“Very good! You read well. What’s your name?” asked Sister Imelda.
Sister Imelda’s appearance did not reinforce her stern, authoritative nature. A little over four feet and a little below fifty years of age, she seemed rather demure. She was soft-spoken – even at times of anger – and her face glowed with rays of kindness and humility. She was always seen in crisp, white knee-length dress and head-scarf with blue rims – the traditional attire for Catholic Christian nuns – which made her appear sober. Anyone would mistake her for a calm and loving motherly figure. Yet she was the most feared person around. Only she could tame the otherwise cacophonous and unruly school children. She was known for visiting the junior classes – unannounced – to test the children’s reading skills. Failing to impress her, the school children may face – among a myriad of possibilities – hours of scathing remarks, suspension from the Games period, days of counseling sessions with parents who would wear the “you just let me down” look, and disciplinary slips which can only be averted by volunteering to read to Sister Imelda for an hour every day after classes for a span of three months at a stretch.
Beaming with joy at the thought of not having to go through any of that, I replied with a high measure of enthusiasm in my voice, “Monica Islam.”
“What? Mollika Islam?” inquired Sister Imelda as if to alleviate the fear and confusion that overpowered her voice.
“No, it’s Monica Islam. M-O-N-I-C-A,” I spelled out for her, with my enthusiasm still intact in the form of a broad smile.
Her heart had shrunk by this time. She looked pale and weak with worry, as if my name had a sinister implication. Without looking at me, she signaled me to sit down and said sternly, “Meet me after class.” She continued the test, albeit with much lesser vigour.
Inside her scantily-furnished but well-ventilated room, Sister Imelda approached me, with a grave concern casting a shadow on her face. “What is your father’s name?” she asked.
“Shahidul Islam,” I answered, now equally perplexed as her, not understanding the relevance of the question to my reading skills.
My reply seemed to have confounded her further. Nodding her head sideways, she finally proceeded to discuss the issue that bothered her. “Are you a Christian or a Muslim? Why is your name Monica? It is a Christian name!”
She was clearly not willing to return to her convent with the idea that a girl with a Christian name could be a Muslim too, without any forced conversion at play. She arranged for several meetings with my parents so she could investigate my genealogy and the religious background of my family. She asked them the same questions that she had asked me, to cross-check my answers. She asked again and again if I was Muslim by birth to reassure herself that I had, indeed, a Muslim identity with the ceremonial practice of aqeeqah on the seventh day of my birth. There was nothing sinister or complicated to the story of my name.
Back then, being a child, I did not don a head-scarf. Although that scenario has changed with the adoption of my head-scarf – by choice, I still face the same old consequences of my “Christian-sounding” name. It is as if Monica and Islam are never destined to unite. It is as if we cannot have Monica, Jessica, Megan, and Chung Lee, who could be Muslims as well. It is as if we cannot have a name for its random beauty and not for its philosophical meaning which will later reflect on our character – or so it’s prophesied. It is as if we cannot look beyond the surface-level cultural elements – such as the name or dressing style – associated with a person, and understand and respect a person for what he or she does.
“What is your name, sister?” asked a Pakistani blogger. Upon stating my name, I am met with a question I am so accustomed to – “Monica? Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” At times, some well-meaning individuals remind me that it is more fitting for me to have an Islamic (read: Arab) name.
The fuss over name is rather complex with detentions taking place post-9/11 based on name. Osamas are barred from flying or at the very least, viewed with raised eyebrows. Khans, despite their stardom, are detained for hours, quizzed, and denied access to officials who know them beyond their name. What’s in a name?
“What’s your name?” I asked. “Huma Wallace,” she replied. “Christian?” I asked, almost instinctively. “What made you think so, MONICA?” she asked between giggles, as if she had already sensed the reason.
Irony of life! What’s in a name? What’s in a name that we get so caught up in it?