On New Year’s Day I was blessed with the birth of my fifth son. I called my parents to tell them the good news that Rakan Al-Mutawa had been born. But my father told me he had another name picked out for his newest grandson.
My heart stopped. Rakan was the name my wife and I had chosen. What to do? Ten years ago, I asked my father to name my firstborn. He gave me two choices; Turki or Hamad. I went with the latter in fear that anyone who did the math would figure out that my firstborn had been conceived in late November. My father would have been happy with either of his suggestions so I wisely saved Hamad from the fate of being known as the world’s first reusable Thanksgiving “Turki”.
My father didn’t offer an opinion on naming my next three boys. And after the near miss of the Turki suggestion, I didn’t ask. But now came the message that he wanted to name my fifth-born only two weeks after his own father, Abdullah, had passed away at the age of 97. How could I say no if he asked me to name him for my grandfather? And how could I present the change to my wife only days after a difficult labor and delivery? My stomach churned as I awaited his suggestion.
“Barack,” he said.
My father wanted me to name my son after President Obama. I was almost stunned. Instead of asking me to hang a shingle on the past, my conservative Arab Muslim father was asking me to make a bet on the future.
Some things do change.
Minutes later, I received another call on my cell phone from a well-meaning relative who told me they heard I’d been blessed with another boy.
“Yes,” I said. “What did you expect given my record?”
“You have enough boys to liberate Palestine,” he replied.
Looking nervously over my shoulder at the Sabbath elevator in the New York Presbyterian Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I thought, liberate Palestine? Whatever happened to playing basketball?
“You don’t need all five of my boys for that,” I replied. “You just need Khalid.”
Khalid is my charismatic but accident-prone dynamo of a seven-year-old. He is capable of poking you in the eye with his pinky toe while flipping television channels using his half chewed deodorant as a remote. He could take out half a city block while picking the unwanted pepperoni off his pizza. He is a force of nature to be reckoned with by his older brothers.
Knowing what I meant, my relative laughed and hung up, with me not knowing whether his comment about liberating Palestine was tongue in cheek or serious. Nor did I want to know. This was not the time to discuss the horrors of war or the plight of the Palestinians. I had the luxury of shielding myself from such sadness for a few days and I planned to indulge myself. Offering my sons as canon fodder to kill other children in a futile war was not how I wanted to spend my first day with my newborn.
Besides, I have my own theory on how the Arab Israeli conflict will finally get resolved. The Chinese will figure out that the only way to truly “arrive” as a genuine superpower is to occupy Palestine: the historical right of passage that has existed for every superpower wannabe for thousands of years.
During one of my last visits to my grandfather’s house, I walked in with my two-year old son just as my eldest aunt was saying her goodbyes. As she turned away from him to make her exit, my grandfather pointed at her back and chuckled to me out of her earshot, “she is my baby,” he laughed. “I have a baby too.” I smiled as I allowed his lesson to sink in with one eye following the shape of my 75 year-old aunt’s form as she left the house. Her shadow remained in the room long after she left. His baby, indeed.
Some things don’t change.
After some serious thought, my wife and I decided against the name Barack. And my father agreed. I hope one day to be the proud grandfather of five Baracks, not just one. Maybe even a Baracka or two if the next generation of Al-Mutawa boys is able to resolve my inability to master the passage of an X chromosome to my offspring. But I want to see results, not just hope, before naming my children after a leader. As I write these words, I am reminded of the storekeeper in the heart wrenching movie “Life is Beautiful” who yells to his sons, “Adolpho! Benito!” just as Roberto Benini’s Jewish character asks him his politics.
Today, President Obama is a man who may, with our prayers and support, make a significant positive change in all our lives. The next few years will tell us if he is the man who did. By then there will be plenty more Al-Mutawas to name.
Right now the only certain change is the one that Rakan Al-Mutawa is demanding.
And it’s my turn.