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Kuwaitis seeking to gentrify their names by adding ‘al’ prefix 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Gulf.
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Understanding tribal politics in the Gulf is exceedingly tricky. Whilst one can relatively easily identify numerous tribes and establish that they are originally considered to be bedu (historically quasi-nomadic people) or hadar (more settled people, often by the coasts) or from Iran, aside from generalized notions or clichés of Bedouin tribes being considered ‘less civilized’ than their hadar brethren, one is still mostly in the dark. How important are tribes today? What do tribes ‘do’? Are tribes little more than informal networks and the source of entrenched nepotistic practices? Do tribes still matter today when one no longer needs a tribe for physical protection?

Alas, as yet I can’t really answer too many of these questions, though I expect to get some answers this week.

The reason I bring up this topic is that I’ve come across a curious article about tribes in Kuwait. Seemingly many families are adding the prefix ‘Al’ to their names as they believe that this “gives them an advantage in business”. The survey reports that roughly 16,000 Kuwaiti nationals have does this in the last two decades to gentrify their family names to make them sound more regal and important. The author continues to conclude that Kuwaitis are doing this to follow the example of the ruling families of the region, the Al Sauds, the Al Sabahs and so on.

It must be said that the author doesn’t inspire confidence by writing

“Al”, meaning family…

as the basis of the article. It doesn’t. It means ‘the’. I realise perfectly well that if someone is called Abdullah bin Aziz Al Dosari, this ‘means’ Abdullah, son of Aziz of the Dosari family. In this sense, therefore, the ‘al’ does denote the family name. Yet surely no Arabic speaker would ever write “‘Al’, meaning family”.

I think that there’s a more technical problem too between ‘Al’ as in, for example, Al Attiyah (or any other non-royal name) and ‘Al’ as in Al Saud or Al Thani. As you can plainly see in English there is no differences between the two, yet this is not so in Arabic. The ‘Al’ in Al Attiyah is spelt ال whereas the ‘Al’ in Al Saud is spelt آل. The only difference is the little squiggle over the ‘a’ letter (the non-curvy one). Here I look to an arabic expert to confirm, but I think that this type of ‘Al’, known as an Alif Madda, is reserved for royal families only.

Nevertheless, ignoring this technical gripe, it’s an interesting article which argues against clichéd and stereotypical Gulfy notions of the ‘inviolability’ of one’s name and the prominence of family, for I would have thought that changing one’s family’s name would be an almost sacrilegious act.

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Comments»

1. Mads A. Westberg - 27, March 2010

I think you’re being a bit unfair to the author. Al with an alif madd (آل ) does indeed mean family, and is not a special “the” reserved for royal families only. The root of the word is hamza, waw, lam.
This would of course be more clear if the author had spelled آل Aal or Āl to differentiate it the definite article al.

davidbroberts - 27, March 2010

Thanks for the clarification.

I’m not being mean to the author, though. It’s legitimate criticism. What he wrote in this little bit to which we are referring was 100% blatantly wrong in a way that only someone with no knowledge of arabic could have written. But, as I say, it’s just a minor aside or grumble really. Certainly an interesting article.


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