Drawing power from nothing: reclaiming my identity
The roommate selection process involved months of calculated messages, trying to finesse conversation, hoping the girl I met on Facebook would think I was super cool and ask to room with me. After painful awkwardness and anxiety, as well as the culture shock of a small town southern girl trying to keep up with the big-city New Yorker, we sealed the deal.
During our mini interview process, I remember explaining to her that I was Muslim and would probably need part of the room to pray, clarifying that if she had issues with that I totally understood and she could room with someone else. For some reason, it felt natural for me to be on the defense about my religion, but coming from New York and being a generally good person, she was entirely unfazed. That was one hurdle that I passed with ease.
The next hurdle was more difficult for some reason. I finally asked her for her number, which seemed out of order because we were already established as roommates, but I took the opportunity of a new conversation platform to slip this in.
“Also, this is way overdue but it's pronounced Nedduh.”
“Lol oh nooo I've been thinking Nahdah this whole time.”
And who could blame her. I was kicking myself for letting this girl who I was going to be sleeping five feet away from not know my name after months of talking.
I was brought back to elementary school, introducing myself by my American pronunciation, Nah-dah; to my own sister not pronouncing my Arabic name until middle school; to taking Spanish for the first time and getting chuckles from the whole class at my teacher’s confusion during roll.
Nada means “nothing” in three different languages. Even knowing this, it was easy to just go with everyone’s assumptions and introduce myself this way. Poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” But I was worse than nobody. I was nothing.
The longer I introduced myself as nothing, the more nothingness became the foundation of my identity. There was a part of me that I associated with inadequacy and not being enough. Introductions became a source of anxiety, so I stopped making an effort to meet people. I started hating my parents for naming me Nada and my country for making that a possibility.
Then, the summer before high school brought me a beautiful new opportunity. New classmates. In what could have potentially been an awkward arranged playdate between another incoming freshman and me, I was delighted when my sister introduced me before I could sabotage myself. My new friend had no problem saying my name correctly, and she told me point-blank that I couldn’t let people continue to mispronounce my name. That would be misrepresenting who I was. She had a point; a country where children were taught to say Einstein, Guggenheim and Aristotle could surely manage two simple syllables.
Together, she and I created a sort of script that stuck with me from then on.
“Hi, my name is Nada. It’s like Ned, from the hit 2000s teen television show Ned’s Declassified, and then you add an –uh.”
“Okay so like *insert horribly mispronounced name here*?”
Cue the pause and slight squint. This is where I gave them a chance to try again, usually to no avail.
“Yeah, that’s close enough.”
This was a source of frustration for those close to me, when I would give up just to save someone else the effort of trying harder. I soon found out that the later realization of their mistake was even more embarrassing, especially when they heard someone else saying it correctly, usually prompting a “Why didn’t you tell me!”
While my initial insistence on people saying my name correctly stemmed from a desire to save others of future uneasiness, I realized recently that I should have wanted that for myself, not for anyone else.
My name ties me to my Egyptian heritage, culture and a language where Nada means the dew drops coating the earth in the morning. After 18 years, I finally learned not to compromise my identity or who I am for the comfort of others.