One of my first assignments in primary school was to go home and ask my parents to help me define my name. We would come together the next day and share their definitions with the class. At the time, I was able to read but couldn’t write, so I went to my mom who spelled out each letter of my definition. Doing so, I had no idea what I was actually scribbling down until I finished an entire word, letter-by-letter. My entry in my writing journal went something like this: “My name is Maha and Maha means moon, which is why I am as beautiful as the full moon.”
I believe standing there, as a five-year-old with my face scrunched, was the first time I have ever cringed.
Maha has two meanings. In Persian it means the full moon, and in Arabic it’s what you call someone who has deer-like, round, beautiful eyes. I hated it. I remember talking to my mom, saying that out of all the things she could have named me, she named me after things that have to do with beauty, something irrelevant that goes away anyways. The moon is especially useless, I would tell my family, since it can’t even give its own light. It is literally what the sun uses to reflect its own presence.
Maha is my middle name, which is what my family and friends from Toronto call me. When I moved to America about five years ago, my public name was Syeda, which is my first name, but it doesn’t have a personal meaning. It’s more of a family tradition where all the girls are named Syeda and all the boys Syed. I disliked the idea of having strangers call me by the name I reserved for my closest friends and family, but at the time, that was the only purpose Maha served me. I didn’t care for what it actually meant; it was just a separation between the people I loved and the people I did not.
Despite the way I felt towards my name, I’ve had an appreciation for the night sky for as long as I could remember. I have never met someone who hasn’t looked at a sky full of stars, a gleaming moon, and think it anything but beautiful. At my house in Toronto, I would open my window and throw a blanket on the roof at 2 in the morning, lock my door by putting my chair under the door handle so my dad wouldn’t walk in and just sit for hours watching the sky. After looking at the moon for a while, it began to look a little insane to me. Underneath, there are cars zooming by, yellow factory lights, distant conversations that echo through the wind during midnight, and above was this unworldly, pure white orb that just hung from the sky, unfazed by whatever was happening underneath. It seemed like it didn’t belong, like it was lit by magic in such a mundane world.
The more I took the time out of my night to sit silently and watch the moon, the more I saw it as a figure of constants. It was something that always brought me peace out of a busy day. It was something ethereal, far away from this world that has been in existence since people have, and has never disappeared when we expected to see it present. The more I stared at it, the more I fell in love with the way it seemed so out of place from Earth, shining its deep craters and cracks. I came to the conclusion that I would like Earth a lot less if I lost my ability to have a connection with the moon.
In contrast, if I had been named after the sun, I think I would have liked it a lot less. With the moon, you aren’t blinded. It doesn’t put you in pain, it’s not a source of agitation from heat or brightness. It comes out every night a little different than the one before. It just quietly hangs from the sky and shines.
I would never have expected five-year-old me to undergo this type of reflection. Reflecting on it, I suppose I’m glad I cringed so hard at my name before. Had I been okay with it, I would have deprived myself of the process of coming to appreciate what it means to me. The moon has turned into something I want to be. It sounds a little ridiculous, considering it’s an inanimate object millions of miles away, but the way it has a quiet, calming presence, the way it’s a source of peace and reflection is something I want to embody. Every day, we’re so busy running around from one place to another, knocking off homework assignments and studying till past midnight, that when I look at the moon it puts my whole life into perspective. I feel so small, but in the best way. I think about the larger meaning of life, the reason why I’m at school, where I want to go in the future, what I want to accomplish in the next 70 years. Time seems to freeze when I look up at it. And it’s all the more incredible because in 70 years, I’ll look up at the night sky and see the exact same moon I’m seeing right now.
Now I just have to think more about what having “deer-like” eyes mean. Maybe this is another moment where, once I understand the value of deer-like eyes, I might actually be glad that I currently see it as a completely, utterly unavailing characteristic.
MiC Columnist Syeda Rizvi can be reached at email@example.com.