"How's Osama?" I casually asked my roommate as we sat in the living room with friends. A hush fell over the room and everyone's eyes turned toward me in confusion. As an awkward silence filled the air, I realized I should have known. Some names are simply taboo.
To some, mentioning the name Osama may imply an evil intent to evoke terrorists, summon demons, dismantle civilization, and regress to a turbaned dynasty of militant Islamic fundamentalism.
"Oh, he's good - so cute," my roommate responded, referring to her 8-year-old brother.
A sigh of relief and nervous laughter erupted, and my faux pas was forgotten.
I escaped my blunder but was left wondering: What does a name really mean?
A similar scene happened a few weeks later. I'd heard a lot about Muammar Qaddafi, but couldn't match the Libyan leader's name with a face.
"Who is he?" I asked this same roommate, who had come to the United States from Bahrain.
"He's my uncle," she answered nonchalantly.
To Americans, my roommate's connection with terrorist names might seem absurd, coincidental, or just plain random. But long before Osama's name became synonymous with a terror alert, little boys in the Arab world cherished it. In an attempt to put a face on the "war on terror," we've allowed one infamous man to besmirch a name and inadvertently slander a culture.
A few weeks ago, a host at a Chicago restaurant asked for my name. I responded with the traditional Arabic pronunciation of "Asma," knowing he'd probably reply with "Asthma" or some other pseudo-homonym.
Instead, he looked at me with a quizzical smile. "Erma?" he asked.
I stuttered in confusion. I had never anticipated that one.
"Um ... sure," I responded with an uneasy smile.
How much easier would life be if I had an "American" name?
I've been toying with the possibility of creating a fictional name for myself when I eat at restaurants. I can imagine the ease of reserving a table for "Jenny," "Liz," or, better yet, "Lily" - I've always had an affection for flowery names.
Germany has outlawed names that are considered offensive either in Germany or in countries from which people have emigrated, on the grounds that such names might cause children to be ridiculed. "Hitler" is the prime example. In 2002, when a Turkish family living in Germany tried to name its baby Osama bin Laden (a name banned in their native country), the government refused.
Sixty-eight percent of those responding to a CNN poll agreed with the German government.
But America's National Council for the Social Studies encourages discussion and promotes acceptance of notorious names. "My name is Osama" is the title of a short story copyrighted by the council. It teaches students about name discrimination.
" 'It must be tough having a first name like Osama,' " says Mr. Allen, a school principal in the story, to a 13-year-old Iraqi immigrant. " 'With everything happening in the news, I mean. Osama, my grandfather's last name was not Allen. It was Alfirevich. He changed it to Allen to make it sound more English. More American. But sometimes I think about changing it back.' Mr. Allen smiles. 'Just to honor my grandfather.'"
When I try to simplify my name and distance myself from my culture, I underestimate the importance of names, the power of names. Despite the temptation to tell people a fake name for the convenience of assimilation, I'd rather be "Asthma" than "Jenny" any day.
• A version of this essay appeared in the Indiana Daily Student, Indiana University's student newspaper.