Sharmouta: Names Games in Israel

By Hatim Kanaaneh

The Name Games are on in Israel. On the eve of the 5775 Jewish New Year the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced the winning first name most commonly given to a newborn boy in Israel in the preceding year as Youssef, which is used by both Arabs and Jews. The spokesperson neglected to mention that what the Authority had in mind was names among Jews only. When questioned the woman hid behind explanations of who her regular customers demanding the statistics were. Of course, her motives were pure and egalitarian.

You can’t really blame this one branch of government. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, an institute reputed for its precision and comprehensiveness would have done the same. After all, everyone knows that Israel is the state of the Jews and that the negligible Arab minority of over 20% is only that, a minority, a mere impurity and a blemish on the wholesomeness of the state’s exclusive ethnicity. The CBS, like other branches of the system in the state of the Jews, has always labored hard at actualizing the dream of ethnic purity with all the means at its disposal: It has always kept its statistics for the miniscule minority split by religion: Moslem, Christian and Druze. On occasion it throws in other random lines of division such as Bedouin versus settled non-Jews. It is not long now before we will have Aramean Christians. Anything but the ‘A’ word because that would imply the presence within our borders, holy and inviolable even if still undetermined, of a non-Jewish contaminant of the same ethnic substance like the sea of undesirables surrounding us on all sides (except, of course, for our Mediterranean escape route to our former cradle of civilized bliss for which we have never stopped longing.)

Then one unprincipled Haaretz correspondent (Ilan Lior, September 22) insisted on toppling the applecart, right on the eve of the holiday when apples are so much in demand: He looked closely at the statistics and as a misinformed non-statistician discovered that the actual winner should have been Muhammad. Ouy-ve!! as we say in Yiddish. What the hell!! What that means is that the 16-or-so% Muslims in Israel use the name Muhammad more than six times as often as its Jews use Youssef. Boy! That is fidelity all right! But I could have told you that without the bother of statistics. My three oldest brothers, may they rest in piece, were named after the prophet. And there are dozens of families in our village with multiple children named after the prophet.

Back in my younger days I taught school in the neighboring village of Sakhnin. We lacked textbooks and I spent a lot of time writing on the blackboard. Whenever the class got too noisy I would shout without turning around: “Muhammad and his neighbor, stop talking.” And for a minute or two you could hear a pin drop. And in the British Mandate days, before Israel elevated our individualistic consciousness with its numbered ID cards, the name Muhammad and its derivatives wreaked havoc with our subsistence farming in the fertile Battouf Valley. You see, Bedouins had the nasty habit of letting their cattle feed on the crops in our land at the peak of its productivity. When a farmer took a Bedouin to court the latter would produce a verifiable alibi proving that the accused, Muhammad the son of Ahmad the son of Mahmoud Mrisat, was in Jordan that day. There simply were ten Bedouins with the same string of the prophet’s alternate names.

Which reminds me: The correspondent of Haaretz also discovered that among the ten top-ranking names Ahmad actually came in at number nine. This is the place to divulge a closely guarded secret of our community. Endearing nicknames, derived from twisting the actual name around to a catchy and playful-sounding shortened version, are a relatively recent phenomenon in our community, an Israeli fad if I am not mistaken. Anxious to maintain our lead position in the Name Game, our leaders have come up with the trickiest of tricks. All three forms of the interrelated prophet’s names, Muhammad, Ahmad and Mahmoud are given the cutie nickname of ‘Hammoudi.’ Now let your flaky ‘Yossi’ compete with that! Muhammad alone beat the s… out of your lead name.

But you try, I know. I just read that the administrators in Safad (I know, you call it Tzfat) College have appointed a student council, the only unelected one in the country, to preempt, I presume, the likelihood of a Mohammad being elected by the 70%-Arab student body.

Recently, in one of his op-ed pieces, Oudeh Bsharat related a personal incident with his son to illustrate a point. His son wanted to know the meaning of ‘mumis,’ a high Arabic term for a sex worker. He hummed and hawed and couldn’t come up with an appropriate explanation. A while later the child came back shouting ‘sharmouta!’ the vulgarity of the same meaning used colloquially as a cuss word.

Well, let me tell you: regardless who asks for what and who supplies the statistics to whom, It is a fucking sharmouta! Shameless apartheid, denial and exclusion of the other.

– Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician who has struggled for over four decades to improve the health of his Palestinian community in Galilee against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the founder of the NGO The Galilee Society and the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee and of a forthcoming fictional trilogy. He contributed this article to

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