I have a really difficult last name. Some of you might be the same way. Moghavem. It’s got an exotic consonant, a sound that doesn’t even exist in the English language (where ‘gh’ is the placeholder), and several ways to pronounce the whole thing — depending on how the English speaker decides to break it up.
As a result, I’ve spent most of my life avoiding it and helping other English speakers avoid it. I’m lucky that my first name — Nuriel — is unique enough that I basically haven’t really needed a last name. Throughout high school, college and between, I’ve just been Nuriel. It’s worked pretty well.
But now I’m in medicine. In medicine, your last name is your identity. Nuriel Moghavem is the second-year medical student taking your history. Dr. Moghavem will one day be your doctor. Dr. Moghavem might even be the person you’re referred to.
It’s been a weird identity shift. I didn’t really expect it. I’ve had to land on an anglicized pronunciation of the name that I like (truthfully, I don’t like it) and I still feel self-conscious every time I share it with a patient.
In Persian, my last name is actually very pretty. The ‘gh’ sound which doesn’t exist in English is common in Persian; it is guttural but smooth and creates an emphatic split which makes the name almost fun to say. I speak Persian pretty well, but am unfamiliar with the word ‘Moghavem’; I’m told it means “shopkeeper” — something relatable and admirable. Almost the Persian equivalent of “Smith”.
I’m extremely proud of my last name; the family that shares it is stocked with brilliant, passionate, loving and dedicated men and women, many of whom escaped a violent revolution to bring the name to America. My father, who gave me the name, is my hero. I’d never think of changing it.
But I’m starkly confronted by my identity every time I say Moghavem aloud, and perhaps what makes me uncomfortable is that the name presents an immediate divide between me — who knows the name, who can pronounce it — and the patient — who doesnt, and can’t. The patient may also be the son of immigrants, with an unpronounceable name of their own, and the name will still present a divide, however small. It’s really ironic, given how ubiquitous shopkeepers are.
These dueling feelings of pride and burden are interesting. Maybe I’m not the only one. And perhaps this will all resolve itself as I get more used to introducing myself to patients and establish my practice in the future. But for now, it presents an interesting opportunity to — all at once — reflect on my own identity, my relationship with my patients, and my family’s history.