More on the names Maha & Najla


A few months ago, in the post about vision-inspired baby names for 2020, 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 Maha, 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.

Image: Adapted from Oryx gazella – Etosha 2014 by Yathin S Krishnappa under CC BY-SA 3.0.

2 thoughts on “More on the names Maha & Najla

  1. I believe Maha refers to the oryx or antelope (specifically the white antelope in the genus Addax used in reference to the big dark eyes of the animal, considered a mark of beauty), though I’m also assuming it could be used to refer to a cow’s eyes as well. I’ve seen Najla meaning “wide-eyed” or “large-eyed” which might to refer to the wide (dark eyes) of an oryx or a cow but I can’t say that with any certainty; Maha seems to be specifically used in reference to the oryx/antelope. When I asked my Mom about Maha (I come from a Middle Eastern family) she instantly associated it with the oryx/antelope but Najla she wasn’t sure about.

    As for why Maha and Najla are two Arabic names with similar meanings but used in different contexts, I don’t know .

    Butta-kuz is an interesting name but than, I’m not familiar with Mongolian names much.

    Out of curiosity, what other names did Najla mention? I reread the article but I didn’t see any mention of them. Was it in another post?

  2. Thank you so much for the extra information, yasmeen!

    (Najla only mentioned that she saw those other names. I don’t think she listed them in the book anywhere, though.)

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