In October of 1990, two months after Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah testified in front of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She said she’d seen Iraqi soldiers taking Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.
Her testimony helped sway public opinion in favor of the Gulf War.
But in early 1992, her testimony was called into question. New York Times writer John MacArthur revealed that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States. Her appearance had been arranged by a U.S. public relations firm and sponsored by a Kuwaiti organization pushing for military intervention. Most importantly, the claims she made could not be corroborated:
Saddam Hussein committed plenty of atrocities, but not, apparently, this one. The teenager’s accusation, at first verified by Amnesty International, was later refuted by that group as well as by other independent human rights monitors.
And amid this controversy in 1992, we see the baby name Nayirah appear for the very first time in the U.S. baby name data:
1992: 13 baby girls named Nayirah [debut]
The name, which means “luminous” in Arabic, dropped out of the data the next year. It remained a one-hit wonder until reappearing just recently, in 2015.
When the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March of 2003, tens of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq fled from their cities and villages and took shelter in the hills.
One of these displaced Kurdish families included a boy named Awara, which means “refugee.” His older brother said Awara’s name would be changed to Azad, or “freedom,” once it was safe for the family to return to their home village.
And along with the change in regime came a change in baby naming trends. The name “Saddam” and the names of Saddam Hussein’s children (e.g., Udai, Kusai, Rajad, Halla), which had been trendy up to that point, quickly fell out of favor. An employee of Iraq’s National Registry in Baghdad said in late 2003, “We haven’t had even one Saddam since the fall of the regime on April 9th.”
Instead, Iraqi parents started opting for other namesakes. The director of the National Registry mentioned that more than 20 babies had been named for religious leader (and Hussein enemy) Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim after he was assassinated in August, for example.
I couldn’t find any follow-up articles about Awara’s family, though, so I don’t know if they ever made it back to their village, or whether Awara’s name was finally changed from “refugee” to “freedom.”
Saddam Hussein served as the leader of Iraq from the mid-1970s until the early 2000s.
In August of 1990, he invaded Kuwait and set off the Persian Gulf War. (Years later, when asked why he invaded Kuwait, one of his answers was: “When I get something into my head I act. That’s just the way I am.”)
In early 1991, the a U.S.-led allied coalition attacked Iraq, mainly from the air (Operation Desert Storm). By late February, the Iraqis were finally driven out of Kuwait.
Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. news enough in the early 1990s that the name Saddam appeared in the U.S. baby name data for three years in a row:
1992: 5 baby boys named Saddam
1991: 10 baby boys named Saddam
1990: 15 baby boys named Saddam [debut]
6 born in California
The name Saddam means “one who confronts” in Arabic. In 2007, The Economist specified that the “ungainly” name was “a conjugate of the Arabic words for “shock” and “collision.””
Saddam Hussein’s full name at birth was Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti. “Hussein” was his father’s name, “Abd al-Majid” was his grandfather’s name, and “al-Tikriti” refers to the town of Tikrit, where he was born. He later abolished regional surnames, possibly to “obscure the number of members of his inner circle who were relatives from Takrit.”
Authorities in China’s Hotan prefecture (which is part of the far west Xinjiang Autonomous Region) have recently banned 22 specific Muslim baby names in “an apparent bid to discourage extremism among the region’s Uyghur residents.”
In fact, Beijing has long been restricting the rights of the mostly-Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, which make up the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang (45% of the population).
And the name-ban doesn’t just apply to babies. It also applies to young children who already have these names. Uyghurs in the region have told reporters that “authorities were forbidding children whose parents did not change their names from attending kindergarten and elementary school.”
According to Ilshat Hesen, vice president of the Uyghur American Association in Washington, D.C., the name ban is a “violation of human rights, and an example of Chinese authorities’ extreme assimilation policy for Muslim Uyghurs.”