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Sepehr to Zip
Instead of Sepehr, I have been called...

By Sepehr Haddad
September 5, 2001
The Iranian

When I came to the U.S. to go to college in 1975, I realized something I had not experienced in Iran. My name was too difficult for people to pronounce (let alone spell). So instead of trying to learn how to pronounce my name correctly, people called me what they thought my name sounded like.

Instead of Sepehr, I have been called Sefer, Safir, Soofer, Sephr (zero?), Sepeer and the worst of all, Zipper, which like most American names got abbreviated -- to Zip. My Iranian friends even started calling me "Zeep" because they found it amusing. I fought it for a while, but then just gave up and accepted "Zip" as my name, especially that I was a newcomer and didn't want to rock the boat in social situations.

However, I vowed to hold on to Sepehr in encounters with classmates and professors, no matter how badly they mangled it. I mean, who would want to go back to Iran with a college degree that had Zip Haddad, instead of Sepehr Haddad, on it?

At the same time, I had other friends who had decided to go to work after their bachelors degrees. In order to succeed in the U.S. they felt they needed to change their names to sound more American, especially if they were in sales.

I mean, who wanted to call up a prospective client and leave a message that "Shahriar" called and will call back trying to sell you a house, stocks, or insurance? Shari-what? So, in the phone message you would just hear the name "Sean".

Others changed Houshang to "Hugh", Bahman to "Ben", Hossein to "Jason" -- or for Bonanza fans to "Hoss". Ali has become Al and every Mohammad I know in the U.S. calls himself "Mike". I have also bought flooring from a "David" who gave a good discount when he found out I was Iranian. His real name is Dariush.

Some names sound alike in Persian and English. For example, Behrooz can be pronounced as Bruce, Shahin as Shawn, and Kamran as Cameron. So these changes sound more palatable to me.

I'm sure if our parents knew we would be living here for most of our lives, they would have probably still given us Persian names, but names that also sounded more American, like Sam, Roxanne or Cyrus.

When my first son was born, my wife and I went through the whole process of deciding what to call him. We didn't want to name him anything difficult like Khashayar or Khodadad, but at the same time wanted to preserve his Persian heritage through a name. So we named him Kian. African-Americans have fallen in love with his name since it rhymes with Deion "Primetime" Sanders.

When Shahin Shahida and I were about to sign our contract, the president of the record company asked what we would be calling ourselves on our first CD. We said we wanted to be called "Shahin & Sepehr". But he said it would be better if we chose another name since "Shahin & Sepehr" would be a mouthful for radio DJs to pronounce. If radio listeners wanted to buy our CD, they would never remember our name, he added.

But we insisted that it was important to us to keep the one thing that would let everyone know we are Iranian, especially if we ever became well-known internationally. We had noticed how Andre Agassi had tried to disassociate himself from his fathers' Persian heritage (I think because he felt he would lose advertising deals if people perceived him as being Iranian).

So we got gheyrati and said it's Shahin & Sepehr and thats that. Our argument was that DJs will learn how to pronounce our names -- just look at Ottmar Leibert (a German mouthful), or Me'shell Ndegeocello.

We have no regrets. We feel sticking to Shahin & Sepehr has allowed us to talk about Iran with the Western media during interviews. The first question they always ask is, "What kind of names are these?"

The downside has been that I feel we have lost sales as the knowledgeable marketing gurus in the record company told us. In addition, we are not being played on certain radio stations because of the unfortunate bias that exists within the entertainment industry against people from the Middle East (unless you are an Iranian film director).

Which L.A. or New York entertainment critic could have pronounced the tongue-twister Makhmalbaf a few years ago without coughing up a hairball? Nowadays, they pronounce Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami like they are talking about Scorcese.

It just goes to show that you don't really need to change your name to succeed in America. It just makes it a bit more difficult. Once you do succeed, they will learn to pronounce it. Good luck to all the Ghazanfars and Roghieh's out there.


Sepehr Haddad is one-half of the Shahin & Sepehr musical duo.

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