Incantations for Unsung Boys

Names are incantations, and mine is no exception.

I don’t bear the name my parents gave me anymore. Or, better: I bear my name reclaimed, refashioned. I wasn’t the first in my family to rename myself. My mother, too, changed the spelling of her name; my father arrived in the United States with a transliterated version of his, and he carried that version until he died.

Transliteration is, as I have come to know, an imperfect art. There are at least four ways to transliterate my given name from the Arabic, in which Zeyn has only three letters, a single syllable. Last winter, filling out the paperwork to change my name at a probate court in a small New England town, I thought about how naming and renaming are the oldest kinds of magic. I had chosen my name long before it was legally recognized that day, and it was not signing and stamping by town officials that gave my name its power. In the act of choosing my name, I had bestowed on myself an enchantment of my own making and no one else’s.

*

My birth name comes from the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar, meaning fair one. Family legend has it that my father named me after actress Jennifer Jones, a white woman deemed just dark enough to play the biracial Pearl Chavez in the 1946 film Duel in the Sun. Jones was not born to her name, either. It was given to her by the man who groomed her for stardom, David O. Selznick, the man she would go on to marry after her divorce. Phylis Walker (born Phylis Lee Isley, she had married fellow acting student Robert Walker two years before) was too ‘undistinguished’ a name, Selznick wrote in a 1941 memo. For her, too, the name she was given was a deliberate enchantment.

My father was born the darkest skinned and youngest of his siblings. Arab culture, like American culture, is laced with anti-Blackness, and as a child, my father was put down for his skin color. He grew up in French Mandate-era Syria, which he left to attend art school in Rome–he was a painter by training–before immigrating to New York, which was where he met my mother. He wrote poetry in Arabic, English, and Italian in his youth, typewritten pages that I would find stashed alongside the X-rays of his lungs more than two decades after he died.

My father knew what it meant to be an Arab and a Muslim in Europe and a brown person in America. He taught us that the best protections against calamity were hard work and a good reputation. He taught us about eib—the shame that comes from what is said about you. He gave us Arabic middle names, American first names. At home, my sister and I were forbidden to speak Arabic. He said we were American. I heard him: This place will not protect us.

The year we left New York City for Connecticut, our new teachers fought to put my little sister and me in remedial English classes. At five and seven years old, we spoke nothing but English and a few phrases of Spanish; our teachers’ insistence that we did not speak English confused us. I spent my first few weeks in the suburbs in the back of my all-white class, proving to my teacher that I knew how to write the alphabet. Over the next few years in that school, my sister and I came to learn that having American first names would never make us white.

I was already reading chapter books by the time I found myself in the back of that classroom, looping a’s and dotting i’s. I’d long since learned to spell my own last name, long since learned that my mother, like all the other mothers of the kids I knew, had lost her last name when she got married. The mothers told me one day I’d be happy to do the same, that when a woman loves her husband, sharing his name is an honor. Years later, I would learn that in Syria, in other parts of southwest Asia and North Africa and in much of Europe, women are not expected to take their husband’s surnames; in the Arab world, both parents are given honorific nicknames based on the name of their firstborn son (or daughter, in the absence of a son). Yes, patriarchy is a thousand-faced and close to ubiquitous poison; yet no one mentioned why, here in America, this sacrifice was expected of women. But by then I was beginning to understand the ways that love, respect, and safety—or lack thereof—hinged upon who had given me their name to carry.

*

As a child, my mother told me I shared my middle name, Zeynab, with Zenobia, the Roman-era Syrian queen of Palmyra. Zenobia ruled over a multicultural, multiethnic empire in which she cultivated a court of scholars and philosophers and protected religious minorities. She declared Palmyra’s secession from Rome in 272, and, according to legend, refused to give in to the Romans until being captured by Aurelian. Aurelian spared Zenobia from execution so that he could parade her through the streets of her own city in chains. Historians say the warrior queen either died en route to Rome or lived out her life shuttered up in a villa, married off to a Roman nobleman.

My grandmother Zeynab, for whom I’m named, was a powerful woman, an ancestor I call upon for protection and guidance. My grandfather passed away when she was still fairly young. She never learned to read or write, but she was a shrewd businesswoman who found ways to support her family, a matriarch who raised her children and made du’a for my sister and me five times each day until she died in her sleep in her nineties.

Our name, in Arabic, means adornment. It wasn’t until puberty came on, early and strong, that I learned what this meant. I wore oversized tee shirts and boys’ cargo pants, trying to thwart it. I pulled my dark curls back into a tight, frizzy ponytail. Kids at school who found out my middle name called me Xena, warrior princess. Sometimes they whispered that I was a lesbian, because this was the only word they had to punish kids assigned female at birth (AFAB) who did not obey. I read books about girls who ran away and disguised themselves as boys to become warriors; my favorite was Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series. I was hungry for stories about women who used their magic to bring the men who hurt them to justice. I sewed my own Halloween costume at fourteen, a sorceress’ robe. The woman at the fabric store measured my broad shoulders and scolded me for my unfeminine body.

The most powerful magic often remains invisible, except to those who know how to recognize it. The act of gendering is also an incantation, an act of naming. Years after the fabric store, on long-distance trains and night buses during my book tour, I would devour texts that would give me language for this. In her massive work on physics and gender Meeting the Universe Halfway, for example, Karen Barad describes what society does to a person without a penis as a process called “girling.” For AFAB people, a perceived lack of a penis is policed through societally-determined meanings, boundaries, and violences, creating and reinforcing the gender binary. At fourteen, though I could not yet name the violence of that binary, I had been aware of the realities of my “girling” for a long time. It had already been several years since my father had died and my mother had had us baptized, years since they had pointed to the portrait of white Jesus above the door and told us of the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and the dangers of paganism and the “female” body. It had already been years since I had been assaulted by a white boy I knew from school, years since the other kids had stopped whispering about unicorns and the way only virgins could see them. It had been years since I’d learned the word damaged. At fourteen, I looked into the mirror and saw a boy in my light brown face. I had no words for this, so I brushed my frizzy hair and swore myself to silence. Even Zenobia, I reminded myself, could not escape what lay between her legs.

*

It is harder in some languages than others to come by a gender neutral name. English is not exempt just because it lacks the taa marbouta or the “-a” that mark many traditionally feminine names in Semitic and Romance languages. In some countries, many of them in Europe, one must, by law, bestow on a newborn a name that indicates the child’s gender assigned at birth. One cannot bestow a name from the “boy” list on an infant with a vagina in such countries, nor a “girl” name on an infant with a penis. Even in the absence of such laws, societal pressure often punishes those who do not or cannot conform to the Western gender binary.

My birth name connoted both femininity and whiteness. I was reminded of this throughout my childhood and adolescence by my peers, who struggled to reconcile this name with my race and with my tendency to inhabit my body in a manner that was read as “masculine.” I tried on gender-neutral names as a teenager, but the names I found were mostly white, masculine names that I couldn’t picture myself belonging to; still, no variation of my birth name felt tolerable. Perhaps, I thought, everyone shared this same frustration. Meanwhile, the walls of girlhood closed around me. I imitated the mannerisms of cis women and learned how speaking in a higher register could pacify a man on the verge of anger. I studied femininity like a foreign language and felt I was in drag. I ate less. I hiked for miles. I hoped to get lost.

The world had unending expectations for this woman I was supposed to be. Each individual pressure—to change my name when I married, to have children, to scale back my career to support my husband’s, to be smaller and more accommodating—piled atop the others. Cis women I looked up to told me that if you published under your married name, changing your name back would cost you your career, but admitted that not changing it was risky to your marriage. None of us had any solutions for this, and the cis men around us rarely seemed to care. I convinced myself I would grow to love my married name. I did not. My name was a longing that grew in me, a wild, thorny vine.

Eventually, I settled into a suppressed discomfort with my first name. My middle name and surname, however, I had always held with a fierce love, even when I gave in to the pressure to change my name when I got married. I still do not refer to this as my “maiden” name; it is simply my name.

My married name rendered me invisible to myself in a way that I did not have words for until I reclaimed my last name. We often lack language for a thing unless we have something to contrast it with. How can we tell what a thing is unless we can tell what it is not? How can I tell you what it was like to not have a body until, after my top surgery, I knew what it meant to have one? During those years of erasure and disembodiment, I missed my lucid dreams, missed the feel of dancing unburdened, missed the way it felt to write my Arabic names on a blank page–but I could not imagine an alternative. I feared the unshakeable thought that I might one day disappear under someone else’s narrative of who I was. Not all of us are afforded the luxury of existing in our fullness; I knew this. But I wanted to feel like a person, rather than a canvas for the desires of others. I wanted to have agency, to make my own choices, to claim myself for myself. If I had been someone else, this might have been possible in the context of a reclaimed womanhood. But I am not someone else, and so it was impossible, and though I could not entirely envision what reclaiming myself would mean, I knew that I wanted my name.

During the years that my Arabic names were hidden beneath two middle initials, I had the strange sensation that this had been my father’s enchantment all along: a first name that signaled assimilation and a last name that, contingent on heteronormativity, would one day be replaced by a cis man’s. Since I was young, my father had lamented having had (American) daughters who would lose our family name when we married; but I think he believed, being steeped in post-colonial patriarchy and the lifelong exhaustions of racism and Islamophobia, that this was the easiest path for us. He wanted to spare us the violences that Europe and America had enacted on his skin; he wanted us to “pass.” In hindsight, then, my name was not my father’s enchantment—it was America’s. Which is to say: this is not a fable about having the wrong name, just as it is not a story about being in the wrong body. I am showing you the jaws that hold us all by showing you the bloody places where the teeth have cut me. Here: put your finger on the fang. Feel how sharp.

*

Since my divorce, I’ve remained nomadic, transient. I have always been good at following my feet. I used to love the story of Amundsen’s journey to the South Pole and the way the world shrinks and stills to the rhythm of one’s breath on a mountaintop. Mountains taught me that distance and direction are misleading above the treeline. With nothing to anchor the eye, our internal compasses glitch.

In those early days of freedom, I had no compass to follow, no map. I lived, for a short time, in Oakland, before spending two months at a writing residency elsewhere in the Bay; from there, I moved to a massriyah in Morocco through the Fes Medina Project. During the following summer and Ramadan came my six-week, cross-country book tour. I began to wonder if I was addicted to movement, to running unfamiliar streets in the cool of the afternoon, to slipping around corners and through airports just as I once slipped through half a dozen nicknames. But I don’t move to forget—I move to remember. Escape made it possible to name things I thought I’d forgotten: the fatiha, my father’s accent, my discarded hopes for my life. I peeled back the masks I’d worn so long that I’d begun to think unmasking myself was an impossibility, like flight.

In the Bay, I discarded two shades of foundation, liquid concealer, and a pair of brown heels. A fellow artist cut my hair, and the black clippings, too, we returned to the earth. With every no, I said yes to a life I could not see the outline of. Movement allowed me to realize that, afraid to grow beyond those around me, I had accepted a lifetime of enchantments in order to remain small enough to be loved.

So many of us are taught so young that being beautiful or powerful is not in our cards. Our sense of our own worth and our agency are taken from us before we ever have the chance to claim them. But there is power, even now, in naming a thing. To call something by its name is to bring it into the light. To name a wound is to take away its power to sting. It is in naming the curse that it is broken. 

*

Before I ever realized how severe my dysphoria was, long before I had a way of naming it, I had a word for the times when it lifted. I called it the Unnameable. I used to marvel at the way colors would become vivid then, the way my skin would feel less like an ill-fitting glove. I found it in twilit fields, on mountaintops, and, once, in a film of fog over the Pacific. In those moments, before I slipped back into dysphoria and dissociation, the very act of being alive was wondrous and sacred. Now, since my top surgery, this embodiment is my daily reality. But it would be a lie to say that I always had language for who I was and what I needed in order to be whole. I use he/him pronouns, and both nonbinary and boy resonate, but what I hold most dear is the name I have chosen, a masculine twist on the name of the ancestor who loved me in life and continues to watch over me. My name is a spell I cast over me, just as my body, now, is a spell cast each time I wake up in it. My scars themselves are magic. If no one else will sing of boys like me, I will weave the chant myself. I do not need to be legible to others in order to exist. For the first time, I claim both my name and my body for myself and no one else.

Long after my divorce and a few months after coming out as trans, I dream I am climbing an infinite staircase with my lover. A mountain lion creeps up the staircase behind me, held back by a nameless child made of light. With no road back, I climb up and up. The staircase ends at a metal ladder and a sheer cliff. The child urges me up, the mountain lion crouching hungry below us. I start up the ladder, driven ever higher by the promise of something I cannot see.

*

A little over a year after leaving my marriage, I am hiking in the Orobie Alps with my partner when thick fog rolls in. It’s getting dark, and the mountain refuge we are climbing to seems further and further off. As the trees thin and slope turns to cliff, I kneel on a footbridge above a gushing spring and drink the icy water from the rock. Above the crest of the path, a chamois waits for us. He looks into my eyes as though he knows my name.

I’ve been going by Zeyn for six months. It is the only name that has ever made me feel anchored to my body. Zeyn is an Arabic name meaning good, meaning beautiful. In some parts of the Arabic-speaking world, it’s considered gender neutral. For me, choosing the name Zeyn means not only honoring my teta Zeynab who loves me, but also choosing to call myself enough.

I had come out as a boy months before in that massriyah in central Morocco on a winter afternoon. After saying it out loud, I fell into my partner’s arms and wept. At the time, it seemed the jaws of all the secrets I had failed to keep would close around me. Living up to the beauty of my name felt like a mountain I would never climb. For so long, I feared I was the only person in the world made wrong, the only person with a glitch in my compass. Accepting that I couldn’t go on presenting as a woman–despite knowing far longer that I wasn’t one–meant I’d strayed off the edges of the map. I was above the treeline, the way back devoured by fog and ravenous creatures.

Yet today, on this mountain, I am standing in the alpine twilight, following the chamois to keep the trail, my body invisible save for my breath. My body has carried me here as a survivor, carried me halfway across the world to Morocco, to Lebanon, and to Italy, the country where my father wrote love poems in his fourth language. I have broken my silences, and I am still here in these mountains where the night is absolute. As we emerge from the switchback following the stream, the chamois glances back, then disappears. Above us, the refuge lights wink through the last of the fog. I could kneel here where I stand, recite the fatiha, lower my forehead to kiss the earth.

No map can substitute the compass of one’s own breath. I have never had an aversion to rooting, as I once feared, but to feeling lost in the home of my body. I was never running away from womanhood; I was running toward myself. It took me nearly thirty years to unlearn the lesson that people like me were not allowed to be beautiful. In a world that demands our silence and erasure, hearing a loved one call my name feels like resistance. To call myself Zeyn is to call myself both beautiful and enough, and this is the greatest incantation I know.

I cross the stream. The golden windows of the mountain refuge glitter ahead of us in constellation. Behind me on the path, my partner laughs at the sight and calls out to me—Zeyn! I answer with ululations that echo against the cliffs, a cry of joy that parts the night. My name hangs in the air around us, drifting out into the valley as we climb toward the light.

Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

About the author

Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of the novels The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2018) and The Thirty Names of Night (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 3 November 2020). His work has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Shondaland, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. The Map of Salt and Stars has been translated into 20 languages and was a 2018 Middle East Book Award winner. Joukhadar has received fellowships from the Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program, the Arab American National Museum, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Camargo Foundation, and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

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