I tell them that my name means the distinguished one in Arabic. That is not quite the whole truth, but it is easier. Easier than explaining that Sharifa holds this meaning, but that I am called Sharila. A harmless edit. A daring modification. The soft l replaces the harsh f of a tongue that sounds alien to my Western ears; an l which evokes images of the serene rolling savannas of the motherland, a place that I have never been, yet incessantly yearn for. It is a resilient l, one that refuses to be forgotten in the midst of a new identity.
Some speak my name coarsely, falsely assuming that it is a concocted moniker rooted in the unfortunate combination of poverty and blackness, a category which many unjustly equate with ignorance. Others accurately comprehend that it stems from both a foreign language and an unfamiliar concept. Most neglect to take the time to appreciate its rhythmic chime and quiet strength. My name is neither the benign Sheila nor the exotic Sharifa. It is simply what it is. Sharila. Like me.
I am Sharila, I say. A lethal combination of uncommon name and covered head. The question that appears on their faces before it escapes their mouths: Where are you from? A loaded query. A probing inquiry filled with expectations and anticipation. Anticipation that swiftly transforms into confusion before my very eyes when I respond with America. To be Black and Muslim. I am an African-American Orthodox Muslim, a member of a segment of society that is misunderstood at best and disdained at worst.
My mother named me. She always tells me the story of my name, repeating it as the griots repeat past happenings. She inherited her faith and her history from her father, my grandfather. A man of few words and high hopes from rural Oklahoma who replaced his Anglo-Saxon last name with an X during the 60s. A man who realized the beauty of coexistence and converted to Orthodox Islam.
My father always calls me Rere. I have only heard my full name accented by his voice a handful of times. He is a Christian. I strive to prove to him that I am not lost. Recollections of anxious conversations and uncomfortable silences linger within me.
I sometimes feel like a woman without a tribe. I am looked at by my own peoples as other. It is as if I am trapped on a pendulum that sways back and forth rapidly from one side to another desperately trying to find its place. I desire to be like the dolphin, an animal that can remain underwater for several minutes but must emerge eventually to breathe. Neither the depths of the ocean nor the shore is its permanent resting place, but it remains at ease.
I have not yet lived up to my name, a moniker that effortlessly bridges the gap between my identities. When will I be ready to appreciate my uniqueness? I must remember that I was born to be the distinguished one. The manner in which my name was altered only works to further exemplify that.