Osama Shehzad | Longreads | August 2020 | 3,543 words (14 minutes)
“Passport please,” asks the security officer, an Indian-British woman, at London’s Heathrow airport.
I hand her my green Pakistani passport, and she thumbs through it to get to the page with my visa. I am travelling to America where I’ve lived since 2009 on either student or work visas.
As she examines my passport, she frowns and then lifts her head to look at me.
I reply with a nod and a small wry smile, as I always do when people ask to confirm my name.
She leans over and asks in a hushed voice, “Do you get shit for your name in America?”
I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, where Osama was — and still remains — a popular name.
My grandfather, a poet, named me Osama because he wanted a name without a harsh stop at its end, a name that would flow smoothly off the tongue to my last name, Shehzad.
My elementary school Koran teacher, Qari Sahab, tells me Osama is an ancient Arabic name that translates to “lion.” It is popular throughout the Muslim world because Prophet Muhammad chose that name for his adopted grandson.
“What is your name beta?” asks the uncle, an old friend of my father who is over at our place with his wife for tea. The uncle emigrated to the U.S. in the ‘80s and has rarely visited Karachi since. This is my first time meeting him.
“Osama,” I reply.
“Oye, you are hiding here in Karachi and Bush is looking for you everywhere,” replies the uncle and everyone in the drawing room gives out a courteous chuckle for his attempt to lighten the mood.
“Good luck getting a visa to America,” his wife adds.
“You should change your name,” the uncle instructs me.
“Chai piyo aur niklo,” I feel like telling him, but instead reply with a polite “Okay.”
“Be prepared,” warns Mrs. Isani when I tell her that I have decided to attend college in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mrs. Isani is my high school counselor. She is, I guesstimate, around 85 if not older. She is a soft-spoken but straight-to-the-point Parsi lady.
“The American South is a racist place,” she tells me. “I am afraid you will be bullied because of your name.”
“You are applying for an American visa?” people in my high school mockingly remark when I tell them about my college aspirations.
“I thought you were planning on going to Georgia, the country in Eastern Europe,” comments one friend. I wonder if he is showing off his knowledge of world geography or highlighting his apparent lack thereof.
“You will never get a visa to America.”
It’s 2008 and America has just elected a new president with a name only one letter different from mine. Obama dares everyone to hope. I hope that Americans don’t judge people by their names.
My parents tell me that I shouldn’t feel ashamed if I want to go by another name when I’m in America.
I can tell they feel responsible for giving me a once-beautiful, now-wretched name.
They even make suggestions: maybe a condensed Sam? Or a Western-sounding Sammy? Or Two-Two, a pet name they reveal they had used for a few days in the hospital — the room in which I was born was numbered 22 — before my ultimate name was assigned to me.
I try to put myself in the shoes of an American college student and contemplate which name can be more easily made fun of: Osama or Two-Two?
“You should just go by Shehzad in America,” suggests a high school friend. “I’ve heard people in the West just go by their last names.”
“Mister Shehzad,” I say out loud to him. “It does have a nice ring to it.”
“Sounds like Mister Bond.”
“Maybe I should go by Double-O Seven?”
“Or better, you should come up with your own number. How about Zero Zero Nine Two?”
“Zero Zero Nine Two…” I repeat to check how it sounds.
“Don’t do it. They’ll think you’re a telephone from Karachi.”
“Visa milgaya apko?” asks the airline employee with a tinge of sarcasm as I check in to my flight at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.
There are no direct flights from Pakistan to America. I fly from Karachi to Dubai to London to Chicago. Phupho and Phupha, my aunt and uncle who live in Indianapolis, will pick me up from O’Hare and then drive me to my college in Atlanta.
As I wait at Heathrow to board my final flight, I practice introducing myself to others. I try to imagine every possible reaction from them — and what an appropriate polite response to it might be.
If someone were to start laughing and ask, “Are you serious?” I would pretend to laugh too and say, “Obviously not, I’m Sam.”
If they called me a terrorist or tried to punch me, I would run away. Where? I am not sure. Maybe back to my dorm?
If they walked away because they didn’t want to talk to anyone who had a name like mine, I would just put my head down in shame.
I wonder if I need to say sorry for going by my own name.
On the flight from London to Chicago, a white American woman is sitting next to me.
I am worried: will she ask what my name is? I debate if I should tell her my name is Osama. Maybe I shouldn’t because we are on a plane.
We talk briefly but she never asks.
There is always a pause after I tell people my name in college. I see a split-second hesitation in their eyes. I feel embarrassed for putting them in this situation. I don’t know what to do. I end up smiling a lot.
“Osama?” People repeat my name, sometimes a few times, to confirm they heard it correctly.
“Yes, Osama,” I say.
“Obama?” Some people ask me.
“No,” I correct them. “Osama.”
“Bro, how the fuck did you hear me say Ajay?” I want to ask this weirdo.
Instead I politely correct him. “No, Osama.”
I watch Office Space for the first time with people in my freshman dorm. They claim to have seen it multiple times.
“Michael…” a woman reads out a man’s name in one scene, before pausing with astonished eyes, “Bolton?”
“That’s me,” says Bolton, who we can tell has been in this situation too many times before.
“Wow,” exclaims the woman. “Is that your real name?”
Everyone around me laughs. I am tense. I wonder how Bolton will respond to this. I also wonder if anyone is looking at me, trying to see how I react to this scene. So I keep my eyes glued to the screen and smile.
“Yeah,” says Bolton curtly as he clears his throat.
“So are you related to that singer guy?”
“No,” clarifies Bolton, who’s trying to end the conversation. “It’s just a coincidence.”
“Oh,” says the woman, seemingly disappointed, as she walks away.
When Bolton’s cubicle mate, Samir, complains that no one in America can say his last name correctly, Bolton says, “well at least your name isn’t Michael Bolton.”
“You know there is nothing wrong with that name,” Samir tells him.
“There was nothing wrong with that name,” corrects Bolton. “Until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.”
“Well why don’t you just go by Mike instead of Michael?” suggests Samir.
“No way, why should I change? He is the one who sucks.”
On Facebook I notice that some other Osamas — whom I knew from Pakistan and who had also come to America — have now tweaked their names. They go by Sam or Mo or Sammy. No one goes by Two-Two or Zero Zero Nine Two.
I wonder if their experience as an Osama in America is different from mine. It probably is, I tell myself.
Sometimes I wonder what other Osamas in the world, not just in America, are experiencing.
“Wait, wait,” says a guy at a frat party. He is trying to hush the three other people whom I have also just met for the first time, and who are standing in a circle with us.
“I have to ask you a question, Osama,” he says.
The way he emphasizes my name. I know where this is going.
“Are you related to…” He pauses for dramatic effect and then adds, “Osama bin Laden?”
He delivers his punchline and looks around the circle as he laughs. The two guys, both wearing identical Braves hats, smile.
The one other person in the circle, a girl who I think is in the same CS1371 section as me, squirms with an uncomfortable expression on her face.
“This is awkward as fuck,” I can hear her thinking in her head.
I contemplate changing the spelling of my name:
Okssamta (the k and the t would be silent)
I read somewhere that self-deprecating humor makes you appear more relatable and therefore more attractive.
A Starbucks opens in the library. It is quickly the most popular spot on campus. Lines are always long and sometimes extend out of the building during finals week.
Even though the baristas ask for my name every time and spell it correctly on the cup when they write it down, I notice that they never say it out loud.
I feel bad for putting the barista in a position where they are afraid to offend someone by calling them an Osama.
I tell this story to all my college friends. I end it with the punchline, “So I guess everyone has name troubles at Starbucks.”
People laugh in acknowledgement; even though their name is Gracie, Chris, or Zach and mine is Osama, we share the same inconveniences at Starbucks.
“See, we have so much in common,” they say.
It’s 2010 and a Pakistani man tries to blow up Times Square.
His last name is Shahzad.
My last name is Shehzad.
I tell myself that at least the spellings are not the same.
“Do you always tell people that your name is Osama,” friends ask me.
“Yes,” I usually reply with a nod. “Except when I am on a plane,” I add after a slight pause for dramatic effect.
“If I asked the guy sitting next to me on the plane what his name was and he replied ‘Osama,’” I say with a laugh, “I would freak out too.”
This is a joke I often crack about my own name. It always gets laughs.
“Yo, check out the time,” my friend tells me.
I check my phone. It is 9:11pm. I look back at him.
He has a proud smirk on his face.
My friends and I are watching Russell Peters’ stand-up show on YouTube.
“What’s your name?” Peters asks someone in the crowd.
“Anthony,” the guy replies.
“What’s your Asian name?” asks Russell back.
The person is reluctant to share his name at first but does so after Peters insists. Peters then goes on to make fun of his name and his ethnicity.
I shudder when I try to imagine what Russell Peters, or any comedian, would do with my name.
“Kahan say arahay hain?” asks the immigration officer in Karachi as I hand him my Pakistani passport.
“America,” I reply.
As he stamps the green pages of my green passport, he asks, “Wahan loog mazak to nahi uratay apka?”
Do you get shit for your name over there?
I am watching Jon Stewart clips on YouTube when I stumble across his interview with Bassem Youssef in Egypt.
Stewart narrates his encounter with an “incredibly hospitable” refugee in Jordan.
Towards the end of a heartwarming interaction, a deeply moved Stewart asks the refugee for his name. The refugee replies, “Osama.”
Stewart pauses on that punchline.
And then in Stewart-like broken sentences, collecting his thoughts on stereotypes and ignorance in general, he says, “So that was a… it was difficult… it’s a kind of thing that you need to open up your heart to.”
I wonder if it is this difficult for everyone in America when I tell them that my name is Osama.
I start a summer internship at a technology company in Atlanta.
A few days into the internship, Jie, an intern who is an international student from China, tells me that he will now go by the name Humphrey.
I ask him why he decided to go by a different name than Jie.
He says his manager, who is also Asian, advised him to pick an American name to go by in the office.
“It is better for my professional career,” he tells me.
I change my Facebook display picture to my college graduation photo. In the photo I have a mortarboard on my head, a degree in my hand, and a big smile on my face.
A friend comments on it with a pun.
I smile when I read it. I never realized that Osama could sound like Awesome.
“I’m authentic, real name, no gimmicks”
I move to New York City for my first job out of school. On my first day, a coworker asks me if I have seen Office Space.
“Yeah bro,” I tell him. “Such a classic”.
“You know the character Michael Bolton from Office Space?”
I see where he is going with this.
“Why should I change my name?” He says.
“He is the one who sucks,” I complete the sentence.
He nods at me with a big satisfied smile on his face and extends his fist.
I fist-bump him.
I feel as if I just passed Steve’s Assimilation Test.
“Do you get extra shit at the airport when you enter America?” A coworker asks as he pumps the dispenser to top off a half-sipped coffee mug . “Like, do they strip search you and shit?”
Browsing the shelves of McNally Jackson in Soho, I come across a short story collection by an author named Osama Alomar. He is a Syrian immigrant now living in Chicago.
I buy the book, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories, and read it in one sitting in Washington Square Park. His stories are very short, some only a few sentences long.
One of them is called “The Name.”
I download a dating app and set up a profile.
“Will our first date be a blast?” A brunette in the West Village messages me.
I unmatch her.
I match with a Muslim grad student at Columbia. The first message she sends me: “Please be honest, do people give you shit for your name?”
I unmatch her too.
A hot blonde in Williamsburg messages me. “Come bomb my pussy.”
I wonder if this is an invitation to sext. Maybe? But probably not. I unmatch her too.
I am browsing books at WORD in Greenpoint when I overhear a comedy show taking place in the building’s basement.
I stand near the entrance, trying to listen without paying for a ticket.
A stand-up comedian finishes her set and the next one introduces himself.
I hear his name: Osama. (I later learn that he spells it Usama.)
He makes fun of his own name. He cracks some jokes that are very similar to mine. He tells a story of how he freaked out when his friend shouted his name at the airport. I have a similar story that I tell to make people laugh.
I wonder if all of us Osamas (and Usamas) make the same jokes about our name.
Often, once I get to know someone and we are a little more comfortable around each other, they tell me, “I am sure you get this a lot, but sorry, I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”
In the middle of the first heartfelt conversation with a new friend, he will invariably say, “Bro, can I ask you something that might be a bit personal?”
Sometimes during an intimate moment, a girlfriend will say, “Can I ask you something that might be a little weird?”
I know what question they are going to ask next. But I still cross my fingers and close my eyes in anticipation of being asked something truly weird.
Despite it being different people, different moods, and different amounts of clothing we are wearing, it is always the same question.
It is the question that I knew they were going to ask.
I show up 20 minutes late to a comedy show in Brooklyn.
It is a packed small venue, and the only open seat is in the very front row. I am reluctant to take that seat but the usher tells me that I am blocking everyone’s view. I have to walk across the stage to take that seat.
The comedian raises her hands in faux-annoyance as I walk in front of her, “Alright dude, what is this?”
The crowd laughs.
I mouth a “sorry!” to her and shrug my shoulders.
After a few minutes of jokes, she introduces her last bit, “You guys have been great. Now for my final joke, I will ask you your name, and make fun of it.”
I know she will pick me. I try to look at the row behind me in an effort to nudge her to pick someone else.
She is looking directly at me. I don’t look at her to avoid eye contact.
“You, who walked in late,” she points at me and walks over. “What’s your name?”
She holds the mic in front of me.
I can feel the eyes of the crowd glaring at me in anticipation, waiting for me to say my name.
I don’t want to tell her that my name is Osama. Maybe I should tell her my name is Sam, or Sammy, or even Two-Two.
I wonder if my friends, who are sitting a row behind me, are cringing as they see this happen.
“Osama,” I reply into the mic.
There is a pause.
I look at the stand-up comedian who is still holding the mic in front of me. She is staring at me, unsure what to say.
“Okay,” she says as she moves away from me.
The crowd remains silent.
I have a wry smile on my face. I feel embarrassed for putting her in this situation. I feel embarrassed for making my friends sitting behind me witness this awkward scene.
“And what’s your name?” she asks a guy sitting a few spots from me.
“Ben,” he replies.
“Where did you get that sweater from,” she asks him, before adding with an emphasis, “BEN?”
The crowd laughs.
I am relieved that it is over. I feel like everyone in the audience is still looking at me.
Despite his best efforts, the Author’s name began to slide down off the top of the book’s cover where it had been printed. The Author’s self-confidence had died long ago, but his name was determined to hang on to the spot where it belonged with all its might.
(“The Name,” by Osama Alomar, from The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories)
I get a notification from Facebook.
A friend has re-shared his status from May 2011, with me tagged in it, as a memory.
Why would you re-share something so fucking old, I think to myself as I open my Facebook app, dreading to see what I was tagged in seven years ago.
“A good day for all the Osamas in the world except one” — Osama
I remember cracking this joke.
So many people asked me how I felt about the news that day that I remember feeling like I needed to draft and issue an official statement.
This is the joke that I remember telling the most often. There were probably a few others that I don’t remember anymore.
I didn’t anticipate anyone putting up what I said as their Facebook status. I think to myself now that my friend must have found what I said incredibly insightful.
I am tired. I have been working late at our office in Chelsea. I contemplate whether to take the L train back to Brooklyn or take an Uber. Fuck it, I’ll Uber.
My Uber driver, Ali, is four minutes away.
I wonder if I can expense this Uber ride because I was working late.
When I enter the car, I tell the driver, “Osama,” to confirm I am getting in the right Uber.
“Yes, salaam brother,” replies Ali.
“Salaam,” I reply curtly. Ali seems like an Uber driver who likes to talk. I am in zero mood for a conversation after a long day at work.
“Going to Brooklyn?” he asks.
“You have a beautiful name, friend,” Ali comments. “Where are you from?”
Fuck. This is the last conversation I want to have right now.
“Pakistan,” I say.
“Can I ask you a question Osama?” Asks Ali.
The way he emphasizes my name, I know where this is going. I already know what the question will be.
I let out a sigh as I settle back into my seat and tell myself that I should have just taken the L.
I reply with a brief mmhmm.
“Do you want to listen to Drake or Atif Aslam?” asks Ali.
* * *
Editor’s note: Instead of a story fee, Longreads is making a donation to the South Asian American Digital Archive, per the author’s request.
Osama Shehzad is a writer from Karachi living in New York City.
* * *
Editor: Ben Huberman