The story, as it has been told to me, begins at St John’s Mercy Hospital in St Louis, Missouri. “Time of delivery: 7:00 am,” announced the male obstetrician gynecologist. “Congratulations Mrs. Batterjee, it’s a girl! I understand she is your second?” The doctor turned away and ripped off his delivery room gown and gloves without waiting for an answer from my exhausted mother. She lay there on the birthing bed, thinking of her husband and feeling sorry that he had missed the delivery. My father was extremely busy starting his new business at the time, and she had gone into labor a couple of weeks earlier than expected. Perhaps the reason for the early delivery was the stressful trip she had had to make from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. at thirty-two weeks pregnant. She had to make the long trip alone, with her two year-old daughter in tow. This was what my parents arranged for, thinking – as we tend to do – that things would work out as planned.
Of course, things rarely work out as we plan. Either of my parents can tell you that they never planned to marry someone from the other side of the world. My parents fell in love when my father, who is a Saudi from Jeddah, traveled to pursue an education in the United States. He met my mother, an American from St. Louis Missouri, at university, and they were inseparable from that moment on. They married within two years, and had their first daughter soon after. Almost four years later, they moved back to Saudi Arabia together.
When my mother found out she was pregnant with me, she knew she wanted to deliver in America, where she would have the support of her mother and sisters, just as she had with her first baby. Since my father was busy launching his new business at the time, they agreed that my mother would travel first, taking with her my older sister, and then my father would catch up a few weeks later. Their plan seemed foolproof, but I came early and my father missed the delivery.
Back in the hospital, a sweet voice came cheerfully into the room. “Good morning!” the cherubic nurse sang, carefully carrying the little bundle in her arms. “Here she eeees! Isn’t she just precious?” the sweet midwestern voice went on. My grandmother smiled as the nurse approached, eager to meet her newest grandchild.
“Sooo?” gleefully prompted the nurse while looking at my mother, “What’s her name?”
My mom glanced at my grandmother before quietly responding, “Modia.”
Touched, my grandmother smiled at my mom as she gently took me from the nurse and held me close. She whispered softly in my ear, “You are precious! You are so special.” This was my first encounter with Grandma’s soft voice and powdery sweetness, tainted with the faint smell of cigarette smoke.
Grandma was orphaned as a child. Her and her older sister had lived with their parents in Kentucky until they were about three and five years old, when both of their parents died suddenly just a few months apart; first, their father, Frank, and not long after, their mother Modia, a descendent of William Cunningham of Scotland. They were too young to really remember their parents, or to remember how they each died. Mom named me after her late grandmother, Modia Jewels Cunningham, to help her mother mend this old wound, the wound of a child losing her parents. I remember her explaining to me: “I named you Modia to help me bond with my mother and to make her feel special”.
Modia is the name for a chain of four Islets of the Echinades Islands in the Ionian Sea off of Greece. The four Islets of Modia are Soros, Apasa, Girovaris, and Modi. Modia is an uncommon English name and it is most definitely not an Arabic name. Modia is also the name of a rich matron mentioned in the poems of the book, The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, by Juvenal, a Roman poet active in the late 1st century.
No one could have known at this moment that Modia would not be the only name I would bear. It was months later, back in Saudi Arabia, when my father went to legally register my birth that I was given another name.
“What’s the baby’s first name?” the Saudi government official uninterestedly blurted at my father with a heavy Bedouin accent. It was hot, and the queue was long. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke; so many new fathers waited patiently to complete their family’s documents at the Ministerial Agency for Civil Affairs. This is where my predicament with my name first began.
“We named her Modia” my father responded with a quivering smile.
“A girl? Ha! Name’s no good! Choose another one!” he scoffed – a typical reaction for a Saudi government official in those days. The sweaty, smoke smelling man held my soon to be birth certificate and waited with a Bic pen in hand to write down the new name.
“But her mother chose the name” my father countered. He froze, not knowing what else to say.
“I said choose another name! It’s no good – it’s not Arabic, it’s not allowed. Choose another one,” he paused to draw heavy smoke from his Rothman cigarette with his left hand. “Are you Hijazi?” he asked as he blew the smoke out of his lungs and unintentionally into my fathers face.
“Yes, why?” My father began to get uncomfortable; that question could stir up a political argument, and he didn’t know what other name to choose. He was afraid anything else would upset my mother, and yet the authority was imposing his power.
The man looked at him impatiently, “you’re taking too long, I have hundreds of people in line,” he began to scrawl and said, “name her Moudhi, it sounds similar to the name her mother chose.” He handed the completed certificate to my father.
Sword names given to girls are very rare; Moudhi is possibly the only one. The name describes the shimmering light that reflects when a sharp sword is drawn from its scabbard. Moudhi is a Bedouin name, mostly given to tribal princesses a long time ago. In modern day Arabia the name Moudhi is rarely given to girls anymore. Moudhi became the name I was to be known by in Saudi society. Today, even my father calls me Moudhi.
My last name, Batterjee, is a well known merchant name in Hijaz with an unknown origin. Many Indian people I meet, however, tell me it’s a typical Indian name. In Arabic, the root word of Batterjee, batter, means amputation. And the entire name, Batterjee, means he who amputates. Amputation is commonly used to punish thieves and criminals in Saudi Arabia. An incriminated thief is not sentenced to prison, but instead has his right hand amputated after Friday prayer. Similarly, but more severely depending on the crime, criminals of murder, rape, and treason are beheaded.
The sword has historically been used as a tool to execute such punishments, to separate honor from shame, guilt from innocence. Swords are used to divide, to split, separate, and create boundaries. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the sword is etched on the flag, incorporated into the country’s insignia and given much cultural significance, as well as physically implemented by the law to execute authorized punishments.
Nobody else I know has my birth name Modia, besides my great grandmother, though countless Arab women from previous generations have the name Moudhi. Today, I bare two similar but different names from the past – strong names from opposite worlds. Were I to translate my name literally, it would state: a sharp, shimmering sword / separates honor from shame. This, surprisingly, symbolizes my life’s journey quite well. I have always lived a duality needing to defend who I am – someone caught in an endless battle between East and West, living with an American mother in a nation riddled with Middle Eastern post 9/11 extremism. I grew up carrying the burden of justifying my parents’ bicultural marriage to others. Today, I carry the burden of justifying my own choices as someone living between two worlds. Nonetheless, I have always carried these burdens in the same way: choosing to pursue honor in the place of shame.