A father’s letter to an infant daughter: ‘I wanted my last name to be a burden’

Before You Go: Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s daughter was given a name that was a gift as much as it was a burden—and both were by design

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Amna (left) and Elamin Abdelmahmoud. (Photograph by Marwa Yasmine Abdou)

Amna, you have to know: your name was built carefully, with great tenderness. Craft and thought and meditation went into choosing it for you. The whole thing has a flow: Amna Eliot Abdelmahmoud.

Amna, because it’s the Arabic word for safe and sound—a promise your mama and I made to you, that we would keep you safe as long as we live. It was, more than anything, a wish writ real after a tragedy: about 11 months before you were born, we tasted the joy of pregnancy until it was cut short by a miscarriage. Our next try, we said, crossing our fingers, would be Amna. Safe. That’s you.

Mama picked it for you, and I instantly knew it was right. It fits you. You smile when you hear it. You’re just learning to say it now, and mama and I exchange a tearful look every time you say it, because it sounds so musical coming out of your tiny lips.

Your middle name, Eliot, is because of T.S. and because of George and because it’s a writer’s name, soft and scholarly. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you the other secret function of it: it’s an escape hatch, too, from Amna. Maybe “Amna” could be a burden, we thought. Maybe one day you’d tire of answering, “Amna’s a different name—where is it from?” And if that day comes, we wanted you to have options.

You may have noticed, though, that you don’t have a safety parachute from your last name. It’s long, and it’s bulky, and it can’t be ignored. That’s also by design—my clunky gift to you.

I wanted you to have my last name. And I wanted it to be a burden.

I was 12 when I came to Canada. I have foundational memories not just of place, but a sense of my family—all my uncles and aunts and 40-odd cousins. I have a sense of what Sudan is like: the values and customs and the different way people move. That sense can’t be divorced from who I am. I think of it with a mixture of kindness and pride—okay, a lot of pride.

You get glimpses of what Sudan is like from jiddo and habooba, my parents, but I worried that the full force of Sudan would be completely inaccessible to you if you didn’t carry a reminder with you every day that at least a part of you isn’t from here—that your blood contains a history of elsewhere.

Listen to Elamin Abdelmahmoud talk about how he named his daughter on The Big Story podcast.

Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.

And blood is a burden, love. It should be. It should be heavy, a weight you carry. All of us carry that unshakeable chain. We come into this world tied to a lineage, and therefore a part of an ongoing story. All of that is in your last name: you, an Abdelmahmoud, in a place like Canada. You don’t know it yet, but every time someone asks can you spell that? you’re going to feel the sting of lineage, the gentle hand of ancestry.

It’s not lost on me, either, that you’re destined to have a conflict with your last name. It’s going to take time for you to learn how to spell it; you’ll recognize people’s hesitation before they try their hand at saying it. It’s a speed bump, Amna. And for some people, your last name will be the only piece of information they’ll need to judge you. You’ll wonder: do I really need this complication in my life? That, too, is by design. I don’t want you to avoid it. God knows having this name has been a battle for me.

But that battle is good for you. Because going through it every time means having to remind yourself of who you are, of how you got here, of the people who will never meet you but whose weight you carry nonetheless.

We cannot be indifferent to names. Names are alive and they ask things of us—sometimes too much. And while asking you to battle for my last name is a big ask from anyone, it’s the ask I make of you. It’s the ask my parents made of me when I was younger, too: my father, sitting me down and teaching  me the names of all of my ancestors, and then repeating  them again and again, until I could rhyme them off, in order and in reverse. I didn’t understand the lesson then, but I do now: this may feel like a burden in this moment, but it will protect you later.

So my job is to prepare you for the battle. I will teach you Arabic, and I will tell you of your history, of Khartoum sunrises, and of your grandmother, who is the greatest woman to have ever lived on this earth.

Your job is to fight. No one can do it for you. There will be forces that will try to convince you there’s something wrong with your name. I know you will be ready.

Before you go—before you grow—I want you to know that you come from a sturdy tree, strong and resilient and enduring, rooted in the rich soil of history. Just in case I occasionally forget to remind you, your name will do that, always. You’ll carry it with you like I did. You will stretch and reach towards the sky. You’ve got a name, after all.

This essay is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.