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Migration and the politics of names

By Mohammad Amer It was not the first time I was asked about my ‘actual’ surname or, achternaam, as they say in Dutch. This time was during my introductory meeting with the FSW staff at the VU. I have been dealing with this question now for over a decade. Years ago my Dutch language teacher called me ‘Mohammad’ following the order of my full name ‘Mohammad Amer’. I told her that ‘I am called ‘Amer’, and if you call me ‘Mohammad’ I might not respond to you’. She said ‘that means Amer is your, roepnaam’ (meaning, in Dutch, literally the name people call you)? ‘Kind of’, I told her. Thus she noted my name as ‘Amer, Mohammad Amer’ on the attendance list. I accepted that as it sounded quite lyrical whenever she spoke it.

In this early period I explained to other people why I should be called ‘Amer’ and not ‘Mohammad’– as ‘Amer’  was the name my parents gave me while ‘Mohammad’ they might have added for some religious, devotional reasons or simply because everybody has two names thus I should also have a second name. However, when I came across official institutes or formal occasions in the Netherlands I had to accept gradually that when someone called out ‘Mohammad’ they usually meant me. Occasionally, when I insisted on calling myself ‘Amer’ and not ‘Mohammad,’ people thought me arrogant for preferring to be called by my achternaam (surname) – usually used for addressing people formally. On other occasions people thought that I was shy about using the name, ‘Mohammad,’ due to its specific religious connotations.

It is not that the Pakistanis do not have surnames but the story is a bit complex, and hard to cover within the post-Napoleon nomenclature that underlies the Dutch naming system. There are a number of possibilities available for choosing surnames within the Pakistani context: a most common usage is where the kids, or a wife after marriage, takes the first, and not second, name of their father or husband, as their surname. Take the example of the former Pakistani premier Mohammad Nawaz Sharif. He took ‘Sharif’ from his father, Mohammad Sharif, while his son is called Hussain Nawaz, and his wife Kalsoom Nawaz. This is a preferred system of adopting a surname among upwardly mobile groups in Pakistan. With the migration and settlement however this choice is no more self-evident. The Dutch municipal officials would give you only limited possibilities of choosing a surname – it must come from a father or mother, or a husband, in the case of married women. Thus while their cousins ‘back home’ are free to choose first or  second name of their parents or that of husbands as surname, the Pakistani migrants have to accept the choices that the Dutch system of naming provides them.

Another category is where clan or caste names are adopted as family names. We have the famous families like Bhuttos or Zardaris, which are actually clan names. The choice for the caste name as family name becomes a wider practice mostly among the Punjabi ethnic groups. The caste system among many Pakistanis still plays a role mostly in arranging marriages where caste compatibility is measured before deciding about a potential spouse. When using the caste name as surname, only ‘higher’ caste names would be used as surname. Historically the caste system is quite flexible, as one can move upward in the system through, for example, migration. By using caste as surname, certain rigidity is created in the caste structures, and the European systems of naming curiously further solidify it through its inherent inflexibility.

In more recent times a certain Islamization of names has taken place. Children are given names following certain figures from Islamic history or to adopt names that have some religious meanings. In such cases people look for meanings and the personal name should also reflect it. Where such a search for meanings is related with recent religious insurgence, visible in all religions, however one should not exaggerate the impact of such search on everyday choices of the migrants. During my fieldwork many Muslim youth, who otherwise emphasized the Islamic aspect of their identity, would justify the necessity of caste, either for adopting it as name, or for its implied social status, or simply for ‘knowing’ somebody through his or her caste name. I will explain its significance through an interesting ethnographic note: some months back I was invited by a former Pakistani political activist to a social gathering in Amsterdam. The gathering occurred at a pizzeria owned by one Sheikh sahib or Mr Sheikh (name of a merchant caste) on a side street of the P.C. Hooftstraat in Amsterdam. Beside the activist friend Choudhry sahib (a land owing caste) the other friends accompanied were Raja sahib (a Rajput or ruling caste) and a Malik sahib (a sub-caste of Rajputs). During the whole gathering they called each other with these caste names and not by ‘actual’ names. Except the name of my political activist friend, I still do not know what the ‘actual’ names of his friends were. I am also not sure whether, considering their position as ‘successful migrants’ the actual names matter for them at all.

Another case of ambiguous naming is when Pakistani or South Asian writers and literati use their pen-names under which they publish their literary works. Such names can be of poetic import, and are sometimes adopted from the birth place of the user. During my Persian classes in Islamabad in the 1980s an Iranian teacher used to call me Agha (Mr) Morgahi as I was born in a place called Morgah. I liked that name, and adopted it myself, mostly for my writings, although it remained for an ‘unofficial’ use.

Mohammad Amer (“Morgahi”) is finishing his PhD at the SCA after the ISIM, the Leiden-based institute of Islam, was closed down.


  1. […]  M. Amer Morgahi is finishing his PhD at the SCA at the VU. He is interested in Islam in Europe, multicultural issues, Pakistan and Pakistani migrants in Europe. Read also his earlier posts on the war against terror and the politics of names. […]

  2. […] Pakistan and Pakistani migrants in Europe. Read also his earlier posts on the war against terror, politics of names and 60 kilometers from bin Laden. Share this:FacebookTwitterE-mailVind ik leuk:LikeWees de eerste […]

  3. […] M. Amer Morgahi is finishing his PhD at the SCA at the VU. His research interests are Islam in Europe, multicultural issues, Pakistan and Pakistani migrants in Europe. He has written on the war against terror and the politics of names. […]

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