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Of names and race

August 12, 2001
By Raffique Shah

SO, what's in a name? That's a rhetorical question in most parts of the world. But in countries that are dogged by racial or religious conflicts, whatever their intensity, it could mean the difference between life and death. Or, as in our case here in Trinidad (not Tobago) where the people take delight in playing the "name game" and the politicians the "race card", it could lead to embarrassing foul-ups.

Last week, when the name Gary Griffith first surfaced, followed by the rank, army captain, many people instinctively concluded that the officer was of African descent. They saw an opportunity to "take the mickey" out of Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, a man who has long preached the gospel of national unity, but who was reported as being disturbed by a relationship between Griffith and his daughter.

In fact, radio talk shows were inundated with callers who "congratulated the couple" (there were no reports that the twosome was about to get married) and facetiously advised the PM to accept in his home the "national unity" he preached on political platforms. The assumption was clear: the name Griffith suggested an Afro-Trinidadian face, hence the jabs at Panday who many view as not being sincere in his calls for "real unity".

I'd bet when the dapper captain's face first appeared in the newspapers, the same people were equally shocked to see a "real Trini", a man who clearly has a rich, multi-racial heritage. So much for those who had no doubt hoped Griffith was "blacker than the ace of spades", giving Panday something to cry over. Incidentally, from what I know about Panday, I don't think he would have a problem with an African son-in-law: race for him is a convenience card to be used during elections' campaigns.

But I'm not about to labour on any relationship between the PM's daughter and Griffith, which I believe is their private business. What its exposure in the media did was to show just how misleading names could be when one tries matching them with faces. Bigoted Trinis of any race often find themselves trapped by their own bile when they stir up the murky "race waters". And while here in Trinidad the worst fate that befalls victims of this mindset is usually embarrassment or discrimination, in countries where one's race or religion is all-important, it could spell death.

I have heard from many Muslims, for example, who have had cause to pass through Israel while travelling, that they were subjected to intense scrutiny, even interrogation, only because of their names. In fact, I know of at least on person who is Christian, but who has a Muslim name, and who visited Israel to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem, only to find himself a victim of his name. Conversely, when I saw Moroccan track star Hicham El Gerrouj make the sign of the cross before the start of his 1500 metres semi-final race in Edmonton last Friday, I wondered what were the chances of this hero being exposed to fire from today's Talibans.

In Trinidad, though, we often end up with comical situations when it comes to labelling people because of their names. When, many years ago, I first heard about a professor named John La Guerre, I naturally thought he was a Frenchman. Later, I would meet the man-who happens to be Indian-to-the-bone-and find myself in shock. John, it turned out, had changed his name from Gaffar Mohammed to La Guerre. There was, too, Sam Selvon, one of our better novelists, who, like Vidia Naipaul, lived and worked abroad. It was only sometime after I had read a few of his books that I learned that the man was Indo-Trinidadian.

Sometime ago, too, when Panday was still president of the All Trinidad trade union, he had selected Boysie Moore-Jones as his vice president. Many people thought that Panday had finally brought in an Afro-Trinidadian as his deputy. Boysie turned out to be not only an Indian, but totally out of synch with his name: he was also a Muslim! I found that out when, in speaking with him one day, he said he had to "break fast" (it was during the month of Ramadan). The now-retired successor to Panday is more Muslim than many with Islamic names.

Over the past few weeks, during the trial of 10 men for the murder of Thackoor Boodram, the name of one accused was Mark Jaikaran. Again, one could be forgiven for assuming that he was Indian. But Jaikaran, who may well be "dougla", looks every centimetre an African. The same holds true for the Huggins cousins, from the late Clint (who turned state witness against Dole Chadee) to the three who were charged with Thackoor's murder. Their names suggest anything but Indian. But looking at them, they show little signs of "mixed blood". Another long-dead criminal, Anthony "Lizard" Bridgelal, was "dougla". And the notorious "Black Archer", Samuel Jacob, who was hanged in the 1960s for murder (he was said to have gone to the gallows laughing), was another "dougla" whose name did not reflect his race. If anything, he looked like a dark-skinned Indian.

In the final analysis, in a cosmopolitan society like Trinidad's, there's more to a name than meets the eye. The saying "never judge a book by its cover" holds true for our people whose names can confuse the average person and confound the bigots in our midst. Captain Griffith looked like the perfect "fall guy" in this latest incident. They thought they'd had Panday "in the bag", meaning that he was finally faced with the prospect of "douglarisation" inside his house. To their disappointment, Griffith did not look like the House Speaker's brother or cousin, but more like Ronnie Williams' (Chinese, if you remember that colourful character) relative.

I do not envy the captain's plight, now that he is under the media microscope for a dalliance that he possibly did not set out to get involved in. People ask me if, as an officer and gentleman, he should be cashiered for what they see as a misdemeanour. Absolutely not! While it is expected that an officer would observe a code of conduct governed by his oath of office, there is nothing in the manuals that spells out the laws for falling in love. The bigots on both sides of the racial fence who had hoped to exploit this affair will be disappointed to learn that it will be handled internally. And mercifully, in the military, race is not a consideration.

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