I watched as my new teacher at my new high school struggled to pronounce my name.
My cheeks burnt to the colour of crushed pomegranate seeds. I was only happy that I was seated in the front row because no one could witness my evident embarrassment except my new teacher who was too busy choking on my name. In that split second, I wondered how it would have felt to have been in high school in my parent’s city of Kabul where my name would have been easily pronounced. But of course, that raised the other questions of how life would have turned out for my grandparents, my parents, myself, my siblings and my entire extended family, if war and invasion had not choked Afghanistan?
Muffled laughter from the back of the classroom returned me to my current purgatory and I locked eyes with the tiny figure of Jesus crucified on a cross that hung above the white board and behind my new teacher who was still choking. I looked away from the crucifix and into my teachers gaze and silently willed her to just say my name aloud.
Just say it. Ha-kim-a. Ha-keem-ah.
I finally decided to end this tortuous ordeal for my new teacher and I as she had now turned a pretty pastel shade of pink.
A strange pause as my new teacher did not know how to address me.
“Miss, my nickname is Kim”
The entire classroom sighed in relief as the morning heat had caused our dresses to stick to the back of our legs and our plastic seats with sweat. I watched as my new teacher scratched at a word on her clipboard, most likely transforming Hakima into Kim, and called out confidently “Siobhan”. I was bewildered because I had caught a glimpse of the name placard on the desk of the girl seated next to me and I had no idea how our new teacher would pronounce her name after choking on mine. Siobhan. How is that easier to pronounce than Hakima?
The scraping sound of chairs being pushed back signalled the end of the morning class roll.
Evidently, I was the only girl who had not stood up and pushed back her chair and I began to suspect that my new teacher found me problematic.
“Stop your daydreaming or you will be late for your first class.”
I had grimaced at the way my new teacher spoke to me slowly. It was the same way which my parents were spoken to when they were running errands even though they understood the English language. I copied my parent’s way of responding which was with a placid smile and pushed back my chair. I realised then that I was the only Muslim student in my grade and school. For the rest of the first week, my new classmates still remembered the “morning class roll incident”. I was questioned at recess and lunch on whether my real name is an “Islam name” and “does that mean you’re from those places where Osama and the terrorists hide”. But each school morning came with the raising of my hand to confirm that “Kim” was present and the memory of the “morning class roll incident” was stamped out so I became a legitimised presence among my new friends. No one questioned me again on my background or my ties with so-called terrorists because my name was Kim and well, the girls decided that Lateef sounds fancy like its French or cool like Queen Latifah.
I began to explore my cultural heritage in my mid-twenties through re-connecting with distant relatives or new friends who identified with the multi-ethnic Afghan diaspora. I was naïve to think that I would experience a sense of homecoming and that my yearning to “properly belong” would be completely fulfilled by mingling with people who looked similar to me or shared similar life experiences of being born and raised in the West. Instead, I was constantly made to feel that I was not Afghan enough due to my lifestyle choices and, in particular, for introducing myself as “Kim”. I found it absurd that the level of my so-called Afghan-ness would be measured by outward factors such as the habit of using a nickname rather than my internal love for our shared Afghan heritage. Now I was being questioned on why I was “making life easier for white people” and whether I was “ashamed” of my background. Although my most favourite was one asked in a sympathetic tone, “Are you having an identity crisis…”. These new questions made me muse on how names are charged with identity politics, memories and even conflict. When Shakespeare wrote, “What is in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” he may have been aware of the strange hold which names have on our identity because his two most famously ill-fated characters could not escape the fate of their family names. Yet the notion that a person’s name, or how they choose to be called, determines the strength of their relationship to their so-called cultural identity still fascinates me.
At my first school parent-teacher meeting, my father had been puzzled as to why my teacher referred to me as Kim but he played along to my relief. It was only afterward in the car ride home that he asked me why my teachers were calling me Kim. I had shrugged. I could not be bothered telling him of how my older cousins played the game of “nicking” our full names into nicknames. At eleven, I did not have the succinct-ness to articulate to my father that our nicknames were our way of navigating life post 9-11 when suddenly we felt our right to an Australian identity was constantly questioned and we were being told to go back to a country we were not born or raised in. I guess my father thought it was one of the peculiarities of raising a teenage daughter in the West. As we drove home, he explained to me that in our cultural tradition, it is believed that an individual will grow into the meaning of their name.
“Your name is sacred because it comes from Al-Hakim which means Wisdom. You can be Kim but always remember that you are also Hakima. It’s up to you to figure out what Kim means.”
My father had winked at me as I pondered on his often-cryptic advice. I guess you could say, I have become attached to both Hakima and Kim because I had to learn to navigate two worlds with two names. Now I am learning to gently linger in a third space, between both worlds and both names, where I can just reflect on the beauty of being.
Kim Lateef is a Perth-born emerging writer whose work has appeared in Southerly Journal and Voiceworks Magazine as well as the upcoming Centre for Stories’ second anthology, To Hold the Clouds. In 2020, Kim was selected to take part in the Centre for Stories’ Inclusion Matters fellowship program and in 2019 participated in their Saga Sisterhood project. She is passionate about uncovering the hidden stories of marginalised individuals and groups within mainstream historical narratives.