My name is Norahyr; It’s not Ahmed, or Ali, neither it John or James. I am Armenian and so is my name. But, I didn’t grow up in Armenia. I didn’t grow up where my name was a parallel to an Ali or a John. Instead, until I was 19, I lived in Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad – then moving to the United States in 2008. I thought that this transition would have been a drastic one, but it was not. I thought that I was going to get homesick, but I did not. I did not get nostalgic either. I only missed my family (not so much my friends since most of them had left the country since the war of 2003). So, why didn’t I miss it more?
Well, most of the first 19 years of my life I lived as an alien. This is not because Iraqis themselves made me feel that way (not the educated class at least) – rather it was because of mother tongue, my traditions, my religious beliefs, and, once again, my name made me feel disenfranchised; not part of the ‘majority group’. It’s funny, I got used to everything other than the way my name was perceived. Every single day I went to school I would hear it being mispronounced. Somehow, the mispronouncing of my name by the local Iraqis became symbolic of everything else. For example, kids in my school found it amusing to make curse words or names of chemical substances out of it (one being, Potassium Noyaride).
Then I went to college in the US. Naturally I thought of this as a new beginning, but again my name would become symbolic of this new chapter in my life. My reasoning was that Iraqis, as Arabic speakers, were not able to pronounce my name correctly (the vowels in my name are difficult to pronounce). However, Americans, a nation drawn together from all over the world over generations, wouldn’t be as troubled by the challenges my name presented. Well, how wrong can you be? Some of the pronunciations I have heard have been ‘toe-curlingly’ bad. I became that guy who spends 2-3 minutes in a classroom or in a bar explaining how to pronounce the name he has just used to introduce himself with. This of course led to questions about my ethnic background; in itself another ‘can of worms’. People just didn’t seem to be able to grasp that, although I was born and raised in Baghdad, I am ethnically Armenian. In terms of how people have been able to relate, you may be interested to know that Baghdad being been all over the news for the past 10 years has helped place me geographically, and by becoming a major celebrity, Kim Kardashian as helped contexualise my ethnicity!
So, what does it mean to live as a minority? Quite simply, as a child I felt uncomfortable when I wasn’t around Armenians. At times I would be shy when giving a presentation or engaging in an academic argument in the classroom and I always thought that people would be making fun of my accent and dialect, which in return, made them lose focus on my perspective. Things have of course shifted and I am able to see my way past, what I still sense as discrimination, to function as I need to. In terms of the bigger picture, these personal considerations have helped me understand why, for example, the situation in the Middle East is so explosive. People want to be around something they know, with behaviour patterns and cultures they relate to. What we don’t know is frightening….
Personally, I made a conscious choice not to feel intimidated by my ‘differentness’ anymore and decided to put an end to this inward-looking way of looking at things. I also realized that the change had to come from within me. Due to the fact that I didn’t look, sound, or even think like everyone else around me, I had created a sense of discrimination within myself. At the end of the day, the only one hurting from this was me and I needed to change the paradigm. I used this famous quote from Maya Angelou’s to light my new path:
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
Instead of focusing on the fact that “I didn’t fit in” or that my name was not John or Ali, I started embracing my ‘uniqueness’. Instead of letting my feelings of sorrow and negativity take over, I started appreciating the diversity and the different cultural background that has so enriched my life. Slowly, my attitude changed.
I believe that this approach can be applied in terms of discrimination re gender, religion, political views, or even sexual orientation. Now, when I have a discussion at work or give a presentation, I know that through the more diverse approach I am able to offer, I create real value. My name no longer represents lost opportunities; instead it is a strong symbol of an identity I am proud of – one that has value to others because it represents the global citizen I have become.