Arabic Names in the News Again

Juan Cole has a great post on 27 February about Barack Obama and many other American figures who have had Arab names.

I don’t want to copy and paste the whole thing, but here are some good parts:

At Cincinnati, Bill Cunningham, according to the LAT, “introduced presidential candidate John McCain at a rally here today accused Barack Obama of sympathizing with ‘world leaders who want to kill us’ and invoked Obama’s middle name — three times calling him ‘Barack Hussein Obama.’ ” John McCain repudiated Cunningham’s low tactics and said that using the middle name like that three times was “inappropriate” and would never happen again at one of his rallies.

I want to say something about Barack Hussein Obama’s name. It is a name to be proud of. It is an American name. It is a blessed name. It is a heroic name, as heroic and American in its own way as the name of General Omar Nelson Bradley or the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Barack is a Semitic word meaning “to bless” as a verb or “blessing” as a noun. In its Hebrew form, barak, it is found all through the Bible. It first occurs in Genesis 1:22: “And God blessed (ḇāreḵə ) them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Here is a list of how many times barak appears in each book of the Bible.

Now let us take the name “Hussein.” It is from the Semitic word, hasan, meaning “good” or “handsome.” Husayn is the diminutive, affectionate form.

The other thing to say about grandfathers named Hussein is that very large numbers of African-Americans probably have an ancestor ten or eleven generations ago with that name, in what is now Mali or Senegal or Nigeria. And, since so many thousands of Arab Muslims were made to convert to Catholicism in Spain after 1501, many Latinos have distant ancestors named Hussein, too. In fact, since there was a lot of Arab-Spanish intermarriage, and since there was subsequent Spanish intermarriage with other European Catholics, more European Americans are descended from a Hussein than they realize. The British royal family is quite forthright about the Arab line in their ancestry going back to Andalusia.

Which brings me to Omar Bradley. Omar is an alternative spelling of Umar, i.e. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Sunni Islam. Presumably General Bradley was named for the poet Omar Khayyam, who bore the caliph’s name. Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, in the “translation” of Edward FitzGerald, became enormously popular in Victorian America.

Gen. Omar Bradley, who bore a Semitic, Muslim first name, and shared it with the second Caliph of Sunni Islam, was the hero of D-Day and Normandy, of the Battle of the Bulge and the Ruhr.

What about other American heroes, such as Gen. George Joulwan, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe? “Joulwan” is an Arabic name. Or there is Gen. John Abizaid, former CENTCOM commander. Abizaid is an Arabic name. Abi means Abu or “father of,” and Zaid is a common Arab first name. Is Cunningham good enough to wipe their shoes? Is he going to call them traitors because they have Arabic names?

I bet there are people out there who suspect general Abizaid is really in cahoots with the Iraqis.



Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language, names

2 responses to “Arabic Names in the News Again

  1. barakorbarack

    There is an error in the excerpt above:


    The Semitic family of languages includes Hebrew and Arabic. To say a word is “Semitic” is to simplify to the point of near-uselessness. But I’ll explain what I know:

    “Baruch” is Hebrew for the imperative form of the verb to bless, while “bracha” is the noun form (blessing). “Barak” (pronounced the same as “Barack”) is Hebrew for lightning. Is there an etymological connection? I’ve never heard of one.

    “Barak” does occur in the bible — as a name in the book of Judges, but not all that often … maybe once. The word “baruch,” on the other hand, shows up all over the bible.

    As for the other major Semitic language … Baraka is Arabic for blessed. I recently read that Obama shortened his given name, which was Baraka. As in Amiri Baraka, né LeRoi Jones.

    I don’t know what the Arabic word for lightning is.

  2. Thank you barakorbarack. I prefer Barak, for what it’s worth.
    Barack Obama’s birth certificate is posted on the web, so unless he had his birth certificate altered, his name at birth was Barack. Where did you read that it was Baraka?
    The Arabic word for lighting is رعد, which we’d spell Ra’d or Raad.

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