Farah, like Farrah Fawcett
March 30, 2022 / Farah Merchant
At 13, my grandma grabbed my name by her wrinkled hands and took it with her six feet under. The cadence of “Fa-rah” was completely erased, except the occasions late at night when I would whisper my name, hoping to pump life back to its limp body.
My name was the first sign of my identity. The enunciated a. The stressed r. The breathy h. They screamed Middle Eastern, South Asian, Muslim, unlike my face whose features lead to confused stares as strangers attempted to identify my ethnicity. The traditional Middle Eastern traits I admired in my aunt – the almond eyes, the protruding, pronounced snout, and the sharp features – were lost in my round, chubby face which resembled a child’s self-portrait drawn from memory.
My name bound me to my grandmother. Meaning joy in Arabic, she meticulously chose the title in honor of surviving my mother’s womb after many miscarriages. By the end of my grandmother’s life, my true name only existed through her voice, buried deep beneath my American lifestyle.
My second, English name was born on the first day of kindergarten. When my teacher announced “Fair-rah”, I smiled and nodded, refusing to correct her. Her eyes pierced through the room until they landed on me, and I jolted up from my slouched position, caught red-handed as the owner of the name.
On the way from school, I shared my new name with my mom, and she laughed and sighed with relief, glad that my Arabic name stayed locked inside our house. At dinner, my dad teased that I now shared a name with Farrah Fawcett. Before bed, I practiced the name in the mirror, carefully stressing the i, hearing the foreign sound reverberating in my ears.
As the years passed, when asked for my name, I said, “Farah, like Farrah Fawcett”. Like clockwork, their eyes brightened, and they enunciated my name as if I were the superstar.
While my new name forged its own memories, the old faded into the background. In the intolerant and tumultuous times of my life, I grew to appreciate the name – even secretly preferred it to the foreign one, the one that brought images of Muslims, Arabs, and terrorist attacks to naive minds. I sold my name for a first-class ticket to assimilation, and although the journey was more relaxing, I lost my biggest connection to my heritage.
After my grandmother’s death, my parents slowly drove our culture out the door. We passed English words around the dinner table, forgoing the Urdu we spoke for 13 years. We stopped attending our place of worship, instead opting to spend Friday nights relishing in our newfound free time. Muslim holidays began to lack the cultural nuance of my childhood. Now, they were simply a day to trade envelopes full of money.
I struggled with my cultural identity for years, but as I grew older, I realized it was time for me to make peace with it. I couldn’t resuscitate my name and tarnish all the memories with my grandmother when teachers, peers, and other parents mispronounced my Arabic name.
Instead, I focused on uprooting the remnants of my original name and the traditions I abandoned at my grandmother’s grave.
After 5 years of only speaking English, I began practicing Urdu. The words sounded clunky on my tongue as I attempted to revive the language I had once deserted in my youth. I privately spoke the language with my mother at home, slowly molding my skills to speak to cashiers in South Asian markets and family members in Pakistan.
When I visited my family in Pakistan, they all laughed as I continued to piece together the remnants of a language I had long forgotten. I blushed but persisted, refusing to let the language barrier lull my efforts. After a month in a foreign country, I stopped relying on English as a crutch and embraced my native tongue.
I knew language was not the only product of a culture, so I also focused on re-learning Muslim history. I retained remnants of Islamic history after 13 years of religious school. However, a quick crash course on Muslim literature filled my mind with more knowledge than before. Ibn Sina, King Solomon, and Abu Bakr all drifted through my brain as I digested more and more information, my hunger for it only increasing over time.
From these foundational steps, I delved deeper into the world of Muslim works. While these experiences could never replace my real name or the teachings of my grandmother, they reconnected me to my culture and heritage. A new identity built on the ramparts of language and history replaced the old, shapeless one bound together by just a singular name. Yet, it still hurt to never hear my real name again. It hurt to never see the woman who spoke the name into existence. But now, I can reconnect with my grandmother through the shared culture she practiced and taught me to cherish so many years ago. And that’s more substantive than grasping onto one word.
It still stings to know my Arabic name is deep underground. Hands clawing against the dirt, digging through, only to realize I will never reach it. It hurts more when I think of my grandmother. She never forgot my name even as her memory slipped away from old age, forgetting the days we spent together sewing and the plot of the Indian soap opera we indulged in for years. Despite my family calling me appa (older sister) and “Fair-rah”, she remembered my true name each time we spoke. Her sweet voice softly echoed it, asking me to sit beside her or on her lap as she rocked back and forth on the beaten, cream-colored rocking chair she loved. In her hazy mind, where the lines dividing past and present lapsed like waves in an uncertain sea, my name passed through the fog. And when she continued to speak it, it felt like it was truly mine, decided by fate and the Gods above. Chosen and preserved forever by her tongue.
I hear it less now, but I will always remember the way my grandmother spoke my name. I was the joy she always wanted. For 13 years, I was “Fa-rah”. But now, I introduce myself as, “Farah, like Farrah Fawcett,” because it is just a name. It doesn’t define my culture. I do. ■
by: Farah Merchant
graphics by: Zayana Uddin
graphics by: Zayana Uddin