What's in a name?

Tajikistan, July 28, 2009

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When I’ve studied abroad, I have usually avoided using a local moniker — including last summer when I lived with a Tajik family and studied Tajik. It didn’t matter too much to me that my name, for whatever reason, is completely unintelligible for a variety of cultures. Usually people come close — "Jerrett" has been a popular pronunciation in Russian, and others have made a valiant effort and ended up with "Jerry" or "Gerald."

No offense to people with these names, but they are not for me. So, for my work this summer with Mercy Corps, I’ve wholeheartedly adopted a Tajik name. After deep consultation with our staff here in Garm and some testing in villages where we're distributing food, I have settled on a name I use on a daily basis. Some initial suggestions were immediately discarded: my family from last summer and staff at a local café decided that "Jafar" would be a good strong name. But Americans kept asking me where Iago —the parrot from the Disney movie Aladdin — was.

Additionally, many men in the Rasht Valley have much longer names, as certain suffixes are added to indicate respect or religious stature. For examples, -jon, -din or -hafiz can be added to common names like "Mahmad" or "Abdul" to come up with "Mahmadjon" or "Abdulhafiz."

Whatever names our staff suggested I kept adding suffixes to, in order to have the longest name. Since they wouldn’t accept "Jarrett-bek-din-abdul-rashid," I settled on their other favorite, "Jonibek." A rough translation of this name means everyone’s dear or great friend — the suffix -bek indicates stature or respect. It’s not an extremely common name and, between that and its use of seven letters and a "J," I feel it’s a good fit.

Using a local name has made introductions for my value-added interviews easier, as people’s reactions are very positive. They either find it amusing, respectful or just easier to remember. Even staff who really make an effort with my real name switch back to Jonibek since it’s just a lot easier and familiar.