On the jungle gym.

Don’t let go of one bar until you’ve grasped another firmly.

Run for the field.

An ovular track of uneven black gravel surrounded by sparse, drying grass and polka dot wild flowers.

Torn skin.

Only scrapes, no gashes.

Palms ruddied and pocked by tiny pebbles after an awkward landing.

Too numb to feel the smarting.

Back at the playground ahead.

Souls of children grown linger on the slides and swing sets.

Sometime ago I made a post which contains a list of desi Muslim baby names for girls which are easily pronounced in an English speaking majority context.

Here is a list of boy names which are also fairly easy for non-desis to pronounce. I am imagining Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Indian Muslim Americans or intercultural desi-pardesi couples looking at this list, so I have the subcontinental pronunciation in mind here, and have also considered how these names sound in a North American English accent, so I am not concerned so much with the Arabic or Persian pronunciation. Names have an Arabic root unless the origin is specified as being Persian or Turkish. Many names here are also modern, new, or trendy, with lots of -aan names. All name meanings have been confirmed in The Complete Book of Muslim and Parsi Names by Maneka Gandhi and Ozair Husain (a treasure of a book) except for those from Turkish sources, or those for which I could not find an official source. Remember that baby name websites, especially those which have lists that are made up of user contributions, are chock full of mistakes which are sometimes copied from website to website, so I suggest that you double check the meaning of a baby name by using the Arabic root (or that of the relevant language), by looking in a dictionary (such as the Platts Dictionary) or by asking someone with a linguistics background. A good place to ask is here in the WordReference Forums in the Arabic, Turkish, or Indo-Iranian language sections. Please let me know if you see an error in meaning here. So, what names do you like? Any that you would add to this list?

Adam (aah-dum) Of the Earth, Man

Ali High, exhalted, sublime

Alishaan (Persian) high degree of excellence

Aliyan/Aliyaan high, sublime

Anaan (un-naan) clouds

Aryaan/Ariyaan (Persian) noble, pure

Ashar (like Usher, the singer) liveliness, high spirits

Ayaan/Ayyaan leaders, OR eyes, someone who is perceptive, epoch, era (depending on the Arabic spelling)

Aydin (Turkish) (eye-deen, not like Aiden) bright, intelligent

Azaan the call to prayer

Eren (Turkish) brave, courageous, devoted

Evren (Turkish) the universe

Daniyal God is Judge, a Hebrew prophet Daniel

Deen religion

Demir (Turkish) (Deh-meer) Iron

Faiz (similar to Fez or Faze) liberality, grace, generosity, abundance

Faizaan same as above, both of these end with ض

*(spelled with a different z (ز) in Arabic/Urdu, Faiz means victorious, but it is still pronounced as Faiz, Faizaan in Urdu)

Faris (faah-rihs) horseman

Firaas* insight, intelligence (firaasat) OR brave, persisent (*meaning unconfirmed)

Hamza (Humm-zuh) Lion

Haris (haaw-ris) a harvester, ploughman

Idrees/Idris one who instructs, a prophet (the biblical Enoch)

Ishaan (Persian) teacher, guide

Jaan (Jaahn, not too far from John)  (Persian) life

Jaleel majestic

Jaid (sounds similar to Jed or Jade) goodness, perfection, faultless

Jaudaan (jo-dawn) goodness (from Jaid)

Jayyid (jaah-yihd) goodness (from Jaid)

Jabran/Jibran (Juh-braan) (Jib-raan) strong, strength, forceful, majestic (root jabr)

Jibril (Jib-reel) strong one of God, the angel Gabriel

Jibrin (Jib-reen) strong one of God, the angel Gabriel

Junaid little soldier

Kais (case) goodness, intelligence, attractiveness, beauty

Kaisaan (case-aan) goodness, same as above

Kihaan (Persian) the world, the universe

Kiyaan (Arabic) existence, essence, nature

Kiyaan (Persian) a nomad’s tent

Mateen solid, sturdy, firm

Mikail One who is like God, the angel Michael

Mishaal torch, lamp (from Mash’al)

Raaz (Persian) secret, mystery

Raaz (Arabic) architect

Rafai* increasing in rank, glorification (*I could not confirm this meaning)

Rayhaan basil, a fragrant flowering plant

Rayaan/Rayyaan/Rayyan gate of Paradise open to those who have fasted, satiated, one whose thirsts are quenched

Rizvaan/Rizwaan contentment, obedience, the gate keeper of Paradise or of the garden of Paradise

Ruhaan souls

Saif (safe) sword

Shan (Persian) (shawn with no w-rounding the end of the word) splendor

Shaan (Persian) (shawn with no w-rounding the end of the word) splendor

Shahaan (Persian) (shaa-haan) plural of shah or ruler

Shayaan (Persian) suitable, worthy

Sufi pious, spiritual, mystic with an esoteric understanding of things (from Soof or wool because of the traditional woolen garment of Sufis)

Sufyaan ship builder, a Sahaba

Taaj/Taj crown

Zaid Sounds similar to Zed-Zade, increasing

Zaidaan increasing

Zain beauty, adornment, goodness

Zeeshaan/Zishaan glorious, dignified

Zidaan increasing

Ziyaan beauty, adornment, goodness

I haven’t posted in a while so I’ve decided to go private for now.

A question from a friend: She is white American Muslim and lived in Pakistan and India as a student and professionally while working in the development sector, and she hadn’t heard the term ‘desi’ until coming back to the US recently. She now hears it used frequently among American Muslims of South Asian decent as well as from other Muslims when referring to South Asian origin community members. She asked me what it meant. I thought I would use the opportunity to make this into a blog post because I have been asked on occasion what it means. Desi is one of the first Hindi/Urdu words I ever learned when I first started interacting with friends of various backgrounds from the South Asian American community as a new Muslim. It sounded like daisy to me, but with an /s/ instead of a /z/ sound in the middle. What was this word? Over the years the word has become a very normal term for me to use, so let me put this out there for anyone interested in the word. My take on what desi means:

Desi is very much used all over the des (South Asia) where Indic languages are spoken. However, outside of S. Asia, it is used in a very different way than what one may have heard before, prompting the question.

Des/desh and the adjective desi/deshi have roots in Sanskrit (desh). Des and desi would be preferred in Urdu and Western dialects of Punjabi, going into India and further East and on South it becomes deshi/desh, depending on how the s/sh is pronounced in the local languages. It essentially means homeland, or something of the home, something domestic, or native. It also takes on the meaning of the Indic homeland. So you have a desi, a native, and a pardesi, a non-native. Foreigners are pardesis in the des. And you have terms like swadesh (homeland). In Hindi, a more formal term for pardesi is videshi.

Pardesi also means anyone who is not local, without the implication of Indic versus non-Indic. In wedding songs (in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, etc), the bride who leaves her native village to marry a person from a different village calls that man a pardesi, he is not native to her village. In other usage in songs, a man who leaves his village for travel, perhaps for economic migration, can become pardesi to his wife/love-interest by going to the pardes.

Desi is also use regularly all over to mean sort of like “organic” or grown/raised in purity in the countryside—so you have desi murghi (sort of like free range hen), desi anday (organic, natural eggs), desi ghee (pure ghee just like what is made in the village which has does not have adulteration or hydrogenated oils in it (opposite would be vanaspati ghee or adulterated ghee made with transfats). This particular usage would probably be the way that ‘desi’ is most frequently used within the des.

These are the main ways that desi/deshi is used within India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh by peoples whose languages include this terminology. (Bangladesh…the desh or homeland of the Bangal people). However, the word desi has taken on a life of its own outside of the des among the South Asian diaspora. Probably coined by South Asians in the UK, desi has become shorthand for South Asia/South Asian and is used just to mean Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese. Rather than say that whole mouthful, one can just say desi.

Desi has even been used in diasporic academic writing (though the term has been deemed problematic) and very much widely used in common speech among diasporic desis. Desi aunties, desi foods, desi dinner party, desi clothes, etc. It isn’t used so much in this manner within the des because there is no need for contrasting, but saying desi in the diaspora highlights the contrast between desi versus the non-desi majority community, so it marks insiderness. Interestingly, in very recent times, this usage has spread back to Pakistan-India-Bangladesh, and now one can hear it used this way more and more in popular culture. So you have the word appearing in Hindi film songs.

I use the word desi frequently, and pretty much everyone I know does, too. It’s just easy. However, in the diaspora the word is not without controversy. Who counts as a desi both popularly and also by self-designation? What about Afghans? Bhutanese? Maldivians? Where do desis from places like Kenya, Guyana, or Trinidad fit into this picture? Some diasporic Nepalese say that they are desis, some don’t. Also, some Nepali cultures are very Indic, others are very Sino-Tibetan in culture and language, and hence more clearly non-desi. The term also has some particular ethno-political implications within Nepal. Some diasporic Pakistani Pashtoons are completely fine with being called and self-labeling as “desi,” while others see themselves as more Afghan oriented in terms of language and culture view desi as meaning Indic, in contrast to themselves. A friend tells me that Pashto only uses ‘desi’ in the pure organic food sense, but that within Pashtoonistan the term does not exist meaning homeland or native place the way it does in the Indic languages, so these factors give it a twist in the diaspora. There are hairy identity politics at play when it comes to using and applying the term in the diaspora. There are also many who don’t like the cultural lumping and erasure of distinctness that comes with such a blanket term. Obviously as a non-desi, it is in no way up to me to define who is and who isn’t desi, and I do respect that there are diverging views on the term and its usage.

Here in Amreeka, the term is used with impunity and definitely serves its purpose, though. For example, I might ask a Bangladeshi American friend “Should I wear desi clothes to your party?” I don’t want to be exclusive and say “Pakistani clothes” or “Indian clothes”  since that implies that one nation owns the clothes, South Asian sounds too formal…so I just say desi, she gets it, it’s fast and she lets me know what will be appropriate.

We all “get it” when a desi American person says “Oh that’s such a desi uncle thing to say,” or “She has such thick desi type hair, mashallah,” it shows cohesion and a common experience of such disparate groups as Hindu Gujaratis, Hindkowan Pakistani Muslims, and Bangladeshi Muslims in the US who up close in the des might find it strange that anyone thought that they had so much in common, but in the diaspora, share some common experiences as South Asian origin people with hyphenated identities. The term bridges religious and national divides, too.

Desi also evokes a longing for homeland, a longing for des…desis are such a global people now due to migration, they are of the des and in the pardes. There is actually a lot of media within South Asia and the global diaspora produced on the des-pardes migration issue, including a publication, and I think in the 90s, an Urdu drama of that name (Des-Pardes), a Hindi film with that name, and the issue crops up in Hindi films a lot, too. So many South Asian families have become des-pardes families.

So you have a word with deep roots that functions in distinct ways within and outside of the des.

Last night I went with a Jewish-Muslim interfaith group to view the excellent film, Besa: The Promise.

The film opens as a grey-haired American-Jewish photographer, Norman Gershman, is discovering this forgotten legacy and sets out on a mission to interview and take pictures of elderly Albanians who hid Jews and their wartimes wards—if they still live. This quest takes him to Rexhep Hoxha, where the heart of the film begins. Gershman is as dogged as he is dazzled by documenting Albania’s forgotten history of Muslims saving Jews.

It was a very moving and powerful film—cliche to say, I know. But really, it was. I don’t know much about Albania at all, but Albanians were portrayed as a very warm and noble people. Watching the film really made me want to visit Albania.

After the film, I was standing in the lobby of the theatre and some random woman came up to me and asked me what language is spoken in Albania. I was utterly perplexed by why would feel that I might have the answer to that. I did happen to know, though. I said “Albanian.” She screwed her face. “I read that Albania shares a long border with Italy and that lots of Albanians speak Italian.” she said. “I don’t know much about that region at all.” I responded, shrugging. I had a general idea of where Albania was on the map, and knew that a lot of Albanian migrants went to Italy, but not much more than that. I am ashamed to say that I had no idea of with which particular nations Albania share a border. Balkan country, that’s all I knew. I said, “I am pretty sure that Albanians speak Albanian. From the film, it sounded like an Indo-European language to me, with lots of Latinate and Turkic vocabulary.” She widened her eyes, which were enlarged with special glasses, and nodded her head up and down at that. (I could have been wrong about that, but later I googled and saw that I was correct.) If she’s going to ask a stranger such question, she should be prepared for any type of answer. At that moment, my friend came out of the theatre and we left. I wonder why that woman asked me about Albanian. Maybe it says cunning linguist on my forehead.

I occasionally see articles about Gulf Arab sex tourism in India. Wealthy Sunni GCC nationals abuse and mock religion by entering into contractual Islamic marriages with impoverished young Indian women and girls with the intention of divorcing them after a few weeks of sexually exploiting and abusing them. It is a disgusting practice that is not at all uncommon, but is not discussed very much in the Gulf. It should be widely condemned. Just like wealthy Western men who go to places like Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Latin American countries, and elsewhere for sex tourism, wealthy Gulf Arab men engage in this form of exploitation, and some choose to give this grotesque practice an Islamic twist by deeming it “halal” or permissible according to religious mores with a dubious marriage contract. Though quite frankly, plenty don’t care and don’t bother and go on sex tours in East Africa, Thailand, and other nearby countries just to visit prostitutes in the same way that Western men do.

It is usually this issue of supposedly religiously condoned sex tourism that I read about. But I actually wanted to hash out another issue.

I was thinking about the marriages of GCC national men (of various ethnic backgrounds, not only Arab) and Indian women (from various Indian regions, but most often Hyderabadi Muslim background). I had students and friends who were the children of these marriages. I am not sure how very common this phenomenon is today (gonna be 2013 TOMORROW), but gauging from the number of young women I met who had Indian mothers, at some point (80s and 90s) this was extremely common, and certainly it still happens contemporarily.

I knew these girls well, and on occasion even met their mothers. Let me explain a bit about the social context of these marriages.

There are Gulf Arab men who wish to marry but who cannot economically afford to gain the acceptance of a proposal from a Gulf Arab family. Some of the governments in these countries actually gives a substantial financial marriage gift to the groom when two Gulf Arabs marry. The monetary gift is supposed to help the couple start out, and is also an incentive to get Gulf men to marry Gulf women, since men who marry foreigners do not get the money. As far as I know, this gift is only available for first marriages. But the marriage stipend isn’t enough for some families to consent to a union between their daughter and someone else. Good family/tribal status, a good education, a decent job, social privilege, and money to provide housing to a bride, and a nice car are often major considerations. Many men just don’t have these things. They aren’t rich by Gulf standards, but they are wealthy by the standards of underprivileged families in India, so these men seek brides from there. A second reason is this: Suppose a Gulf Arab man wants to engage in polygyny. It is hard to find a modern, educated, never married before (virgin) Gulf Arab woman to agree to this. So he goes to India to find someone who he believes will be more docile and whose family will be accepting of the situation. I’d say most of these GCC-national + Indian bride marriages involve polygyny. The docility issue is tied to the third reason. Gulf Arab women have not yet gained full social equality with their male counterparts, but they are educated and modern minded. They are much more empowered than their grandmothers. Many Gulf men find this threatening. They seek an Indian bride who is supposedly more submissive. If he mistreated a Gulf Arab woman, her family would give him problems and encourage her to divorce him. An Indian woman will be completely alone with no support system and nowhere to turn, so she will be completely dependent on her husband. (Reminds me of white American men who seek Filipina or other Asian brides because they say white women have lost their femininity and they want a supposedly submissive and petite Asian woman to give them back massages and treat them like kings. Barf.)

Anyway, you have these various factors at play. I had a friend once who was of Ajami origin and a UAE national. The Ajami, known locally as the Ayaimi, are Sunnis from the South of Iran, and this community has significant numbers in Dubai. They speak a dialect of Farsi (called Ayaimi) and many claim to have mixed Arab and Persian heritage. In the UAE, they are not considered to be Arabs, though, but a type of Iranians. My friend was the daughter of his father’s first wife, who was also an Ayaimi woman. Her father also married a Hyderabadi woman. My friend joked that her dad loved Hyderabadi biryani so much that he just had to have a Hyderabadi wife. He then married a Persian (Farsi speaking, and not a speaker of the Ayaimi dialect) who was younger than my friend. Her family was not very wealthy, and I wondered how her dad could support all these wives and the children that came from these marriages. This all sounds very sensational. I want to make it clear that most UAE nationals I knew were NOT in polygynous marriages nor were they children of such families. Polygyny is the exception and not the rule there. But unlike in other Muslim countries where polygyny is considered permissible, but socially frowned upon, and for the most part rare, in the UAE (and other GCC states) polygyny among locals is pretty much completely socially condoned without question. It is a sign of wealth and virility for men, and considered a Sunnah that is desirable to practice. Anyway, it is complex, but since I told you this sensational (yet completely true) anecdote about my friend’s family situation, I just felt I should give a bit more background on what perceptions of polygny are like in the UAE and generally in the Gulf because the stereotype outside of the Gulf is that every man has four wives when this is far from true, and most have only one. But yep, so this man, my friend’s father…he claims to have married a Hyderabadi woman for the biryani. Um, yeah.

So, these marriages take place. They are real marriages. There is no intention to divorce. The wives are kept as normal wives would be. Except for one thing. You see, in Gulf social hierarchies, Indian people are considered to be low. They are not all thought of as laborers—I don’t just mean in that way. I mean that Gulf Arabs consider them to be inherently inferior due to their Indianness. According to locals, Indians are dark skinned and unattractive. They are poor. They have bad manners. There are a lot of stereotypes about them. It is complex, though. Many Gulf Arabs watch Hindi movies and love Bollywood stars. I had many students with crushes on Bollywood heroes, whose faces they used as screen savers on their laptops. They enjoy Indian food and speak pidgin Hindi…some can even speak Hindi fairly well. But the prejudice is there. (It’s hard to explain…maybe it’s like how in the US gringos love Mexican restaurants but often have terrible terrible stereotypes about Mexican people, not really an exact parallel, but just to try to explain the layers of racism.) So what happens when a Gulf man marries an Indian woman and brings her into his extended family structure? She is there alone. She has no power or support in that family. She is from a stigmatized ethnic group. Although there are many, many well-educated and professional Indian people in the Gulf and especially in Dubai, she is not one of them. She will no doubt be from a very poor Indian family and may not have much of an education—Indians of a “good family” do not send their daughters off to the Gulf to get married. These are very poor families who will take advantage of the dowry (mehr) given by the Arab man, the fact that no dowry (jahez) will be required by him as may have been from an Indian groom, and by the fact that their daughter will be “well settled” in a Gulf home rather than remain in their poor family in India. The dynamics of this type of marriage are very unfair from the start, and involve exploitation and economic coercion.

I knew some half Indian girls who were very open about being mixed. They were into Indian culture. When I say Indian culture, I mean that same sort of essentialized Indian culture that many of us India-Pakistan-Bangladesh affiliated people know in the US; Bollywood and Hindi oriented—this isn’t the vastness of cultures within India, but these are this is the essentialized face of Indianness in diasporic contexts. The girls don’t know much about Hyderabad, per se. Some travelled to India often and knew their Indian grandparents, but some did not. Their grandparents sometimes lived in very poor conditions in a completely different world than the relatively privileged worlds they inhabited in the comparatively well developed UAE. But they like to wear bangles and sometimes special 22k Indian gold earrings or necklaces. They show off that they know Hindi. They don’t feel shy about being part Indian. Once I had the students give presentations on a person who they considered to be their hero. A half-Indian student gave the presentation on her maternal grandfather who lived in Hyderabad. She showed the class many pictures of him and her mother’s Indian family and the family’s home there.

Then there were other girls who you could tell were uncomfortable by their mixed identities. And it was an insult for someone to say “You have an Indian mother.” So no wonder they felt this way. I also knew a girl in Oman whose father was of Zanzibari Omani origin and who told everyone that her mom was an Omani Arab, but everyone told me behind her back that her mother was an Indian. She hid the fact because she was ashamed of it and the judgement it brought. I was totally shocked that anyone would lie about the ethnicity of their mother, but once I understood how things worked there a little better, I came to see the complexity she faced when it came to her identity.

When it comes to marriage, it is hard for multiracial half-Indian Gulf nationals. The prejudices come into play. Pure Arab families want to marry those with supposed racial purity and with good and documented tribal lineages. (I have very high suspicions that given the intertwined histories of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, East Africa, and Coastal West India that Gulf nationals are actually a lot more multiracial than they think they are!) Cousins are preferred. Mixed multiracial people are undesirable, even if they are cousins. I knew half-Indians who married other half-Indians. I also knew a lot of half Indians who somehow ended up marrying into Al Baloosh families. You see, the Baloosh are a non-Arab ethnic group who have roots in Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan. Within Balochistan and within Pakistan, Baloch are culturally more on the Iranian-tribesman side and not desi, culturally speaking. In the Gulf, Balooshis are looked at as Indian-ish. Some like to play up the Iranian-ness, since that is more prestigious than Indianness. But when I would press for a person’s family’s place of origin, it was more often in Pakistani Balochistan and not Iran, which within the Gulf is seen as making them more Indian/desi. Some Balooshis embrace this Indian thing as well, and are very into Indian culture and speak Hindi and so on. It’s funny how that works for diasporic communities….so strange because in the sub-continent, a Baloch tribesman in Pakistan and a random Indian person would be looked at as two extremely different identities, but in the Gulf, they are lumped together as desi and Indian. Yes, even if from Pakistan—the average Gulf national people don’t know much about Pakistan and partition or Muslim majority regions in the subcontinent or two nation theory or any such thing, and some of them see Pakistanis as sort of another type of Indian.  Another twist on this is that there are a large number of Afro-Baloch in the UAE and Oman. They are descendants of mercenaries, traders, and slaves of African or partial African descent in Pakistan and Iran, especially in the Makran region. They are among the main black ethnic groups in the Gulf. They are lower on the social ladder, especially when it comes to intermarriage. So it is these groups who marry more easily with people who are part Arab and part Indian. Not to mention that for whatever reason, a lot of Balooshi men also go to Hyderabad for brides, it is not just Arabs who do it. So I often met people who were half Hyderabadi Indian and half Baloch/Balooshi. (Sorry for the confusing nomenclature, but Baloch people are called Balooshis in the Gulf.)

I should also say that I knew of Indian-Arab matches that were love marriages, not just this situation of Gulf men going to poor families in India for brides. I knew a half Keralite half Gulf Arab girl whose parents had met while working together, and a half-Sindhi (Pakistani Muslim) half Gulf Arab girl whose parents had met because they grew up in the same neighborhood in Dubai. This girl exuded Sindhi pride and showed off that she could speak Urdu and Sindhi very well. I also knew Gulf national women who had married Indian or Pakistani men. So it’s not all tales of exploitation. But yep. The exploitation and economic coercion factor is there whenever one analyzes marriages where a GCC national has flown to India for a bride.

Anyway, I often found myself thinking about the social dynamics of these marriages and the children produced from such unions. I was hesitant to talk about such issues directly, and gauged a lot simply from observation. It was something I would have liked to ask about, but wouldn’t that be silly, patronizing, and possibly insulting if I asked someone to explain their identity to me in this context. These issues are unspoken. These half-Indian girls and women I knew were just regular people in my life, and I didn’t want to put them on the spot. In the social settings of the GGC, these girls are thought of as half-Indian, and they are part of Gulf society. They aren’t really part of Indian society within India, where I guess they would be viewed as “half Arab.” So I haven’t given much thought to it from that angle, per se, but I wonder how they are looked upon when they visit India or when they interact with the very large sections of diverse but often socially compartmentalized Indian communities in the Gulf. I knew women who had entered into this type of marriage. I knew their children. I wonder how they would feel if they read what I wrote here and of my assessment of their familial situations. Their mothers did not appear to be pitiable and downtrodden people. They just lived their lives. We didn’t speak of prejudices or of the social issues. But I was keenly aware of the dynamics of their situations, as they must have also been.

I have found a friend with two small daughters and we have decided to do a baby-sitting exchange every couple of months. I baby-sat her kids two weeks ago, and on Friday she is supposed to baby-sit my daughters. So my husband and I have a date night to plan. No movies look good right now. It seems all of the interesting movies either just left the theatres or open on Christmas day. So we are going to do what we did on our last date night, which was sometime last Spring. We are going to a churrascaria to eat excessive amounts of meat. What else is there to do? Bring on the meat!


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