the car, my hands performing a balancing act between Muhammad’s wind-breaker and my hand-bag and his water bottle, the coach slides up behind us. I want to talk to him about what took place earlier in the morning; he’s played the mediator on the field for so many Saturdays now that it seems only natural. I want to tell him how it felt to be singled out, how I missed my child’s best moves, how I hated having to ask someone else to show me the final goal on their camera, how I now have to deal with the sticky task of explaining to my son why I didn’t take more photos of him – such a pressing concern for a nine-year-old – but he ruffles Muhammad’s hair. ‘Good job, Mo,’ he calls out behind him, as he saunters past. Mo, he calls my son, insists on calling him that, when I chose to name him Muhammad. His name is Muhammad, I’m tempted to call out, not for the first time, but this time I realize, uttered standing in the outskirts of Sydney, Mo doesn’t evoke fear.
Back in 2010, when I was expecting my first-born, I didn’t know that I would later come to identify myself as a multilingual writer, writing mainly in the English language, but tapping into my first tongue of Urdu in the texts that I would create. I wasn’t thinking of cratylic names, or the purportedly talismanic power of naming, and I wasn’t occupied with the politics of authorial intentions; Rushdie’s Chamcha, and the strangeness that it deliberately provokes in its English context, only revealed its power to me at a later stage; I wasn’t thinking of Nabokov’s Lo-li-ta, how it rolls off the tongue to open the gates of another world in the reader’s mind when I was considering naming my son.
What I did have on my mind, almost a decade ago, were traditions. My husband’s ancestors were the Ottomans who lived through migrations within the Ottoman Empire, which saw them move between cities as far apart as Tabriz in the East and Budapest in the West, through to Lebanon, and now to Australia. I am the descendant of Kashmiri Muslims who migrated from a small village in Kashmir and settled in the Indus Valley region which is now a part of Pakistan. I was thinking of the Islamic tradition, the tradition that draws together the disparate worlds that my husband and I descend from, when I decided to name my son Muhammad. It is a name my husband and I have spent our lives rolling on our tongues five times a day in our ritual prayers, a name uttered in love and reverence over centuries and across continents, a name that spells a bridge between us.
My father-in-law, also named Muhammad, arrived in Australia in the early 1960s, in the first wave of migration after the Second World War. This was a time when a great anxiety springing from the sparseness of the Australian population had taken its hold over the Australian imagination; the government-authored slogan of ‘populate or perish’ sprang out of fear, and settled in White Australia’s consciousness like a beast too satiated to move. In the midst of this Australian fear, a fear that would, over the decades, mutate, turn upon itself, and fixate on vessels that would cross the seas carrying other new waves of immigrants who would not be welcomed, the then-Prime Minister proclaimed, ‘we must populate Australia as rapidly as we can before someone else decides to populate it for us,’ and then opened its mighty borders, both on land and at sea, that were hitherto open only to Anglo-Celtic people.
My father-in-law, perhaps, was responding to a fear when he arrived in White Australia from pre-war Lebanon and changed his name from the Arabic Muhammad to what he considered its anglicised version, Michael. The rule was English and my father-in-law, a young man of eighteen just coming of age, had the sense, perhaps through the instinct of survival, not to let his Arabic name make an exception of him. My father-in-law is now almost eighty years old, and has lived most of his life in western Sydney, an enclave of sorts for the immigrant population, along which runs the gorgeous Gorges River, connecting it by water to other parts of the city.
One early morning, when I still lived close to him, I took out my father-in-law’s mail from his mail-box and slipped it to him. His mail was addressed to Michael. He received his envelopes from me with an affectionate nod but quickly flipped them over, hiding the evidence of his anglicised name. My father-in-law studied his miniature coffee cup, and dodged my eyes. What I want to tell him now, and don’t because there are intricate layers of age and respect and vulnerability between us, is this: Baba, you can look me in the eye; I’m raising a Muhammad in the same Australia that made you fear your name.
Last year, I made the grand move from Bankstown, the district that is a metonym for the pulsing heart of migrant Western Sydney, to the lowlands of Hawkesbury skirting the edges of Sydney’s suburbs. One of the academics at the University where I’m a doctoral candidate seemed perplexed by the decision. ‘Why would you leave this part of the city and move to the very heart of White Australia?’ It was a probing, thoughtful question. I weighed in different words before giving him my answer. ‘I don’t want my kids to grow up as strangers to this country.’
Richmond is a beautiful old town, and I walk its roads to acquaint myself with it. At the heart of the town is a sprawling park around which stand vintage buildings, holding onto their histories by their teeth. I’m aware of my own history as I walk amongst the colonial architecture, aware of my own recollections of the Indian subcontinental encounter with the Raj, interacting with the history of this town as I enter and exit its many sites.
This town has a slow, meditative feel; beside me walk the many dog-trainers, holistic health practitioners, chiropractors and physiologists, some nodding at me. There are banners indicating the presence of hydro-therapy centres, employment centres for disabled people, and I sense the palliative effect of this place, ringed in by the presence of Mountains burning blue on the horizon.
In the months that followed my move, from one part of the city where my hijab and my son’s name were the norm, to its outskirts where we both became exceptions in our own right, I often found my mind returning to James Baldwin’s essay, A Stranger in the City. It recounts Baldwin’s experience of being a black person, perhaps the first black person, in an all-white Swiss village. Teju Cole, in his meditation on James Baldwin’s essay, explains how in Leukerbad Baldwin seemed to think about white supremacy ‘from its first principles’. Although I lived in the Western suburbs of Sydney for years, it was in the historic town on the outskirts of Sydney where I encountered white supremacy in its simplest form.
It is another Saturday morning, a month into my move, and this time on my walk, I’m accompanied by both my children. We are headed to the Saturday market that sets up stalls in the park and sells an assortment of fancy things; we’re done with soccer for the day, and there is still time to eat laksa noodles, and perhaps buy a handmade candle with a hint of sandalwood.
It’s a calm morning, and we’re soaking up the buzz when a yell from behind us pierces through the atmospheric peace. ‘Go Back to Your Country.’ It’s a familiar call, I’ve heard it before in other locations in my years of living in Australia. I wear a wordy response to it, rehearsed to perfection, on my sleeve.
I turn around and see a young girl, perhaps sixteen or fifteen, still a child but on the verge of becoming an adult.
I walk up to her with a small smile on my face; perhaps it’s her age, the expectation that she is, in some small corner of her life, still a student, or perhaps it’s the presence of my own school-going kids that prompts me to school her. I have the native Darug people on my mind, the original custodians of this land; I have the Battle of Richmond Hill on my mind, and the explicit orders of the white settlers to ‘destroy’ the entire local population. I want to remind her that we are both here on borrowed land but when I reach her, her white freckled face is flushed and what I see in it robs me of my words. I see fear, simple, raw, plain to see.
My learned reaction to the familiar cry thrown at my back may have worked in the situations that I had anticipated and studiously designed it for but this fear of me that I witness in the child’s face is unlike anything I could have prepared myself for. The cry may have been familiar but the simple emotion of fear, the prototype of an attitude that evolved into hostility, is a revelation to me. I stand there, face to face with the girl, unable to decide who or what is monstrous in this moment; is the image of me walking with two little boys to the Saturday market abject, or is it my rage that this child has mistakenly predicted?
That smile that I had plastered on my face slides off, and I hurry back to my children.
My younger son once saw a three-minute documentary on YouTube about the venomous redback spiders; three minutes was all it took for the fear to sear into his consciousness. He screams murder if he sets eyes on a spider of any kind; spiders remain a permanent fixture in his nightmares. I have tried to teach him to differentiate between the redback spiders from the other, more benign kinds; I’ve taken him to a spider exhibition at the museum and encouraged him to see the beauty in the gossamer intricacies of their abodes; I’ve read to him the entire chapter from The Quran that is named ‘The Spider,’ reminded him that he slept to the tune of itsy bitsy spider in his toddler years, but my child’s phobia doesn’t release him. My words continue to fall short.
When I return to them, newly acquainted with the inadequacy of my words, I see it again, but this time in my own children’s faces. Fear draws a vicious circle.
I also witness in my children’s faces the displacement of my desire: My children may still be strangers to this country but this country is no longer a stranger to them.
We are at an indoor soccer match. It is summer now, and this has been an intense game. Muhammad’s team needs one more goal to end the game in a draw. Muhammad is standing by the coach; he has played throughout the game and it is his time to rest. I’m sitting on the stairs, across from the field. It’s the last two minutes of the game, and the room is electric with a tense energy. I have my eyes on Muhammad, when I see the coach lean down and whisper into his ear, and out he sprints on to the field.
The kids run around, Muhammad takes a shot at the goal, and to the moans and groans of his entire team, misses it. I offer him his water bottle when the match is over, and he walks back to me. After he’s emptied his bottle by spilling the last drops of water over his head, I ask him what the coach whispered into his ear. ‘Oh,’ he remembers with a start, smiles and then checks himself before he confides in me. ‘He said: Go pull a goal out of your hat.’
He sees me trying to read meaning into this; the coach meant well, I remind myself, he must have meant well. Muhammad is helpful, ‘Get it? Like a magician.’
As we walk out of the auditorium, one of the kids calls out to him, ‘Bye, Sa-La’. Muhammad, having failed to come up to the reputation of his latest namesake, slumps his shoulders and doesn’t respond.
From being called the diminutive Mo to Salah should sound like a redeeming trajectory, given the popularity of the Egyptian soccer player Mo Salah who plays for England’s Liverpool team, but I wonder how many names my son will be called before his own name begins to fit him. Perhaps, he will lose all the other monikers ascribed to him by the time he becomes an adult, but so long as his name remains something other than what it is, I see him stretching his whole being taut, trying to fit in the expectations set for him. It is a dizzying set of expectations, too high and too low, and none of them spring from his own name.
Sa-La fattens the model minority myth, Sa-La is an indication of wholesome assimilation, but Muhammad conjures phantoms of the West’s worst fears.
When faced with a Muhammad, white Australia fits him, scampers to fit him, with names that feel easy to roll off the tongue, or else they call him Salah, that comes out as SA-LA, clipped off from the throaty ح in the Arabic language that completes it. These names are signifiers vetted out by the Western culture, and the bodies they signify are made amenable to power; Sa-La, despite its bearer’s ethnic background, sounds a safe enough name in English-speaking Australia.
I go on mental walks, spiral down bookish rabbit holes, I fatten my purse with scholarly references and quotes to shield myself. I chance upon the historian Henry J. Perkinson’s assertion that, ‘naming is always a political act’. I agree with him. Naming is a political act as it ascribes a category to a nine-year-old, gives him a role pre-defined for him and accepted by the majority of the population, and anything outside of it, any difference to the norm as seen by society, including my insistence that my son be called by his name, is seen as an anomaly. A child’s foreignness isn’t affirmed by the politics that ascribe him other names; the politics of naming a child by other than his real name creates his foreignness in the first place.
I come upon Joshua Badge’s Difference and the Politics of Fear in which hetalks about the homogeneity complex that is ingrained deeply in the Australian psyche. Badge insists that Australia’s hostility toward difference has become its defining characteristic and I see this hostility being played out in its refusal to accept my child’s name.
As we walk back to the car park, I see Muhammad’s thin shoulders droop, this otherwise hyper-verbal child quietens, I witness his being deflated after stretching beyond his reach.
Sa-La falls short; Muhammad isn’t, never was, a magician.
It is almost the end of the year and the students in the school are given a list of topics to choose from for their public-speaking competition.
You can cage a child’s body, restrict his dreams and the scope of his being to a box, but forget about clipping the freedom of his mind; it will take flight, from time to time.
For his speech, Muhammad chooses this loaded topic: ‘Should Australia Day be celebrated on the 26th of January?’ He Googles the date, walks with me to the local library to look for books on the history of Australia; his mind goes searching for symbols in the Australian flag; he asks questions about the colours on it, about the religious symbol of the cross that it bears. He wants to be told the story behind the words of the national anthem. I see him searching for filiations between all of his discoveries and himself.
He writes his final speech in opposition to the topic.
Monday morning, the day of his presentation, Muhammad walks to school with me, clutching the pages of his speech in his hand, and halts at the gates. We can hear the children inside the public school singing the national anthem with gusto while facing the Australian flag. Out comes the age-old excuse that stands in for all the things that a child fears: ‘Mom, can I take the day off? I have a tummy-ache.’
I know this ache. It mirrors mine as I write this essay. It isn’t easy to go against the grain at any age, in any generation.
It is the weekend, a few days after the Christchurch mosque shootings. Yesterday, a school teacher walked up to Muhammad with her offer of condolences. Muhammad came home perplexed since neither his younger brother, nor his class fellows were offered similar condolences. ‘It’s your name, Muhammad. People know you’re Muslim because of it. She just wanted to be nice.’ Muhammad seemed to understand some part of this but had me leave the lamp switched on in his room when he went to sleep last night.
We learn, through our oral and written traditions, and teach our children, in turn, that all the prophets possessed miracles, or superpowers in our children’s lexicon, with which they alleviated the suffering of humanity. Prophet Adam, the first man to walk the Earth and the first prophet of Islam, was granted the superpower of ancient Arabic; he had the ability to ascribe things with their correct names, to connect signifiers to the signified. Prophet Isa, or Jesus as he is called in the anglicised version of his name, had the superpower of healing; he cured the suffering bodies of the poor by his touch. Prophet Muhammad, the successor of Jesus, was gifted with his superpower in the form of a book.
I see my son now, exhausted from a restless sleep, heading to the study. At the time of our move to this town, we brought along with us my husband’s English-language dictionary from his school-going years. It’s a fat, old book, hard-bound in a peeling crimson cover, the ideal gift for the son from his migrant parents in the English-speaking country of Australia. I see Muhammad retrieve this book from the shelf, and place it on his lap. He opens its pages to M.
In times to come, I will question my decision to give my son the name Muhammad, the name that makes an exception of him, the name that seems to turn his settings hostile. I will, for example, watch a thirty-eight-week pregnant woman on a news clipping which has gone viral double over in fear; I will see the attacker hurl Islamophobic abuse at the woman made visible by her hijab, alongside his fists in a small café in the bright cityscape of Parramatta; I will ache for the child in her belly as I will for the safety of my own two children. In times to come, I know my body will become too small to shield my son’s, my presence around him will flicker to a shadow and I will not always be there to deflect the glare that his name seems to attract. In times to come, I will sink into the darkness of questioning myself, my intentions, and the foolishness of the defiance that his name suggests; ask a mother, love builds and breaks in unspeakable ways.
But right now, I see Muhammad sitting with a book in his lap, searching in its pages for the meaning of his name; I see him carry on the prophetic tradition, and in this moment, there is only light.