Why Egyptians Get Confused by Our American Children’s Names

Arabic English Names

Names don’t work the same in every culture.

We realized this six years ago, when our oldest daughter came home from her first days of school with “Emma Jaison” printed on her books. Her name is Emma Hope Casper, which I clearly wrote on all her official forms.

But I also filled out the ever-important question of her father’s name, my husband, Jayson. As per Egyptian pattern, her name became Emma Jayson, though in practice Ema or Amy, Jaison or Jasen, depending on how they guessed these strange names to be spelled.

A quick lesson in the Egyptian naming system is required. When a baby is born, parents choose the first name, just as they would in America. But that is the choice available, and the rest of the name is determined by family.

Every baby’s second name is its father’s name, even if she is a girl. The third name is the baby’s grandfather’s name—that of the father’s father. The fourth and final name for official paperwork is that of the great-grandfather, and unofficially stretches back through the generations.

To be honest, we are still confused about any actual “family name”. Some people seem to have something to correspond with Smith or MacDonald, although it would be something along the lines of Masri (from Egypt) or Tantawi (from Tanta). But we can’t quite figure out how that works with the pattern above.

Each of our three daughters have similarly returned from kindergarten with their name changed. Our second became Hannah Jayson, though alternately spelled: Hanah, Hana, or Hanna.

Trying to get it right in discussion with school administration, our third daughter’s first name, Layla, got combined with her second, Peace. But her papers came back:  Lailapes Jaison. I almost couldn’t figure out what it said.

Granted, transliteration between English and Arabic isn’t easy. But he mix-ups in name have sometimes bothered our girls. A simple name like Emma Hope has become Amahoub. Hannah Mercy was eventually spelled correctly, with her a different issue emerged.

In kindergarten, Hannah was known only as Hannah Jayson, but when she entered first grade, they added her actual middle name. This happened the same year that the former president Mohamed Morsy was deposed.

But when you write Mercy in Arabic script it looks just like Morsy, since Arabic writing leaves out the short vowels. And since the word “mercy” in English looks nothing like its translation in Arabic (rahma), everyone assumed she was similarly named to the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

Plenty of people here hated the Brotherhood, but Morsi is a fine and common name—among Muslims. While plenty of names have no religious marker, Abanoub or Shenouda signify a Christian, while Mohamed or Morsi indicate the child is a Muslim.

So the teachers wondered: Why is Hannah Morsy enrolled in the Christian religion class?

Click here to read more about our kids and religious education in Egypt.

Even more confusing for the teachers is how Emma “Hobe” and Hannah “Morsy” are sisters to begin with, with different names for their father. Add in Lailapes Jaison and you really confuse them!

We thought we would make things easier for our son Alexander, who is now entering kindergarten.

Click here to read the different naming options we considered, with pros and cons for each in Egypt.

My husband’s middle name is the same as his father’s, so to honor both the family and the Egyptian pattern, we did the same. He is Alexander Jayson (father’s name) Charles (grandfather’s name). His last name is still Casper, as we can’t imitate them in everything.

But it won’t be that easy. We commonly call him by the Arabic equivalent of Alexander, Iskander. He goes by both, and much as a four-and-a-half-year-old understands these things, he knows they are both his names.

But when he gets to school, what will he say his name is? Will he write Iskander in Arabic class, but Alexander in English? And how many people will just call him Alex, anyway?

Despite the confusion for each of our kids, we teach them their names were chosen with care. We display them in our living room, that they might be esteemed by child and guest alike.

English-speaking friends sometimes curiously notice the semi-strange middle names, and Arabic-speaking friends are often altogether confused. But wholesome discussion usually follows.

Hope, Mercy, and Peace—each a desirable virtue for life, paired with a corresponding Bible verse we trust they will internalize.

Our son’s pattern is different, and his sign requires more explanation. Alexander was the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Of his two middle names, may he follow and become a third generation of faith.

Children grow old and develop their character. But a name is the one thing we give them they keep their whole lives. Their identity will be shaped by many, and their path is their own.

But we have the responsibility to shape their foundation, beginning with that first official form.

Our Hope is that they grow up with the Mercy to let others misunderstand them, the internal Peace to know who they truly are, and a family history to teach them whose cross they are privileged to carry.

Name Signs



Tabulations and Clues

One day left to go, so here are some statistics and a final picture.

There were 20 people who responded with guesses.

Among these there were 29 guesses.

None got both names right.

No one guessed the first name correctly.

The middle name was guessed correctly.

The most popular first name was Sarah, at 24%.

The most popular middle names were Grace (41%) and Joy (34%).

Neither of these choices are correct.

The correct first name contains two letters twice each.

One letter is found in Julie’s name, the other in both Emma’s and Hannah’s.

Another letter is found in Jayson’s name.

Further guesses are welcome.

The answer, God willing, to be given tomorrow.


Assigning Names

To be born on Thursday, God willing, will be our third daughter. Number one was born in the United States, though conceived in Jordan. Number two was born in Tunisia, and in a few days a third birthplace enters our family. The Arabs call such terminology ‘masqat ras’, or literally, ‘the place your head falls. If all goes well, it will simply be into the hands of the doctor.

In Julie’s family every child – five altogether – was born in the same town; in mine, three of four of us were born in different states. We are taking it a notch up by changing up the countries. While we don’t know the laws in detail, let us anticipate an oft-asked question: No, our children do not have dual citizenship. From what we have learned, our kids are Americans, though we hope of course that they will consider themselves more than that.

We are aware such nonchalance is open to critique: We get the privileges of our nationality, should we not take more pride in this association? We are glad to be Americans, and we look to represent her well overseas. There is a certain perspective, though, that moderates one’s patriotism while living overseas.

While this seems unavoidable to us, we have seen others who do their best to resist. This comes in two forms. Either one becomes a super-patriot, or else winds up near-denouncing every flaw exposed in cultural comparison.

We hope we can avoid either extreme, and the ‘sense of belonging’, we think, is an aspect of appreciation. Belonging need not be singular; since we have the freedom to belong to the place we reside, we can also belong to the place of passport. These are not mutually exclusive, though there is mutual negotiation between these and our other identities.

So when we say above that we hope our daughters ‘will consider themselves more than’ Americans, it is in hope that a particular identity will predominate. This is that they belong to God, even while they can belong to the cultures in which they live and move and have their being. We hope the names we give them contribute to this.

With daughter number one, we chose the name long before birth, and told everyone in advance to the point she became a relationship with all even at four or five months in utero. With daughter number two, we played a game letting family and friends guess between five names we liked, and the whole while we even wavered ourselves, privately, as to which we would choose. Daughter number three is a child of the blog, and thus we will put this out there for all to see and participate in. Poor girl.

In any case, please play along. The names we choose need to be at least somewhat manageable in both English and Arabic. That may not be a great clue for too many of you, but it is something to work with. The other hint is that it will follow the pattern set by our first two, though we leave it to you to figure out how. I’d say it’s a loose pattern, to save you mathematical minds from computing the numerology.

Emma Hope Casper

Hannah Mercy Casper

We really couldn’t think of a prize, especially given that this ‘contest’ is open to our general readership, so if you would like to suggest your reward along with your guess, all reasonable offers will be considered. Please leave your name choice in the comments, and everyone can join in the fun. Especially us.