It would have been so much easier if I had been named Bob. Or Jim. Or Jim Bob. Or Bob Jim. Really any monosyllabic name. Actually, any common white name would have been ideal. For a second-generation immigrant – a person, like me, of Eastern descent who has been born and bred in the West – it is unreasonable to complain of cultural factors “holding you back” in Western society. Accent is not an issue. I don’t have to worry about slurs and jeers aimed toward me on account of a “fresh off the boat” accent. I have a pretty standard, middle-class British accent – albeit mixed with an American twang by virtue of my five-year stint in the US (although some would prefer the term “debased” to “mixed”; a potential employer once disclosed to me that we would have to “do something” about that American drawl because buyers “wouldn’t like it”). Nor is race any longer an issue. Without sounding insensitive to those who suffer the still existent manifestations of racism, the only verbal discrimination I have ever encountered was more amusing that offensive. During my first year of high school, I was advised by an older student that I should probably “take a bath” since it looked like I had “shit” on my face. The notion that I could go home and scrub the brown off my body was entertaining to me; it certainly would have made Michael Jackson’s pigmentation ailment more easily explicable.
Brownness aside, the only aspect that makes me feel different from the indigenous population around me is my name. On a consistent basis, white people love to fuck up the pronunciation of foreign-sounding names. Hey, white people – I love you, but how difficult is it to pronounce these names? Is this one long, drawn-out inside joke or game that you’re all participating in by screwing up our names on a regular basis? One day, four hundred years in the future, when the joke has worn dry, is some white representative named Michael is going to appear on a news special on TV (or whatever freakishly innovative technological appliance will have replaced good ole television) and finally reveal that his entire race has been mispronouncing Eastern names just because it was, well, sort of funny? “Guys, we knew the whole time that Amir was pronounced “UH-mir”! We were just saying “AI-meer” to piss you off! It was hilarious, though, right?!” Yeah, real funny, Mitch-ay-ell.
I wish I could tone down the bitterness, but this acerbity derives from the fact that my own name has been mispronounced more times than Gordon Ramsay has thrown a quarter in the swear jar. Talib, in its most eloquent Arabic utterance, is said “TAHH-lib”. But I’m really not seeking perfection. A simple anglicized version, “TAA-lib”, the vowel sound produced with a slight projection of the tongue, will do nicely. In fact, this is even how I say my own name (probably due to that same assimilation into the West idea). At a push, I’ll even be willing to accept “Tuh-LEEB”, which is how it was often voiced in America – I believe it is an African-Americanized pronunciation; there is a black football player for the Buccaneers called Talib, and a rapper named Talib Kweli (which led to my nickname through college by those acquainted with the rapper to be Kweli. I didn’t oppose that particular name; it had a neat ring to it). A pronunciation that I would not accept, by any means, is Tulip.
Yes, like the fucking flower. It was on a school ski trip to France, actually, where the ski instructor perverted my name. And its meaning, come to think of it; the rather noble meaning of Talib is “student” or “seeker of knowledge”, and now it had been degraded and emasculated rather dramatically into a name which signified “a pretty, pink, heavenly scented Dutch flower, xoxoxoxo J” (the last part of that might have been exaggerated for purposes of emphasizing the effeminacy of my new name). Maybe I should forgive the man, I thought, considering he was French and perhaps the error was due to a linguistic discrepancy. Then I realized that there are more people with Arabic-sounding names in France than in Britain (the Maghrébins, as the French call these immigrants). So, there was really no excuse. Besides, the taunting had begun; Tulip was a name that was sure to remain for quite a while. I imagined flamboyantly conjuring up bouquets of tulips in my pink fanny pack, pulling them out and shoving them into the Frenchman’s nose, rubbing pollen all over his face and watching in amusement as the exacerbation of his hay fever reached sneezing point. But he probably didn’t even suffer from allergies. And he was actually a pretty nice guy, especially in comparison to the ski bitch who he had replaced after she had yelled at me for feebly falling off the drag lift and had more or less tied me up, beat me and thrown me down a ski piste, promising that if I didn’t return with multiple fractures and convincing bruises, then she would kill my entire family and eat my dog with garlic butter and Bordeaux wine. (Again, I might have exaggerated that last part. I don’t have a dog.) But I do remember his name to this day, and that I pronounced it perfectly. His name was Eric. What a nice, simple, Viking name.
I’ve heard my name said “Taylib”, which eventually transformed into “Taylor”. I’ve been referred to as “Tablibi”. I’ve been called “Tah-LEEEEB” by a high school teacher who thought another boy’s name was Yoghurt. In the States, Talib was often – not rarely, but often – confused for the name Tyler. Conversations at parties and social events would go something like this:
– Hey, I’m [insert generic white American girl name, e.g. Megan, or Katelyn, or Kaitlyn, or Catelyn, or Caitlin]. What’s your name?
– Hey, I’m Talib.
– Oh, hey Tyler.
– (A little embarrassed) Oh, no, it’s (emphasizing phonetically) Talib.
– (More embarrassed) No, like…(spelling it out) T-A-L-I-B.
– (Shouting over bass-heavy music) What?
– (Giving up every last particle of faith in humanity) Tyler. My name’s Tyler.
– Oh, hey Tyler.
I don’t blame people for not recognizing foreign names. But by the same token, introducing myself to someone shouldn’t embarrass me. When does Bob ever have to spell out his name to avoid ambiguity? (“No, Bob. B-O-B. You know, like the mountain cat? No, not boob. Bob. Like Bob Dylan. Marley? Hope? Oh, forget it, just fucking call me Talib.”) Yet, the truth is that it was extremely distressing to have to begin every conversation with a new individual hollering my name as if I were addressing a half-deaf auntie who only speaks Mandarin. So Tyler became my pseudonym. Whenever I needed to complete an administrative job, for instance, as expeditiously as possible, Tyler was the alias that I employed. There were no questions asked, as they might have been back in the UK, such as: “Why are you called Tyler even though you’re brown?” Americans are either less curious and inquisitive or they are more accepting. Whatever the case, it was my only option. Even when I ordered a sandwich at the residence hall deli, Tyler was the name I gave for the server to call once it had been prepared. This would save the embarrassment of the deli assistant alerting me by screaming “TYLIB!” or “TULIP!” No heads would turn at the sound of “TYLER!” Except mine, as sometimes I would forget that that was my name, and so I would look around and snicker to myself, thinking, “some idiot called Tyler left without picking up his sandwich.”
Despite the ease of usage of Tyler, I haven’t taken the ultimate step of legally changing my name, unlike my cousin. He took the initiative after his name was garbled by others time after time; I won’t disclose his given name, but it least half-rhymed with “boil cream”. Although, in his situation, his move to alter his name stemmed from some sort of identity crisis whereby he thinks he is Brazilian. His new name is of Brazilian origin, and he now announces that his mother is Portuguese and his father is a Moroccan named Emilio. Even I was forced into the (somewhat obscure) North African / Latin American / Iberian charade when I played soccer with them and was made to adopt the Brazilian stage name (or soccer field name), of Alex. (For readers who have seen my earlier work, this was the same game at which I had the pleasure of meeting Dave “motherfucking eyes” English. Had the man never seen a Brazilian with blue eyes before?)
However, if I were to ever legally change my name, it wouldn’t be for the simple fact that people mispronounce it, but because of it being constantly ridiculed – and for the fact that it’s actually a rather loaded name these days. You’ve certainly already gathered that Talib is two letters away from the world’s most threatening terrorist organization. Obviously, this is pure coincidence (I was clearly not named after the Taliban, nor was, I would assume, the Taliban named after me). But it nevertheless generates undue anxiety when I arrive at airport immigration and customs, just wondering what will be going through the officers’ heads as they check my passport. Will they send me to join the line that leads out of the airport and into the American land that I love so dearly? Or the line where I’ll be ushered into an interview room and interrogated for the rest of the day to the point where I’ll miss my connecting flight? Or the line which leads to the receipt of a free one-way ticket to Guantanamo? Thankfully, the last option has never reared its terrifyingly unjust face, but I am remarkably familiar with the first two. This Russian Roulette-esque random draw reminds me of those old-school game shows where the winner may choose between doors A, B, and C, and behind only one of these doors lies the jackpot prize. Except in the airport version, you don’t pick your own fate – they pick for you. And in the game show version, if door C doesn’t hold the jackpot, I’m pretty certain it doesn’t hold a plane to Guantanamo as the consolation prize. If it does, then that Bob Barker is one sadistic son-of-a-bitch (though he does have a wonderfully monosyllabic first name).
My most frightening brush with immigration was not even at airport, but at the land border between Canada and the US. Halfway through my bus ride from Toronto to State College, Pennsylvania on the Greyhound (and may I suggest that no one who values their life at anything more than twenty-five cents and a free bag of Cheetos should board a Greyhound), we had to, understandably, take our baggage from the bus and stand in line with it for customs. As I am summoned (so cordially) to the immigration officer’s booth, I approach and hand over my passport with the usual “yes, my name is two letters from America’s number one most wanted group” dread. This time, though, I had cause to be uneasy. After numerous questions are catapulted at me (so cordially) about why I changed my degree halfway through college (actually, why I specified, as I was supposed to, my degree on my documentation), Mr. Cordial comes out with: “Are you a real student?” Taken aback, I asked him to repeat the accusation. “Are you a real student?”
“Oh, no, I’m not a real student, I’m just a figment of your wild imagination. I’m actually a hologram of a student produced by Disney. You know, like how Celine Dion performed on American Idol with a hologram of Elvis? Yeah, they thought it might be fun to try it again, but this time with a nobody college student at a border inspection site in the middle of Bumblefuck, New York. Or maybe you’re just trippin’ hard on those ‘shrooms, bro.”
Clearly, I did not dare say that, lest I would be branded with a first-class Fed-Ex stamp on my ass and shipped to Cuba. But he then clarified his question for me: “Do you take your own tests?”
What the FUCK kind of questions are these? Bob Barker’s contestants would be nonplussed with these enigmatic conundrums. “No, actually another brown kid takes my tests for me. We all look the same to the instructors. In fact, there’s a network of us brown students taking each other’s tests just to mess with you guys. It’s kind of like revenge for that joke you play on us where you constantly mispronounce our names. Hilarious, right?! Plus, I need someone to take my exams when I have to be out here in the wilderness doing my hologram work.”
Obviously, I gave the boring answer, “Yes, I am a real student and I take my own tests.” The hammering of questions continued: “Are you sure?” “Oh, no, you’re right, I momentarily forget, I don’t take my own tests. My dog used to take them for me, until some French bitch sautéed him with garlic and ate him.” At this point, I’m convinced that I’m not boarding that bus for Pennsylvania again; I would have to wait for the one headed to Guantanamo. To my astonishment, he stamped my passport and wished me (so cordially – for real, this time) a pleasant rest of the day.
I suppose he was satisfied having gotten his rocks off from interrogating a harmless college student returning after Thanksgiving break. I realize that national security and illegal immigration are not laughable matters – and I later learned that these interrogative examinations occur as a result of myriad individuals who acquire a student visa and then disappear into the midst of the country, never to be found again. Nevertheless, it is patronizing to bear these accusations brought on – let’s face it – because of my name. Is Bob ever accused of not being a real student? Hell, no. Bob is not nearly photogenic enough to be the subject of rural holograms.
Immigration officials are the least of my worry, though, compared to the abuse that transpired from friends and classmates following the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the comments were all meant in jest and in good spirit, but when every cretin who mentions the similarity of Talib to Taliban believes that he or she is the original composer of the “joke” and runs to broadcast it to the entire class, it became, to say the least, a little tiresome. Although I must commend those who spun a little variation on the trite quip. One adaptation was: “Imagine if you lived in Mississippi or Alabama where their names are Mary-Ann and Sally-Ann. Your name would be Talib-Ann!” One point of extra credit for effort.
My name was even teased by a bouncer at a bar in London who, while checking my ID, mentioned that there were two letters missing. At first, I did not catch on; I had had issues with using my driving license as ID in the past, so I assumed that it was another one of these technical problems. It was only after some contemplation inside the bar that I became cognizant of the derision. But how could he have been mocking my name? He was brown! Why would a brown man be so callous as to poke fun at his own kind; surely he must have himself suffered slurs and insults? His name was probably Faqrudin or some other self-destructive Eastern term (bear in mind, of course, that the “aq” sound in Arabic resembles the “uck” sound in English). He certainly was not a Bob. Or perhaps he was a fake Tyler just as I had been. Whatever the case, by the time of my epiphany, I was slightly buzzed after a few beers and I contrived to settle this dispute with the Traitor of the Browns. I stormed outside and launched a melodramatic verbal attack on him, my friends holding me back in a pseudo-Hollywood fight build-up scene, and another doorman, who happened to be black, eventually approached me in an attempt to placate me. Just throw in a white guy and a Chinese dude and I was ready to start a full-fledged multi-representative race riot then and there.
All because of a name. And I haven’t even mentioned my last name yet. Evidently, Visram is less offensive than Talib, and so does not attract nearly as much negative attention. In this case, it is solely the mispronunciation that aggravates me. While Talib is of Arabic origin, Visram is a Muslim Indian name, and evolved from the Hindu equivalent, Vishram; somewhere along the line, the “h” was dropped. However, some Hindus still prefer Vishram. This produces some confusion, and as a result some people, mainly high school teachers, called me Vishram. It was most irritating when voiced by my biology teacher, who seemed to emphasize the “sh” sound so enthusiastically, as though he were hinting that I was spelling and saying it wrong, and thus needed to be corrected.
I think in this case, though, I was more irritated because I hated my biology teacher with every bone in my little brown body; I can still feel the rancor traveling through my veins this very moment. The man was pure evil. I truly believe that he was the product of a mass orgy between Lex Luther, the Zodiac Killer, Satan and Mel Gibson – with Gibson clearly transmitting the dominant gene. (Imagine if the sex tape of this leaked online?) Just to highlight how malign this brute was, below is a compilation, in descending order, of the top three instances of him inflicting physical abuse upon students. Drum roll, please:
3. After constantly verbally tormenting a student on account of his recently broken ankle and reliance on crutches, Dr. Evil coerced him into standing on top of one of the laboratory tables, and then instructed him to “jump”.
2. He once persuaded another student to stand on a table (he seemed to have a knack for that); he then climbed up himself and tied the pitiable boy’s tie to one of the arms of a ceiling fan. Then he switched on the fan.
1. Top of the list because it involved me. I was ordered to do push-ups on the classroom floor (“Vishram! Push-ups!”) as a punishment for mistakenly suggesting that carbon dioxide, rather than oxygen, is the gas produced by photosynthesis. How foolish of me.
Other delights experienced while in the spawn of Gibson’s classroom included him revealing to the class that he would be extremely inclined to have sex with his brother’s wife, and referring to HIV as “bum-boys’ disease from Nairobi high street”.
So, even my last name has been corrupted, from Vishram to even Visraman and Visramaman, which, I presume, my name would be if I were a superhero; I suppose I would wear a cape and a colorful (brown) suit with a giant “V” on the front – not to be confused, of course, with the attire of Viagraman or Vaginaman. (Viagraman’s superpower is pretty self-explanatory, though I am not so confident as to Vaginaman’s purpose. He probably just tries to spur along Viagraman on behalf of vaginas everywhere. Of course, the arch nemesis of both these heroes is Virginman.)
But I’m not prepared to change my name (and adopt Brazilian nationality); it’s too much hassle, and besides, I wouldn’t be used to my new name and I would forget that people are addressing me. Most importantly, and surprisingly, I actually kind of like my name. There’s no way Bob could have had the material to write a piece such as this or had the ability to look back and realize, in hindsight, that these name variations are rather comical. Though, in keeping this God forsaken name, I will have to continue to deal with the mispronunciations, the (cordial) airport procedures, and even my iPhone auto-correcting Talib to Taliban (this is completely true – even my phone mocks me). Perhaps I should count myself lucky that my parents didn’t go with their original choice of name for me, Aurangzeb – which, I’m sure, people would spell Orengzeb, which in turn would encourage them to call me “Oreo”. Which, I suppose, would not have been an inaccurate analogy. I am an Oreo, with brown cookie on the outside and white filling inside: the manifestation of my Eastern origin on the exterior, and my deeply Westernized nature and attitudes within. This is where I finally score a point against Bob – he’s merely a plain slice of white bread.
Well, it won’t be too bad. The next time someone mispronounces my name, I can readily shed my quotidian clothing and reveal my alter ego, Visramaman, and wreak vengeance upon the offender. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if, instead of uncovering my masculine superhero suit with the iconic “V”, the suit will turn out to be pink and flowery, with a fluffy and glittery “T” in the center – “T” for Tulip.