The Boy Who Kept His Name -- creative nonfiction by Noah Niknejad Gilligan
A young boy, 9 or so years old, followed close behind as his father walked through the lobby of San Diego City Hall with a folder of paperwork securely under his arm. An American flag pin -– a souvenir of his new U.S. citizenship –- was attached to the boy’s souvenir of his former Iranian citizenship: a red, white and green t-shirt, which read in Farsi letters, “National Football Team of Iran.”
His father led his family –- two daughters, a son and his wife –- to a small table. He set the paperwork onto the table and took a pen from his jacket pocket.
“Alright, little ones,” he said in Farsi. “Are you ready to finish this paperwork?”
He flipped through the pages until he found the page on which new citizens must declare their names.
The father, Mohammad, turned to his wife Afsar with a smile and asked her a question in English: “What might your name be, dear?”
His heavy Iranian accent bent the words into clumps, and twisted the double Us into Vs. Afsar laughed loudly at her husband’s sarcasm even though she hated drawing the attention of others in public. Perhaps she was laughing at her husband’s joke, but those who know her well would tell you that she was probably laughing at her husband’s heavy accent.
Afsar answered “Abby,” after she finished laughing at her husband's joke… or accent.
The two daughters –- Golbarg and Golnoosh –- chose to replace their names with Kelly and Kathy: the names that their favorite rock star chose for his daughters.
Their father then joined in with an imitation of a Californian accent.
He declared, “And my name,” adding a pause for dramatic effect, “is Nick!”
As a final touch on their assimilative transformation, they truncated their last name, changing Niknejad Moghadam to just Nikenjad. Just as they approached the woman who would receive their paperwork, the mother remembered that they had forgotten to change their son’s name.
“Ali, what about your name? You must change it. A boy named Ali won’t be accepted in America.” The lady at the desk yawned in her chair.
My uncle (just 9 years old at the time) replied to his mother: “No thanks, Mommy.”
One similarity between my Uncle and I is we both like knowing stuff –- stuff one might call trivial, like the capital of Kazakhstan, or the distribution of GDP between different economic sectors in the Netherlands. That’s why when my 6th grade Social Studies teacher Ms. Bossers announced that the first person to learn the name and location of every country in the Middle East and Asia would get a special sticker, I signed up. I studied with intent and devotion, because, well, I liked knowing stuff. And at that stage of my life, I suppose I liked stickers.
On the day of my official attempt, I struggled to remember the name of the small country East of India, but Ms. Bossers helped me with a hint: “What sound does a gun make when it’s fired?” she asked. I remembered immediately that I had forgotten about Bangladesh.
The Middle Eastern region was much less difficult –- I found each country with familiarity and pronounced their names with precision; Ms. Bossers even complimented the way I pronounced the “h” in “Bahrain,” which, by the way, is how it’s pronounced.
Ms. Bossers commended me on my accomplishment and gave me my sticker, which I wore with pride. She also said that she read my paragraph about the European Union and thought I did a great job. She did have one question about something she had noticed.
“You always put your middle name – Nikniejar, or what is it?” “Niknejad.”
“Yes, Nikniejab. You always put it on your assignments, and I wondered why.”
“Well, it’s part of my mom’s last name. I’ve always considered it part of my name.” “Really? That’s cool, Noah. Where is it from, anyway?”
“Iran,” I replied.
“You’re from Iran? I had no idea! Awesome!”
I didn’t think about my conversation with Ms. Bossers for a long time: not until my English teacher posted an assignment online. He told his students to write a short paragraph explaining a part of their identity that they hide. I wrote the following:
“I hide my Iranian heritage because I am afraid of my classmates’ judgment. I am made uncomfortable when my classmates judge the way my language sounds. They find foreign words and phones to be funny. I am horrified when they can’t understand that a Middle Easterner can be a peaceful person. They think every Iranian is a brutal tyrant like Khomeini or a violent extremist operating as a part of Hezbollah. They don’t understand my culture. They think my food looks gross and our music is weird. Many don’t understand this side of my identity and likely never will, so from most people, I hide it. Why should I subject myself to the judgment?”
34 English assignments later, we spoke about identity once again. This time, we wrote a “Racial Story:” any story in which race was at play. My friend told me about his story the day after he turned it in. He sat down at the kitchen table of my friend's house and explained. “I just wrote about how other Latinos don’t believe me when I tell them I’m Latino.” He switched to Spanish to tell me, “todos los otros latinos me llaman papelito,” or “all the other Latinos call me a boy made of paper” (which is an informal way to tease someone’s white appearance). He pointed to the paper on the counter and jokingly said to me, “¡Es mi!”
I considered his story for a bit, not quite sure how I should reply – personally or just apologetically or perhaps jokingly.
Later that year, I found myself in a situation where once again, I didn’t know how to respond. It was May of my sophomore year. The head of the history department sent an email out to me and several other students asking us to participate in a conversation with external observers that would assess what the History department is doing well, and what it needs to improve on. I said yes. Frankly, I just wanted to skip Wind Ensemble, but I said yes.
I found myself sitting in the sun with one woman from Harvard, another from iCivics, and one other who designs the curriculum for my school. Sitting beside me was my friend Darell. He talked about the METCO program in Weston: what was good about it, and what made him feel separated from the rest of the students. Across the table, a Jordanian student joined in on the conversation of inclusivity and discrimination. She said that she felt separate from the rest of the group, and she felt like her people were represented poorly. She elaborated, explaining that the freshmen always scream “allahu akbar” in front of her, making fun of her culture and reducing her people to terrorists.
It was right there that I almost joined in. I was going to talk about how I am Iranian and I know what she means. I was going to tell them how everytime people hear anything or see anything about Islam or the Middle East, their first reaction is to scream “allahu akbar” and mimic an explosion. I was going to tell them how my peers joke about what I’m carrying in my backpack because I’m Iranian. “Those books look a hell of a lot like a bomb, habibi,” they’d say. I was going to tell them how not only do they imitate Arabic prayers, which is offensive in the first place, but they also never realize that I speak Farsi, not Arabic.
I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell them. But I couldn’t.
Just as the words began to come out of my mouth, I froze. I knew they’d stare at my freckles and my green eyes and then my name tag, which read “Noah Gilligan.” I know they’d meet me with confused glances. I know that my fellow Middle Easterner would meet me with a confused glance.
You’re one of them? they’d think.
You’re one of us? she’d think.
I didn’t want to have to explain that I’m half-Iranian and a quarter Irish and quarter Jewish. I didn’t want to explain. Not again.
Noah Niknejad Gilligan currently spends his time writing, playing competitive tennis and playing classical piano. When he's not playing Bach on the piano, you can hear him playing Billy Joel, Elton John and the occasional jazz standard. Noah has started to write more short stories in recent years and hopes to continue to develop as a writer.