Apparently, the children of noted Lebanese-British international law and human rights barrister Amal Clooney (née Alamuddin) and her world-famous American actor and activist husband George arrived earlier this month. According to the Internet (aka a statement provided by the family to various media outlets), the twins, a girl and a boy, are named Ella and Alexander. (These are, I think, lovely names—in particular, my cousin and his wife named their daughter Ella earlier this year—and I never expected anything “strange”, like “Moonbeam” or “Apple”, from George Clooney.)
I learned of these things via a poignant and thought-provoking article from Duana, one of the writers at the Canadian celebrity gossip website LaineyGossip. The article is a great exploration of the naming (please, read the entire thing—it’s relatively short, and excellent), but the main point really resonated with me:
When all is said and done, this is what breaks my heart a little bit. The babies are half-Lebanese-British by birth and will be citizens of the world. Their names could have been anything, and people would have accepted them because George Clooney said so. […]
But the reason they’re worthy of comment, to me, is because I can’t shake the feeling that choosing such well-trodden ‘normal’ names sends an implicit message that Middle Eastern or Arabic names are not as desirable. That the name their mother has is not something to be emulated. […]
But in a time when we have such a massive lack of understanding of Middle Eastern and Arabic culture, I can’t help but wish there’d been a greater attempt to find the beauty in names from another culture.
It’s because representation matters. It’s because choosing Anglo names when one parent has a name that is “other” can be interpreted as feeling like there’s something to hide or be ashamed of. Names matter. And they continue to send a message long after the birth certificates have been signed.
(We do not know what, if any, middle names these children have; it’s certainly possible that they’re named “Ella Fairuz” and “Alexander Adil” or something along those lines, names that do mix their parents’ heritages. All we know at the moment is that the children have “normal”/“classic” English first names. Still, Duana’s point stands; the middle names, even if present and known, will not have the same prominence as the children’s first names.)
I will echo Duana from LaineyGossip in saying that it’s none of my business what the Clooneys choose to name their children, that these are lovely names, and that we have no idea what their thought-process might have been. But to someone who spent the bulk of his academic career focused on the Middle East, who is living in 2017, it does feel like a missed opportunity for two extremely high-profile, politically-aware and -active parents to make a quiet but lasting, positive statement about issues close to them.
Moving on, I have two additional thoughts to add to what Duana has already presented. The first is that when Amal Alamuddin married George Clooney, she took his surname. (In addition, she did not keep her birth surname as a post-marriage middle name, as is sometimes done in the Anglophone world.) Again, her choice and none of my business. But (not knowing her, or anything about her beyond what appears in standard short-form biographies of her), it still surprised me when it happened—I had, for no real reason, expected her to emulate 1990s-era Hillary Rodham Clinton and become “Amal Alamuddin Clooney” (as she was very briefly called in the media once her marriage became known but before it became known she was going by “Amal Clooney” instead). She had a reasonably high-profile and established career under her birth surname. Further, on occasion in the Middle East I’d been told that traditionally women did not take their husbands’ surnames on marriage, since the name represented his ancestry and one could not suddenly inherit that ancestry (how common this practice really is/was, I have no idea). It has been interesting—I’m not sure that is the right word—though definitely fruitless to wonder why she made that choice. It certainly was one of the things that popped into my mind, though, when I read the piece about the children’s names.
The second item is a story that my great-aunt Dorothy told during one of our family reunions years ago, about the thought and behavior patterns of immigrants (at least of her grandparents’ era). She said that the immigrants insisted that their children (her parents, in this case) were/be Americans; the immigrants did not teach their children (nor let them speak) Italian, and many things from the “old country” disappeared in favor of assimilation. Indeed, in our family, Stefano Serafino became “Steve S.” upon arrival in the United States, and his and Maria’s children were Katherine, Jennie, John, Clement, James, Marie, Adam, and Steve, “abandoning” family names like Domenica, Theresa, Giovanni, and Stefano. (Then, Aunt Dorothy continued, in the next generation, there was a reaction against that suppression of ancestry and culture; she and her siblings and cousins sought to learn about their heritage, where they were from, and so on, though by this time some things—including the ability to speak Italian [Piedmontese]—were lost altogether.)
The Alamuddin family were immigrants to the United Kingdom, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War when Amal was very young. I wonder if her immigrant experiences—whether like my great-great-grandparents’ or something unique to her time and place—came into play when thinking about naming the children? At the end of the day, all we can do is speculate—and waste our time writing about our thoughts and speculations—until one of the Clooneys one day (if ever) addresses the subject directly. Still, though, in today’s world, representation matters, and for billions of non-Anglo-European or part-Anglo-European adults and children (and the hundreds of millions of them living in traditionally-Anglo-European societies), the Shireens and Hishams and Laylas and Iskanders, it may feel like still “there’s no one on TV like me” when this month there easily could have been.