Thursday, July 30, 2009

That which we call a rose...

There’s a few things about living in Turkey that I don’t like; the habit of ‘turkifying’ names being one of them. So Catherine is sometimes changed to Kadriye, a completely different name. I don’t understand why anyone would want to change a perfectly good name to another one, isn’t changing countries/cultures/languages enough?

Plus there was more than enough name-changing when I was growing up. In school for Irish class all our names were translated into Irish. I became Caitriona, a very nice name; it just wasn’t mine. Calling into my Dad’s office was nerve-wracking.

Dad’s office was right outside the wall of the university in the centre of Dublin, but I’d never had any reason to visit. I have a vague recollection of going to a Christmas party there many years before but it’s very hazy. On this particular day I had some good news to share. I knew my Mam wouldn’t be home so I couldn’t ring her and this was before mobile phones were so widespread. So I thought I’d pop in to Dad and share it with him.

I walked in through the revolving door and was confronted by two security guards behind a desk. One looked at me expectantly as I muttered something about my Dad working there.“Alright, what’s his name?”

A perfectly reasonable question in the circumstances.

I gave the name my mother called him, the one most of his close friends use.The security guard looked at the computer screen in front of him “Sorry, nobody of that name works here.”

I probably stared at the man for about thirty seconds. Then I remembered that Dad’s brother and sisters translate his first name to Irish. It’s a hangover from a time when an English name on a birth cert was an advantage if someone emigrated, but a family would use the Irish version in daily life. I tried that.

Another glance at the computer screen. “Sorry. No one of that name here.” By now the second security guard was taking a keen interest.

Stumped again, I had visions of being frogmarched out of the building for wasting time. It would be embarrassing to be tossed out by the Revenue Commissioners before I’d even had a chance to defraud them. The penny dropped. Dad joined the Irish civil service at a time when all names were translated completely into Irish. Our surname jumped from the very end to the beginning of the alphabet. I tried both first and surname in Irish.
“Ah we have one of them, he’s on the second floor.”

I climbed the stairs a little shakily. I may have just gotten a scholarship but I didn’t even know my own father’s name!


  1. That's poignant, Catherine, and a good example of how political and nationalistic issues become personal. When my father-in-law Suleyman went to London to work, they insisted on calling him "Sully", which he thought was amusing. Like many immigrant American families, our name was changed at Ellis Island. Names come to us in so many ways -- from the people before us, the land around us, the language on our tongues. However, the fact of the matter is that what you're called is not inconsequential to who you think you are -- and being designated a new name by a group for their own convenience is often a power play.

  2. Very true Anastasia. Our view of ourselves is often shaped by how others see us, letting them create our identity for us can be a step too far.
    I moved to Turkey to get married and was happy to take my husband's surname; I wasn't ready to lose my forename though!

  3. hehe I remember you telling us that story! I get called by so many different names than my actual name it can get confusing. If you see me in the street you'll probably get an answer my surname instead of my first name ;) The funniest is that in general when anyone gets my name wrong they call me Sarah... the name my Mum wanted to call me but my Dad won the battle and I was called me Claire

  4. Thanks Sarah, oops I mean Claire! For someone our age (and Irish) calling them Sarah is probably a reasonably safe bet if you can't remember their name.