A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Peace be upon him, however his name be spelled

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 13, 2006

Last week, my friend M forwarded an email containing a childhood photo of a man she dated for several years in Damascus, a man who I knew as well and who, editorially speaking, I still think she should agree to marry. there are cultural differences and there are religious differences but … in my totally unsolicited opinion, they would be a lovely, loving couple and would raise lovely, loving children.

anyway. the photo reminded me of a very funny, very treasured memory. it was mid-afternoon in Damascus, January 2005, a lovely lazy Friday. I was visiting M from the states, and in an uncharacteristic fit of Damascene hipness, we had sahra’ed the Thursday night away … all the way into Friday morning. we were so proud of ourselves.

a habitual early riser, I had neglected to inform my parents of M’s and my decision to visit the realm of Syrian hipsters. they called for their weekly chat at … 6:30 am, the phone ringing a shrill duet in our bedrooms.

having begun our day so soon after the previous night had ended, M and I decided to go for another Syrian tradition: the mid-afternoon nap. this worked well, briefly, until the phone rang again.

deeply incoherent but determined to answer the phone before it woke M, suspecting that a member of the Diamond family (we come in little, medium, big and – at the moment – pregnant) was again the culprit, 90% asleep me managed to answer the phone.

“hello, Little Diamond!” the man on the other end said happily. “its good to hear your voice! how are you?”

oh, I thought. why doesn’t anyone here ever give their names when they call on the phone?

“hello,” I said cautiously. “thank you. who is this?”

“why, its Mohammad!” he said.

“errr,” I replied, eloquently. “I’m so sorry, but I know quite a lot of Muhammads.”

“oh, of course,” he said, politely. “this is Mohammed, Mazen’s friend.”

“right, of course – how are you?” I replied, enthusiastically, thinking: this doesn’t help. I know quite a lot of Mazens as well.


Mohammad, Muhammad, Mohammed, Mohamed, Mahammed.

There seem to be almost as many ways to spell the name as there are men to fill it – and because all of these represent transliterations, many of the Muhammads I know blithely use different spellings at different moments. This presents no problems for the name’s bearers, but it wreaks havoc with Roman script bureaucracies (consider an airline ticket and a passport, each bearing different iterations of the same name, or a college application and a SAT report).

It also wreaks havoc upon the minds of those unaccustomed to such orthographic fluidity. My first experience as a teaching assistant came in a massive “the United States and the Islamic world” lecture course developed after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We were five: four students of Middle Eastern and/or Islamic history, and one American historian. After the midterm papers, the Americanist came to us and asked: do you think this is a case of plagiarism? My student spells Muhammad three different ways in his paper. Perhaps he cut and pasted without spellchecking.

Plagiarism is a problem, at our university as well as others. But no, we told her, we do not think this is a plagiarism case – merely a case of a differing philosophy on the value of consistent Arabic transliteration. However it is spelled, Muhammad in Roman script is merely a place holder, a gesture towards the Arabic name.


On the other hand, good transliterations follow logical rules – they attempt to preserve the original language to the greatest extent possible. This spring I agreed to help my friend K edit his resume.

K is a highly trained dentist, educated in a specialty I do not quite comprehend.

K goes by his middle name, but his first name is … Mouhamed.

Mouhamed? I asked. K, is this the way your name is written on your huwiyyeh, and your passport?

No, he said, I just thought it looked nice.

K is planning to work in the Gulf, where Roman script consistency will be less of an issue. Knowing this, I thought it might be time for a language lesson.

K, I said, I need to teach you some Arabic.

hahahahahahahahahaha, he said, as did several other coffee shop patrons (a consequence of the fact that the sight of an Arab and an American speaking a trio of languages says “please, eavesdrop” to all and sundry).

I pushed up my glasses and attempted to look severe.

K, I am quite serious. English may never replace Arabic, but it must respect the original spelling. M-7h-m-m-d. insert vowels as you like, but please add another “m” to indicate the shadda over the second mim.

This week, K is deciding between a position at a clinic in Ta’if or another, somewhere in the UAE. I have no idea whether his resume reflects my “academic” spelling or his intuitive one, but like his namesake, I wish God’s peace upon him and upon his new bride as they step into their future.


3 Responses to “Peace be upon him, however his name be spelled”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Oh! Little Diamond! I loved this post! I can see you back in Damascus, insh’allah soon, dear one!

  2. Med said

    Hello Little Diamond!
    Thanks for the unsolicited love advice 🙂

    I especially enjoyed the reminder of that lazy afternoon nap. It took me back to my home in Damascus. Wallahi, I miss that place!

    I remember when I met Mohammad, he spelled his name Mouhammad. Then when we showed me his passport, I noticed his name was spelled differently. I was amazed at how little it bothered him to change the spelling of his name whereas I was somewhat attached to the friendly little “u”.

    I chose the spelling Fares (as opposed to the more phonetic Ferris) for my Syrian cat. When I first returned to North America, the first time I noticed the “Fares” sign over the ticket booth on the subway, I had to read it twice to realise they meant fares (sounds like fairs). 🙂

    As a teacher, I remember students surprisingly changing the spelling of their names in their senior year. Some had been students at the school for 14 years, consistently spelling their name in one way that differed from some official paper. The college board in the US would be quite frustrated when they pointed out for instance that Chahm was the same Shahm who wrote the SAT just one year earlier.

    The Syrian students also wondered what “race” to check off on the SAT form. Whether or not to identify themselves as “Asian” was always the debate. I remember a returning student home for Christmas vacation told me that one of the things she learned in her first semester at an American university was that she wasn’t “Asian”. She is Sri Lankan and was spending quite a bit of time with her Korean and Chinese friends. One night one of them told her that she was an “honourary Asian”. She replied “But I am Asian, Sri Lanka is in Asia.” They laughed and informed that she was not Asian, she was “brown”. She was baffled.

    As a final note, the transliteration thing works both ways. I changed the way I spelled my name with Arabic script (too many long vowels were driving me nuts) without it bothering me in the least, so perhaps this is how it was for Mohammad.

    I so so so enjoy your blog!

  3. oh, I am so glad you mentioned your students and their spelling changes. I really wanted to add it to this posting, but since it wasn’t “my” story or my experience I felt it inappropriate.

    I have never seen Muhammad spelled with an “ou” outside Syria. In my totally ungrounded linguistic imaginings, I speculate that it comes from the “moo” negation. of course, this would be a stronger argument were I able to point to a Lebanese and Egyptian tendency to name their sons Mishammed :-).

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