My Only Name is Returner

We are introducing ourselves, and our host tells me, “In all honesty, I tell you that my only name is “Returner/`A’id,” i.e., “one who is returning to his home.” This is the masculine version of the name known to opera lovers for Verdi’s heroine, Aida. You hear it frequently as a name for women, but not for men. Our host never does say his real name, but I hear it when the others address him. Another attendee, the convener of the poetry salon, defers to “our professor,” the self-taught returner, and asks him to open the session by reciting a poem. He agrees, but first introduces his daughter, telling the story of her name. If the baby was a girl, he and his wife decided they would call her Palestine. However, since he was away when she was born, his wife yielded to the political tension of the times, giving her the name of a fragr! ant flower instead. But he still calls her Palestine.

I think of another Palestine, a few years older than this articulate high-school girl born in Lebanon. The other Palestine was enrolled at Najah University in Nablus, Occupied Palestine. But her commute from Jenin Refugee Camp became too difficult, as the Israeli checkpoint soldiers would harass her when they saw her name, written in Arabic and Hebrew on her identity card. So she ceased her studies at that superior institution, to continue them at Al-Quds Open University just across the road. The military often closes down that university, too, but on those days she stays home, and does not have to present ! her identity card to anyone. Her friends, Tahrir/Liberation and Islam, laugh about what a problem the three of them would cause to the occupation forces: “Islam, Liberation of Palestine” is the phrase their names form.

“Yes, I’ll give you some change for a treat, but first tell me who you love,” says Abu Hamdoun, cradling his little daughter. Her brother is there, too, such a polite youngster who had brought me some nuts and insisted I partake of his offering. The boy’s name is not Hamdoun, so I ask his father about the moniker. The common custom is for a man to be called after his eldest son’s name, Abu X/Father of X, or his daughter in the absence of a son. The western press sometimes erroneously refers to this as a nom de guerre, a militaristic misnomer for a tender relationship. As for his name, he explains that their first child, Hamdoun, died in infancy. The next two children were boys whom they also named Hamdoun and who also died in infancy. “You see, we have a number of shahids/martyrs,” he says, his eyes widening slightly with a mixture of melancholy and realism. It is not a political statem! ent, just a reference to the environment in which people live and die in the refugee camp. His children are dear to him, and are remembered in his nom de paternite.

A reverse procedure keeps Abu Jihad in remembrance. When I first meet Jihad, I am told that his brother is a shahid/martyr, and his parents are missing since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon more than two decades ago. Later, when I mention a young journalist I have just met, he tells me that she has interviewed him, but knows him by his original name, Sharif. Responding to my unasked question, he says, “The result of jihad/struggle is that a person becomes sharif/noble, isn’t it?” I nod agreeably, though this illumination is like moonlit clouds–”lovely but unclear. However, I notice that new friends call him Jihad, while long-time neighbors call him Sharif.

On one occasion, he tells a new acquaintance about his names. By this time, I had forgotten that his parents went missing and have never been accounted for. Jihad is actually the name of his eldest brother, the shahid/martyr. One would not normally assume one’s brother’s name, but where there is a Jihad, there is an Abu/Father of, and Imm/Mother of Jihad. Now I realize that he is preserving his parents’ memory. He goes on to say that when he marries, he would like to name his eldest son Jihad, and thus become Abu Jihad himself. His parents are dear to him, and he will thus be a living tribute to his father.

As we walk through the area that used to divide East and West Beirut “during the Events,” Jihad tells of riding his bicycle here as a schoolboy. Lebanese forces stopped him and took him to their nearby headquarters for questioning. When they asked for his identity card, he said that he didn’t have it with him, as he was just going to school. “If they had seen my identity card, they would have known that I’m Palestinian, and they would have slaughtered me on the spot,” he says, smiling. They held him for a week, and then released him, but would not release the bicycle. He began to cry, so the commander made them return his bicycle to him. That was when he was still Sharif, and didn’t have to bear a different name to keep his parents in remembrance. Although he likes to visit Syria where his uncles reside, Lebanon is the most beautiful place in the world to him because of all that he has experienced here. He has turned down opportunities to emigrate to Europe legally, while his local friends yearn to insert their own names onto his official invitations. His memories of Imm and Abu Jihad, his mother and father, are here. Their presence was last known here.

Here in another refugee camp home is Fatima, a mother and grandmother whose eyes are all warmth as her own father proclaims, “She is our firstborn. She is the one I made qurban/sacrifice [of a sheep] for, when she and her mother came through the birth in health.” They named her after one of the daughters of the prophet Muhammad. He didn’t wait for a son to thank God. The daughter and her mother are precious to the father.

Another father explains how they named their son. I had assumed they borrowed the English name, Lawrence. But Lurans, he and his wife tell me, is the name of a sea bird: “You see how we love the idea of freedom? We named our son for the sea bird that can fly freely.” They live high on a hill in a small, uncrowded refugee camp which has recovered from some of the decimation and depopulation wrought by Israel’s concentrated attack on its homes. Here the eye drinks in the blue of the sea and the green of rolling knolls with lines of olive trees. You can follow the olive trees to Palestine. The sea bird will fly freely abroad and home. The returner/`a’id will return to his home.