Names and surnames in Egypt

In one of the previous posts (here) I described the problems I had to face when I taught in Egypt. One of them was the fact that some names are very popular there and that Egyptians have many names.

At the beginning I will explain that in Egypt there is no clear difference between the name and the surname. The name, as we understand it, is given by parents. The equivalent of your surname is the father’s name, then the grandfather’s name and great-grandfather’s name and sometimes even great-great-grandfather’s name. This way the number of names is 4 or 5. That’s also the reason why a simple question: “What’s your husband’s surname?” is so complicated. “Is one going to be enough or should I tell you all of them?” 😉

Here comes the question: Which name is really used? We can imagine a hypothetical name: Mohamed Ibrahim Mahmoud Ahmed Ayman. It’s a bit long so using all of it is a bit problematic. On the documents as passport, ID or driving license there are all the names. The same goes for any other official documents like birth or marriage certificate. For example on credit cards there are normally only three first names because there isn’t enough space for more 🙂

Some names are extremely popular in Egypt, for example: Mohamed, Ahmed, Mahmoud, Ali and for women: Amina Yasmin, Magda. What does it mean in practice? It happens very often, especially among men that they have the same name and first surname but it doesn’t mean they are family members 😉 In daily life Egyptians use the first two names. That’s why when in a group of people there are many men called Mohamed some of them will be called with their father’s name to distinguish them. For example Mohamed Ayman will be called Ayman if in the group there are other men called Mohamed.

Now, imagine how classes in schools look like 🙂 Kids are divided in groups alphabetically. But how exactly? According to their name? Father’s name? Maybe grandfather’s name? Or maybe the last name they have? So, kids (at least it used to be like this when my husband went to school) are divided into classes according to the first letter of their name. This way in a group of 30 kids there are 25 boys named Mohamed, 3 named Mahmoud and 2 named Mustafa. It’s easier for a teacher who doesn’t remember the names. It’s enough to say Mohamed and for sure someone will answer 😉 At the same time it’s difficult for a teacher who wants all the students to participate actively in the class. That’s what happened to me when three men in the group I taught were named Mohamed.

The surnames are always inherited from the father so among women the repetition of names and surnames is not that common. What’s more, women never change their surname after they get married. They always keep the surnames they have 🙂

It’s also important to mention that Arabic names have a meaning! For example:

Amir means a prince

Hossam – a sword

Nabil – noble

Karim – generous

Iman – faith

Jamila – beautiful

Basma – a smile

Amal – hope

Amina – trustworthy

These words are also used in Arabic in the same meaning they have as names. If we want to say that someone is generous we will say “karim” but in this case it doesn’t have to be this person’s name but only an adjective we use for description 🙂

Very often people asked me in Egypt: “What does your name mean?” and they were shocked when I answered that I didn’t know. “How is it possible? Every name has a meaning! And your surname what does it mean?” Oh, my surname doesn’t mean anything at all but t’s not so easy to explain 😉

Another funny story happened when our friend in Egypt who makes handicraft products wanted to make a gift for my parents. It was supposed to be a nameplate with names of course and few words of thank you. He told me earlier: “You just need to tell me what’s your mother’s name”. “Sure but why only my mother’s name? How do you know my father’s name?” “How? I know your last name of course!”. Well, not really… Finally we decided to put only “Thank you” on the gift 🙂