My name is Red


I borrowed the title of this post from one excellent book by the Turkish Nobel prize Orhan Pamuk, but the post hasn’t much to do with the book.

El Watan published yesterday this article which made me think of this topic. How do our names define our individual identities, and how are they related to the country’s identity?

I went some weeks back to the Algerian consulate to renew my passport. There I saw a fight between a couple and the consulate agents. The couple was composed of an Algerian young man and his European wife. They were there to register their newly born daughter whom they named Melissa. The agents refused to register her because the name had no link with the “Algerian cultural heritage”. One of the agents even reminded the couple of the hadith “خير الاسماء ما حمد وعبد” to encourage them to choose another name for the baby. The hadith is by the way not sahih despite the fact it’s very commonly used. The wife reminded him that she is European and hasn’t changed her name nor religion, and doesn’t see why she would give her daughter a name which is not in her culture. This opens the question of inter-cultural marriages but that’s another topic.

The bottom line is that the Algerian regulation is not clear because the legislators are confused. Proving this is that in my example and after almost one hour, the consulate agents gave up and agreed to register Melissa.

Back to El Watan’s article. There are some points I would like to mention about it:

  • I find it very strange that an Algerian (in a Muslim country) journalist connects the name of Oussama and Osama Bin Ladin. In this case, I don’t think one should expect Western people to not make the same connection with all its implications.
  • El Watan as usual since it changed its editorial line some years ago considers the Arabs (in DZ mouth and context, this word means the inhabitants of the Middle East) as completely foreign to us and despises everything which comes from them. The recent Egyptian drama was an opportunity for them to stress on this point.
  • The analysis it makes, using the RCD’s deputee’s words, of the fact most of Amazigh names were refused is interesting. If it was only due to the Arabo-Islamism then why were some Amazigh names (Idir, Djedjiga, Ghilas, etc.) accepted?  Why only Amazigh names of Amazigh leaders in the pre-Arab conquest were denied? Is it not possible that the cause is the fact the central power in Algiers feared/fears the risk of a divided country; and those names were of leaders of (not always) independent Amazigh states? I feel this is similar to what’s happening with the Kurds in Turkey because Turkey lost most of its Ottoman lands, and the Turkish power considers any community specificity as a threat to the country’s unity. Of course, Algerian Amazighs enjoy a better fate than the Kurds and are an essential part in the central power system.

As you can guess, it’s more with the Amazigh names that there is an issue. Many Amazigh parents give Amazigh names to their children as a sign of identity affirmation.
Algeria has set a file listing all the allowed names and the state’s agents are given authority to accept or refuse the names which are not in the list. So depending on where you live, the party controlling your locality, the agent you face when trying to register your baby, the agent’s mood, etc. the name could be accepted or not.
Algerian Interior minister announced that the list would be updated very shortly to take into account our Amazigh heritage. No idea of when the new list will be available.

I believe the state shouldn’t control the names given to the babies as this should be the parents’ responsibility. All the state should do is make sure the given name is not offensive and not prejudicial for the child. Imagine if a European country decides to ban the names which are not part of its heritage. European Muslim citizens of Algerian descent would all have European names.

But there is still an identity issue. I feel it is normal that after the severe dictatorship years, people feel the need to use Amazigh names as a reaction to what happened in the past. But today we see many people giving European names to their children. I am not saying the state should ban them but rather find out what is happening in our society and what pushes these Algerians to use such names. My neighbours who use these names tell me that it is one of the steps towards giving their children a better future in the West (other steps being talking to them in French, paying for their private schools, etc.) I don’t know if this is the only reason, but it should for sure be considered as it simply means these people think their children should not stay in Algeria if they want a better life. It is not only an identity question but a life one.

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2 thoughts on “My name is Red

  1. What I really don’t understand is what political significance there might be in controlling citizens’ names? Do you have any ideas?

    Another example is changing names of roads and places into names of those who participated in the revolution. That I can understand because the entire FLN is based on the revolution fairy-tale.

    • I think the Nation State has something to do with it, and also the fact we got our independence after a fight led by a nationalist movement.
      Allowing people to choose any name creates differences inside the country which no longer can claim it’s homogeneous and… one because differences mean, in some people’s minds, division. And division leads to separatism.

      There’s another interesting point about roads and places naming. Of course giving martyrs names to the places “forces” the people to remember those who sacrificed their lives for our independence, but it was also decided that every dechra was entitled to be proud of its children so local martyrs names were prioritized over the others. This created some issues in places considered in DZ as 100% harka and apparently some roads, etc. were named after harka…

      Here’s an interesting and funny video.

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