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Is it too late to correct the pronunciation of my name?

For far too long, I’ve been afraid to push back against the ‘Canadian’ pronunciation of my Arabic name

I’ve never been comfortable with the westernized pronunciation of my name, but I was afraid to stand up or feel like an inconvenience, writes Sabra Ismath.

I’ve never been comfortable with the westernized pronunciation of my name, but I was afraid to stand up or feel like an inconvenience, writes Sabra Ismath.

Photo: (Skodt McNalty/CBC)

RCI

This First Person column is written by Sabra Ismath who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ (new window). 

I never understood why I loved Hannah Montana as a child. 

Maybe it was because I, too, lived a double life. 

It started when I was five years old. I remember sitting in a circle beside my new classmates on the very first day of school. As the teacher went through the attendance list going from Sarah to Kevin, she finally called out my name. Well, her pronunciation of it at least, but regardless I knew she was referring to me. Sab-ra, she said. I'm not sure why I raised my hand and said here. 

Fast forward several years, I'm now a 22 year old asking myself if it's too late to correct the 'Canadian' version of my name that I have let people call me all my life. My name isn't just a label I wear. It's my identity and allowing others to call me by a white-washed version of it seems an injustice to myself. 

As a child, Sabra Ismath says didn't correct people when they mispronounced her name. Now as an adult, she's had some awkward conversations to change that.

As a child, Sabra Ismath says didn't correct people when they mispronounced her name. Now as an adult, she's had some awkward conversations to change that.

Photo: (Sabra Ismath)

When others would say my name incorrectly, I simply smiled and nodded my head so that I didn't cause them any trouble or feel like an inconvenience. Growing up in Canada as a South Asian Muslim has always been a constant battle to fit into the standards the western society has deemed acceptable. 

These subtle and unintentional microaggressions made me feel my name and my identity were an inconvenience to Canadian society and those who could not pronounce it. 

Eventually, I adopted this bungled pronunciation of my name. 

I lost sight of the beauty of my name by being confined in a box of fear, the need to fit in, and the feeling that because I am an immigrant I needed to be grateful for what I have and not ask for more. 

Well, my name is Sabra, pronounced Sub-ra, not Sab-ra. It comes from the Arabic root word, Sabr' (صبر), which means patience.  Growing up, I always was taught to be patient with any hardship that comes my way since God has a plan for us. At home I never was called by nicknames or short forms of my name since my parents always told me there is great weight to my name. It's beautiful, you just have to see it. 

So the question arises: how do I change that? Is it too late to correct the pronunciation of my name?

The first person I ever corrected was myself. I remember standing beside my mother as I talked to the store clerk. She smiled and put the two tops I had just begged my mom to buy into the bag and asked me for my email address to redeem the store's back-to-school coupon. With no hesitation I said, Sab-ra. My mom furrowed her eyebrows, and I felt ashamed. When the cashier repeated back to confirm the address, I corrected myself and said, Sub-ra.

From there, I slowly built the courage to let others know.

I swear you told me it was Sab-ra. That's the first thing my co-worker of three summers said when I finally decided to tell her the proper way of pronouncing my name. I had casually dropped the correct pronunciation of my name in a funny story about my sister. I was too scared to come straight out and tell her I had practically lied to her from the beginning. My co-worker heard the unfamiliar pronunciation, and looked confused before asking me to repeat myself. I did just that and explained that's how my name should be pronounced. I felt extremely self-conscious the rest of my shift, but just as we were bidding our farewells, she said my name, "Sub-ra" and said it suited me more. 

Coming home that day, I felt that same unsettling feeling of shame that I had felt before. But  I also felt content that I had stood up for who I am

Looking back, I realize that feeling was also me finally seeing what my parents had seen when they first named me. With patience, I finally see myself and my name for what it is and I yearn to wear it proudly and that is the first step. 

I realized I don't owe anyone anything because I am reclaiming my privilege, my life, my name. 

So, my name is Sabra. Here is how to pronounce it:

Sabra Ismath (new window) · for CBC First Person

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