Article
Hiding Behind A Name
London Club

When I was in my early twenties, I spent far too much time in nightclubs. I thought it was what adults did and so, in parallel with my new adult job, I thought it should be my new adult pastime.

But London’s West End clubs, carved out of materials as dark, cold and slippery as the people who run them, are actually quite juvenile. A conduit for base needs. Ingestion of fluids, pissing out of fluids and the ever-present mission to find sex somewhere in between those two activities. These pursuits required talking to people a lot, often repeating the same lines. Not pickup lines as such. But just reiterated statements about oneself. And reiterated questions.

This eventually got boring. So when I’d talk to someone and they asked what my name was, I started to say “Sven.” I can’t remember why I picked the most Scandinavian of Scandinavian names, but I started to relish the awkward pause that would follow it, more than the prospect of the vacant and depressing one-night stand that it was meant to create four-and-a-half hours later.

What started as a joke became a habit. I would systematically tell people my name was Sven and wait for their reactions, as they triangulated between my obviously Mediterranean face, my non-descript transatlantic accent and their own perceptions of the politically correct moment to question my ethnicity.

I grew up hating my own name. It was hard for people around me to pronounce in England and they butchered it relentlessly as they asked me what it meant and where it was from. I found it odd to have to explain such an ancestral name (my grandfather had carried it too, back in the village 3000 miles away) when I felt no attachment to it. I kept wishing I’d been named Marc. Or John. Or anything that didn’t require a detailed expose of my forefathers.

At some point in 1982, my mother had been a proponent of giving me a name unburdened of origin. But my father had insisted on perpetuating the Lebanese tradition of naming first-born males after their paternal grandfathers. He had also refused to write our surname as the simpler – and less obviously something – Atala. I always found that an odd piece of chauvinism, given that our surname, under any form, is at best an approximate transliteration.

So I went through life dreading having to say or write my name. I considered changing it when I turned 18, but then got paranoid that my high school diploma with my old name wouldn’t be valid if I did. So I let the idea go until I was 22. But by then I was concerned that my graduate diplomas would need some sort of paperwork, too, in order to remain valid. So, in the end, clerical laziness got in the way of a new name.

The new identity I’d come closest to actually going through with was a coupling of my mother’s maiden name, Francis, the Christian name my parents had to pick when I was baptized to avoid my eternal damnation in hellfire, George (incidentally the patron saint of my native England. I’ve never asked them if that was intentional), and my birth name initials thrown in as a middle name. George NA Francis.

I thought it sounded consequential and writer-ly.

And utterly fucking ridiculous.

Today, I can’t imagine having any other name than the one I’ve been attached to for 31 years. I’m comforted by it, whatever it implies, and the conversations it starts. Or ends. It reminds me who I am, where I come from, where I need to go and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Even if that means being randomly selected for extra security every time I land at JFK.

For the longest time, I had burdened myself with the mission to make understanding where I came from easier for my teachers at school, my friends on the playground and later for the people I befriended late at night over drinks or my clients. Thankfully, I finally understood that it was no one’s responsibility to simplify his or her identity for the sake of lazy interlocutors. It was precisely what made them worth talking to in the first place.

I may not be the most interesting guy in the world, but I can guarantee that I’m a far better person to talk to than George NA Francis could ever have been.

Featured image by Fabric (public domain)

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About The Author

Nasri Atallah

Nasri Atallah is a British-Lebanese author and media entrepreneur. He has published a best-selling collection of short stories and his writing has appeared in GQ, The Guardian, Brownbook, Time Out and The Outpost. He is the founder of Gate37, a cross-cultural music incubator (playing a hybrid label, A&R, booker, management role). He is also a partner at Keeward, a digital agency focussing on culture, media and technology and partnerships consultant at knowledge-sharing and social commerce platform Bookwitty. All of his work - both creative and entrepreneurial - focuses on multiculturalism, pop culture, the media industry and social justice.

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  • Amanda Shotts

    As a member of one of only two families in the UK with my surname, I can relate to your uneasiness when you were young :( Now, I wouldn’t change my name for anything. I’m assuming that your name is pronounced Nazz-ree, or am I totally wrong? George NA Francis though, even more weird than Sven, LOL!