In 1962, when I was born, it was illegal to issue a birth certificate for a child named anything with “shah” in it. The real Shah in Tehran felt threatened. But that didn’t stop my parents. They slipped 50 tomans (about $20 in those days) under the table and I became king of the world. Just like that. No referendum needed.
As a kid I was not conscious of how ridiculous my name was. Rather, I was made quite proud of it, especially in front of foreigners who were frequently invited to our house in Abadan for oil-company-related business.
— “Hello… What is your name?”
— “How nice. What does it mean?”
— “King of the world.”
Yeah. I thought it was pretty cool.
At school, no one called me Jahanshah. Everyone went by their last name, for some reason. So for years I was just Javid. But that didn’t stop the occasional teasing. If I messed up in class or did poorly in school sports, I’d get the “Javid reed” (reed=shat) remark.
There were others in school who had names almost as bad as mine. I had a Zoroastrian classmate who was a quiet, always smiling, butter ball named Koorosh Kabir (Cyrus The Great). It was like naming an orange The Fastest Car in The World. With so many odd and pompous Iranian names around, mine didn’t stand out very much. Until I stepped foot in America.
A simple introduction would always turn into an awkward moment. In high school in California no one could pronounce “jaw-hawn-shaw”. They’d have a minor panic attack, pull themselves together and say, with a straight face, “Hi John.” It was even worse when they’d try to say it right: Joshua, Jo-han-sen, Jee-han-sha, Jansen. Or they’d make up a nickname, like the dreadful JJ.
Explaining what my name meant was not fun any more. There was no excited “Ooooh” or polite “How interesting” but more often, it was “Hah! You’re joking, right?”
I may sound as if this was a real problem. It wasn’t. I wouldn’t take it personally. It was a fact of life that my name was difficult to pronounce and therefore easy to butcher. I kept on introducing myself as Jahanshah, unconcerned with the inevitable reaction.
But when I rushed back to Iran to join the revolution at 18, Jahanshah became a real problem — in my head, and in real life. Caught in the whole anti-Shah movement, I had become more and more uncomfortable with who I was (middle class, secular, Westernized). I was becoming a practicing Muslim and turning up at every political gathering and rally I could go to. But every time I uttered my name, I’d get a look like, “Jahan WHAT?”
I had a religious aunt whose husband was a minister in the new revolutionary cabinet. I was at their house one day and she said something like, “We have to do something about your name.” She suggested Mohammad, and I thought it was great. Instead of Immortal King of the World, I was now Immortal Mohammad. I could now go on with my life without a “taaghooti” (aristocratic) name.
That was fine, as long as I wasn’t around family members or old friends. Except for a few, everyone I previously knew hated my new name. They hated it even more that I had grown a beard and married a woman from a traditional religious background. Most would give me the silent treatment and avoid me, knowing I was a hopeless case, or hoping I would just wake up one day.
My grandmother in Shiraz was furious. Every time she saw me, she’d start: “Neegaash kon toro bekhodaa… bacheh een kaaraa chiyeh? Ah ah ah… Een cheh qeeyaafeeeyeh? To Mohammad neestee, Jahanshahee.” (“Look at him for God’s sake… Why are you acting this way? What’s this look? You are Jahanshah, not Mohammad.”)
I would laugh. I didn’t care. I was who I was — or who I thought I was — and people could take it or leave it. I had become so hung up on religious names and symbols that I had truly become a kaaseh daaghtar az aash (more Catholic than the Pope).
When my daughter was born, my wife suggested that we name her Leilee. I was furious. “A taghootee name on my child? NEVER!” Instead, like a good Muslim family, we opened the Koran and chose the first name that came up. And my daughter became Mahdiyeh (the feminine Messiah).
Mahdiyeh and I often talk about names. And she always reminds me how glad she is that she was born a girl. If she’d been a boy, I had every intention of naming her Mostafa. I won’t even get into the reasons why. It’s way too fucked up, even for ME to explain. But I haven’t learned my lesson. Until recently, I thought Marakesh would be a nice name for a girl. Or Noel for a boy.(I still like Noel. I have a thing for Santa Claus.)
When I left Iran for good in December 1989, Mohammad had already reverted to Jahanshah. But everyone who knew me as Mohammad, still calls me that, or just plain Javid. They just can’t imagine me as Jahanshah. Including my ex-wife. For a while she continued calling me Mohammad, until I objected.
“I’m Jahanshah, not Mohammad.”
“Okay, Mr. Javid.”
I fully understand.
Here in America, the Jahanshah saga continues. Every time I sign up for a table at a restaurant, I sign “JJ” (which I despise). Also if I meet people at a party whom I’m never going to see again, I introduce myself as “JJ”. If I’m in a better mood, I’m “jon-sha” and if I really like you, it’s Jahanshah in its full glory.
Its stupid meaning aside, I really like my name. It has a nice ring to it. JAW-HAWN-SHAW… LA LA LA. My mother, who changes her name every few months (as far as I know, she’s now 1930 Rose and writes under BURNTOAST) still calls me Jahanshah.
But people often make up names for me, regardless. My pal Mehrdad in Palo Alto calls me “Homayoon”. Shahrokh calls me “Jeek Jeek”. On one evening, I was addressed as “Javid Shah” three times, quite unitentionally. My neighbor calls me “John”. I’m “Johnny” to my sister Iran, who has changed her name to Michelle. Tannaz calls me Mamad Agha.
I thought I had heard it all. I thought nothing would surprise me anymore. But then I met a girl who became a friend and yet she never ever said my name. Well, she did once. And I almost died.
Call me anything you want.