x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In the little book of baby names, Adolf and Saddam still live

Old dictators' names don't die, they just haunt those who continue to carry them.

Parents. You certainly can't live without them. And of all the gifts they bestow on you, one of the first - your name - has the most influence on how your life maps out. And often their choices are downright brutal.

Thousands of Iraqis over the years have named their sons after Saddam Hussein. There were reasons. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the family of a child born on the dictator's birthday was often rewarded by the government. Many rubber-stamped this approval by naming the child Saddam. Other Arabs and Muslims, hoodwinked by his anti-American stance, also jumped on the Saddam wagon.

Now it is these poor offspring that pay for the naivety, stupidity or remarkable lack of foresight shown by parents. Education, employment and life in general cannot be easy for today's Saddam Husseins.

This short-sighted Saddam-ification of a generation of Iraqis and Arabs is not isolated.

While little Adolf Hitlers are impossible to find in Germany, parents in other countries, perhaps to build the character of their child by subjecting them to merciless bullying - or, more likely, because they are right-wing racists - have chosen to keep the name alive.

Two years ago, the father of 3-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell was famously denied a birthday cake with the name on it by a New Jersey store. Amazingly, Heath Campbell, who had previously been denied his request to have a swastika as a decoration, called for more "tolerance".

"I think people need to take their heads out of the cloud they've been in and start focusing on the future and not on the past," the father said.

Such imbecility notwithstanding, to what extent do names affect an individual's future? In a notorious 2002 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo claimed that people are likely to choose professions that are associated with their own names. (In that sense, Saddam, translated literally as "collider", certainly lived up to his potential).

This related more to cardiologists named "Hart", or estate agents named "House", and even then remains an astonishing assertion. Clearly, if your parents lumbered you with Adolf or Saddam - conspicuously incendiary names - your career options are limited.

But what of those who, belatedly in life, have infamy thrust upon them?

In his 2004 documentary Being Osama, director Mahmoud Kaabour followed six Arab men in Montreal, all of whom had the first name "Osama" (three Osamas, two Ossamas and one Oussama, to be exact), as their lives changed following the September 11 attacks.

Kaabour, now based in Dubai, tackled the absurdity that a human being can be instantly judged purely based on a name; needless to say the subjects, many Canadian citizens, were discriminated against.

Of course since 2001, Arab-sounding names hardly need to be associated with dictators or terrorists to be prejudged. Racial profiling against Arabs and Muslims barely raises an eyebrow in the United States - although discrimination based on race or gender is technically illegal - or in many other western countries.

Indeed, it is tempting to say that Barack Hussein Obama was only one letter away from being unelectable. One murderous Arab person's name is unfortunate; two would have been, quite frankly, careless.

So will the fallen (and hopefully soon-to-fall) dictators across the region spell the discredit of certain names. "Muammars" may suffer. "Hosnis", perhaps less so, and in any case the former Egyptian president is nowhere near as despised. And despite the best efforts of Syria's murderous president, "Bashar" remains too common and beloved to drop out of fashion (Asma's name, also, will fare far better than her image).

At least in the Arab world, that is. For narrow-minded people across the world, decrimination remains fair game. With or without a helping hand from ignorant parents.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_