As I approach the threshold of 24 years on earth, I have rediscovered my own identity in a way I never imagined.
I’m Safeeyah Qadhi (pronounced caa-thee not ca-dee) - formerly Safeeyah Kazi. No I didn’t get married or have an identity crisis. I merely made a decision to embrace the surname tied to decades of my family’s heritage.
My grandfather departed India for the U.K. as a hardworking immigrant in 1968.
His arrival came at a time when Great Britain was far from the tolerant place we know it to be today. In fact, the racism ran so rife that he was one of many to be given a token “English” name as his colleagues refused to attempt to pronounce his “foreign” one.
Albeit in a diluted form, I experienced my own form of scrutiny as a result of my “ambiguous” surname. I vividly remember being mocked by my school peers who strung together their own theories of what it could mean and the places I must’ve been. When you’re 11 and desperately navigating your place in the world, it is incredibly isolating.
Fortunately, outside the tumultuous walls of education, my family were always proud to emphasise our rich cultural history to my siblings and I. There was a desire to make sure we were proud of what that name meant, it was a signifier of all the sacrifices my grandparents had made to give us better opportunities.
My grandfather was very much a quiet man in the latter years of his life, he had that Albus Dumbledore presence where you didn’t know everything about him but you knew he had seen a lot – it was almost like he held tangible wisdom in the palm of his hands. However, in the years prior to his passing he opened up about the real history behind our name in something of an eye-opening conversation.
It turned out there is indeed a lot in a name.
One evening as my parents, brothers & I were all sat together around the table in the dining room at my grandfather’s house, he began unpacking some of our family history during a conversation about our heritage. As with many immigrants, family records were scarce and virtually impossible to come by so any nuggets of knowledge from the elders of the family were – and always will be - precious.
It was then he revealed to us the lineage of our “true” surname Qadhi. It meant judge and had strong Arab heritage and it so happens that my great grandparents were of Yemeni decent.
I had immediate goosebumps. There were layers to our name that I had never contemplated. It was almost like he had given us the key to a whole different world secretly tucked away amidst the branches of our family tree.
It was a name that quite literally travelled oceans. From a historical point of view it is a rooted in the Arabic language but was brought across to India. It is widely believed that the first presence of Arabs in India came via trade in as early as the seventh century.
Cross-cultural influence meant that letters that appeared in names of Arab decent were pronounced differently in the Indian subcontinent. Hence the Arabic letter ذ (dhal), which has a “dh” sound similar to the word “this” in English, was said as a Z. Thus Qadhi became Kazi.
So whilst Kazi is the result of the blend of influences, it remains untrue to the name used by the generations gone.
My family and I contemplated the change back to Qadhi countless times after the conversation with my grandfather. The tragic part was the only thing that truly held us back was a fear of intolerance. It would be foolish to deny that my parents hadn’t taken the plunge sooner because they were fearful we’d struggle more in school or be overlooked in employment prospects.
However, in 2022, a time where the concept of identity is constantly-evolving, I no longer share these trepidations. From where I’m standing, if beautifully elaborate surnames from other cultures could be not only embraced but celebrated by society then why not ours?
This next chapter will all be filed under the memory of Safeeyah Qadhi, a name I’m incredibly proud to carry. Whatever trials may come with this, I am willing to embrace all of them in the name of finding myself.
In many ways changing my surname has felt like regaining a lost piece of our family history and an even bigger piece of my identity. For a process that look less than ten minutes to actively complete, I’m surprised by the feeling of magnitude attached to the change. That being said, it has been 54 years in the making for our family and I’d like to think my grandfather would be proud.