Day 4: What’s Your Name?

There are a lot of seemingly simple questions that I have a hard time answering. One of the most basic is, “What’s your name?” Even before my conversion to Islam, this question was unusually fraught. I was born John Marshall McCormack Henshaw. Despite its primacy in order, John is one of my least-used names, showing up only at doctor’s offices and tax forms. My grandfather, uncle, and first cousin are all Johns, and, to avoid confusion, my family thus called me Marshall throughout my childhood.

I was always a bit ambivalent about Marshall. It’s a bit unusual, but certainly not unheard of. Eminem (né Marshall Mathers), that remarkable rapper with an almost Shakespearean command over the English language, made Marshall cool again when I was in college. Marshall remains the name used by my extended family and most of my high school and college classmates. It is my go-to name at Starbucks, and I still use it all summer up in Blue Hill, Maine, where I am at my whitest. It has variations. My sister shortened it to the oatmealian Mush, while my dad was in favor of the faintly avian Mush Hen. My nephew calls me by my longest of names UncleBabaMush.

McCormack is the least used of my names. It was my grandmother’s maiden name and originally comes from my great great grandfather, Arthur McCormack, who was once president of the American Public Health Association and helped found the Frontier Nursing Service. I was always told the name was Scottish, but recent research suggests it might be Irish (which would go a long way to explaining my red beard). In addition McCormack is notable because it highlights my family’s rather pretentious habit of assigning four names to its offspring, a tradition I have, of course, adopted with my own children.

My next name, Mahboob, or in its full form, Mahboob Chaiwala, has a memorable origin story. When I was in 9th grade, my mother and father had just left parents’ weekend at St. Mark’s, my boarding school, and I was feeling forlorn and sorry for myself. And then a delicious aroma wafted through the hallways of my freshman dorm. I followed my nose and accidentally on purpose fell in the door from which the smell emanated. Sitting on the floor with his cousin-brother (don’t ask) was Nabil, who would go on to be one of my closest friends. The two were eating a delicious goat curry with their hands while sitting on the floor. I shamelessly invited myself to join and, even more than the curry, what most tickled my taste buds was the masala chai they were drinking. So amused were they by my unexpected intrusion that Nabil decided to give me a nickname: Mahboob Chaiwala. Loosely translated as “beloved tea boy,” this jocular nickname stuck, and Mahboob became my first Muslim name when I accepted Islam a few months later.

There were a few issues with Mahboob. To begin with the most obvious, the second syllable proved a bit too titillating for my middle school students during my first full-time teaching gig at Wesgreen International School in the UAE back in 2003. I didn’t realize that the name was really a joke until I proudly told the Imam of the giant mosque in Dewsbury, England that my name was Mahboob Chaiwala. After recovering from a deep belly laugh, the imam dubbed me with a new name Mahboobullah: beloved of Allah.

Hamzah was born at the sharia court in Sharjah, where I went to get my visa to visit Mecca for the first time. When the government official asked for my “Muslim” name, I responded, “Mahboob.” He clicked his tongue and said I should choose a name of a prophet or one of Muhammad (saw)’s companions. After a brief pause, I alighted on Hamzah, the name of the Prophet’s (saw) uncle, and one of my favorite sahaba. Hamzah Henshaw had a nice alliterative ring to it, I thought.

When I first applied for a job, the name on my resume was confusing: J. Marshall (Hamzah) Henshaw (I used to joke that the J was silent). Steve White, the headmaster of Fay School, to his infinite credit, changed the trajectory of my name when he called to offer me my job as Director of the Summer Session and ESL teacher. “I noticed the name in your voicemail was Hamzah. If that’s what people call you out of work, that’s what you should go by in school.” And thus my current and semi-official name was born. When I transition from Maine back to Massachusetts at the end of the summer, I sometimes forget and respond to that most simple of questions when my tennis opponent asks me my name, “Marshall—I mean Hamzah.” But really it’s all good, all my names are me.

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