My grandmother and grandfather were half paternal cousins. On the day of my grandmother’s birth, her father sent a letter to my grandfather, Ismael, his half nephew informing him that he has been blessed with the birth of a baby girl whom he named Mariam. Ismael responded saying that he is to marry her when she comes of age and 14 years later they wed.
On the wedding day, Mariam was raised on a horse as was accustomed in 1930s Palestine, to be taken to the house of her husband. That tradition of a new bride riding a horse came with a certain condition – if any of her male cousins, upon seeing their cousin all adorned to be taken to her groom, decided in that instant that he wants her for himself, he can claim her and she would be taken off the horse; coining the term amongst women in reference to their male cousins as “the one who can take me off the horse”. On their wedding day, none of her cousins played that card, but shortly after the wedding, another card was played, and it came in a form of a suggestion to Ismael, to change the name Mariam.
The rhetoric used was that Ismael’s zodiac sign, the Pisces, a water sign, had weaker characteristics than Mariam’s sign, the Leo, a fire sign. In order to neutralize the energy for a more cohesive relationship, Ismael was to change the name of his wife, the equivalent of cutting off a cat’s head on the first night. My grandmother was young, naïve and in love, didn’t have much of an opinion on the matter. A permanent mark was engraved on their marriage when Ismael obliged and changed his wife’s name.
The options that were put forth were Najla or Layla, and out of concern of being referred to as Majnoun Layla, or Crazy for (the love of) Layla, (an ancient Arabian poet who spent his years roaming the desert pursuing a lost love) he opted for Najla. Whatever matrimonial compatibility that would have been achieved by neutralizing the energy of their star signs, nothing would have prepared the couple for the life of exile following the 1948 Nakba.
Through the toughest of times that they had to endure, where the whole family would live cramped up in small rooms, the desperation of trying to find means to feed 8 hungry mouths across several Arabian and North African countries, or the couple of children she had lost after birth, the one thing that burdened her mostly about her life was the changing of her name. Every quarrel, discussion, disagreement would always go back to the same point. It was like she didn’t know who she was anymore; her identity before marriage erased. Her children always knew her as Najla, it said so on their birth certificates and passports, and one of her sons pulled the loving gesture of naming his daughter after his mother, Najla.
The earliest memory I have of my grandmother was when she would come and visit us in the Arabian Gulf during the 1980s Lebanese Civil war. She was as anyone would describe their grandmother, loving, kindhearted, couldn’t hurt a soul. She was a person that really enjoyed the simple pleasures of life, soaking her feet in hot water, apples, and dark chocolates. Year in and year out, the story kept on being repeated, more bitter with age, to nearly everyone she interacted with, “my name was beautiful, why did he have to change it?”
In their later years the relationship between my grandparents grew uninviting. They lived in separate rooms with separate visiting spaces, and the only interaction they had was when she would walk by in morning raising her hand in greeting saying “Good morning Hajj,” and walk by in the evening raising her hand in farewell saying “Good night Hajj.”
In his youthful playful years, my elder brother, Ismael, named after his grandfather, jokingly informed her that when he grows up and gets married he would name his daughter Mariam. The thought made her throw her head back in laughter, but she kept repeating to him that he doesn’t have to do that. She enjoyed the thought so much that every time he would meet he would tell her that, and while it made her eyes sparkle with joy, she kept telling him that he doesn’t have to.
When my eldest brother Ismael got married he reiterated this story to his wife, and she agreed, however her brother’s name and her grandfather’s name, was the same as her father-in-law’s name. Following tradition of the eldest son naming his first son after his father, her son would share the same name. Now, as is her mother, she is referred to as Um Ibrahim (Mother of Ibrahim).
A few months ago, my wife and I found out that she is pregnant with a baby girl, and the question of her naming was put forth. While discussing it with my brother Ismael, I mentioned as one of the options the name Mariam, which he strongly advocated for. He said that if the time comes that his wife would bear a daughter, she would prefer to have a choice in the naming of her daughter, as opposed to the situation of her son.
On January 12, 2015 at the birth of our new baby girl, we decided to name her Mariam. I would like to think that somewhere my grandmother would be throwing her head back and laugh with tears in her eyes.