Arabic Names, Dual Nationality and Crossing Arab Borders

Jun 21

Arabs do not have surnames.  Instead, their names consist simply of their given name, followed by the given name of their father and then the given name of their grandfather.  They may also have a family name which indicates an affiliation, either to a common ancestor, e.g., al-Husayni, a common group, e.g., al-Qadiri, or institution, e.g., al-Azhari, or a common place, e.g., al-Subki. To further complicate matters, at some point in time, people began to name their sons double names, the first being a name of the Prophet Muhammad, i.e., Muhammad, Mahmud or Ahmad, followed by a second name.  The person would only be known by the second of the two names, but legally he was known by both. Egypt prohibited this practice of “double-naming” in the 80s for administrative reasons.

This system, although confusing from the perspective of westerners who are accustomed to each person having a given name, a second “middle name” and a surname which is unchanging over generations (at least for males, usually, although the same now is also true for a growing number of females), works reasonably well in the Arab world where it would be relatively unusual for two people to share all three names, i.e., given name, father’s name and grandfather’s name.  When Arabs such as myself take a foreign passport, e.g., the US, however, naming conventions collide, and confusion sets in whenever I enter an Arab country.  When a passport officer in an Arab country reads my US passport, he reads “Mohammad Hossam Fadel.”  This is my legal name in the US, but it confuses him or her because the officer cannot determine my Arabic name, i.e., father’s and grandfather’s name.  Hence, the ubiquitous question always directed to me when crossing an Arab border with a US passport: what is your father’s name? And even the last time I went to Egypt, “What is your grandfather’s name?”  Increased stress at entry points is the downside of multiculturalism and dual nationalities.

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