A few months ago, in the Visionary Baby Names for 2020 post, I mentioned the names Maha, Najla, and Butta-kuz. Each of these names refers to the eyes of a specific animal, yet most books and websites define them only in the extended sense: “beautiful eyes,” or “wide eyes.”
This is frustrating if you’re aiming to find more detailed definitions — something I learned while writing that post, and something memoirist Najla Said learned the day she met a woman named Maha.
In Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family (2013), Najla recounted that Maha (of Syrian descent) asked her what “Najla” meant. She replied:
“It means ‘big black eyes like a cow,'” I told her with the “I am so proud of my special name, isn’t it exotic and beautiful” smile I had now perfected.
Then Maha surprised Najla by claiming that her name meant the exact same thing.
Najla, somewhat upset by this, asked her mother about the unlikely coincidence. Her mother confirmed that “[the names] are similar. But they are different.”
So Najla — like the rest of us — turned to the internet. There, she found a site about Arabic baby names.
I looked up “Najla” and I looked up “Maha” and sure enough, I found them to mean essentially the same thing. But what is weirder is that […] there were also about twenty other names that mean “big black eyes like a…something” — “big black eyes like a cow,” “big black eyes like a donkey,” “big black eyes like a horse,” “big black eyes like a monkey”…
Finally she consulted her younger brother Wadie, who’d taken Arabic in college. He told her that “Maha” meant “‘big black eyes like an ibex…or rather, an oryx, I believe?”
…I’ve seen conflicting information about both Najla and Maja, so I can’t quite tell if either one refers specifically to a wild cow, or to an oryx, or to something else entirely.
I am very curious about those other animal eye-inspired Arabic names Najla mentioned, though. So far, I haven’t found any of them. If you know of one, please leave a comment!
P.S. Najla is the daughter of scholar Edward Said.