Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The importance of name and place

My surname Willy and hometown of Kokomo, Indiana rarely bestow upon me any kind of social advantage. Countless times I have given my name as “Willy” at a registration desk or government bureau only to have an annoyed functionary ask me to please voice my last name. Usually I explain quickly that Willy is my surname, but once I simply repeated “Willy” to the question and the clerk looked at me, puzzled, and inquired, “So your name is Willy Willy?” I guess that wouldn’t be so odd in Indiana, as I once had a basketball coach named Allen Wayne Allen.

My hometown of Kokomo also creates confusion as most people want to know why the Beach Boys sang about the place as a tropical oasis if the city sits in the fertile plain of north-central Indiana. There is no other place in the United States called Kokomo, and my hometown’s namesake is the legendary Chief Kokomo of the Miami Indians. Unlike the Beach Boys lyrics that equate my hometown with Bermuda and the Bahamas, the actual Kokomo is more similar to Muncie, Indiana and Peoria, Illinois.

I’m happy to report, however, that in Afghanistan the surname Willy has served me well by endearing me to many Afghans. A very common Afghan family name is W’Ali, reportedly derived from the name of the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin Ali. It’s so common, and so many Afghans have told me that I have a local family name, that I have begun introducing myself as Dr. W’Ali. I simply explain that I’m from America but that my father is Afghan; and I just happen to look and speak like my Germanic mother. So far, the Afghans have accepted this without question, and oftentimes welcome me back “home” to Afghanistan with an extra piece of na’an bread.

Unfortunately, Kokomo doesn’t mean much to most Afghans. They are not nearly as impressed with the name of my hometown as were most Kenyans several years ago when I traveled to Africa. Kenya has a number of tribes, and many Kenyans consider themselves primarily a member of their tribe and secondarily a citizen of the country. Typical tribal names are Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba and Pokomo, so when Kenyans asked me about my tribe back home in Indiana and I told them I came from the Kokomo, they were mightily impressed. They also applauded the fact that my tribe was more than 50,000 strong, herded many cows in our fields, and had diversified ourselves economically by producing mass quantities of motor vehicle parts.

Afghan tribes include the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek. Regal names all, but none with the repetitive velar plosive articulation of Kokomo. So my tribal credentials haven’t assisted me much in Afghanistan. Also, Afghanistan has a long history of invaders coming from the west, north and east, and I find they are a bit more worldly than the Kenyans. The Afghans know that foreigners usually adhere to customs and beliefs very different from and oftentimes threatening to the local milieu. So I’m happy to simply introduce myself as Dr. W’Ali, and hope nobody asks me from what village my father hails.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just wanted to point out that calling Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks etc "tribes" is incorrect. They are actually different ethnic groups that make up the demographic of Afghanistan, similar to the way Italians, Germans, French etc are ethnic groups that make up Switzerland.
To call these people "tribes" makes them appear barbaric and inhuman and this is one reason why so many people in the US feel a disconnect towards these people.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the poster from Feb 16. Of course, Afgan Ronny really believes that he knows it all, so correcting him is a waste of time.

What a dork.