Every name tells a story

Amid all the gloom of 2020, the past year gave me something unexpected in abundance - time. Empty, un-cluttered, guilt-free time to reflect on many things. In “normal” years when life is busy with work, family, friends and travel, thinking about the bigger picture often gets squeezed or crowded out altogether. 

 

One thing I have thought about a lot is my identity and, with it, my name. 

 

In recent months, I have received quite a few messages on social media - some pleasant, some hostile - intended for another journalist with exactly the same name as mine: Ben Bland. It is an easy mistake to make. We do not look too dissimilar, we both cover global news, we are of a similar age, and both studied at Cambridge University at the same time. We are entirely unrelated but it is a recipe for confusion. That prompted me to think about my name and whether I should change it - for clarity and to avoid confusion. 

 

However, there is more to it than that. Changing my name is something I have thought about before, on-and-off, for another reason: my name hides aspects of my identity that are important to me but not immediately obvious to others. 

 

My mother’s side of the family is Sudanese-Egyptian and I grew up speaking fluent Arabic alongside English, even though I was born in the UK. I still speak and understand Arabic conversationally, although I have never learned to read and write the language (it remains an ambition to be tackled sometime). 

 

I was brought up in the Coptic Orthodox faith - one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world - and that link to my heritage continues to this day when I attend services that are conducted in a combination of English, Arabic and Coptic. Many of the values I try to live by are deeply rooted in both that faith and culture.

 

As a child I would downplay all of that, trying to “fit in” and not wanting to seem in any way “different”. As an adult, I feel proud of it and want to celebrate and highlight a part of my background that has such a big influence in shaping who I am.

 

Occasionally, this subject comes up in conversations with friends and colleagues, and a lot of people are completely unaware of those aspects of my background that strongly influence my identity and my perspective of the world. Perhaps it is also because of how I look and sound but it is, undoubtedly, in large part because of my name. 

 

The surname “Bland” will always lead most people to the fair assumption that “Ben Bland” is simply as British as they come. There is nothing wrong with that at all - and I am proud of that side of my family background too - but it will always mask half of my identity, because we all make assumptions, often fairly, about other people based on their names. 

 

So, I have decided to take my mother’s family name - Boulos - and from now on, I will be using the name “Ben Boulos” in my professional and daily life, including on air. 

 

It would perhaps have been simpler to just write this article and point people to it. But not everyone I encounter will see it. My name, on the other hand, is more obvious to all, especially as I use it every time I introduce myself at the start of a programme. Every name tells a story - and I want mine to give a more complete picture of who I am. 

 

It feels a significant time to do it, because of a similar decision made around a century ago - adding an historic symmetry to all this. In discussing it with my father, to make sure he would not be offended or upset by it, he reminded me that “Bland” itself was a chosen name.

 

In the 1920s, his paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother) decided - and convinced my great-grandfather - that with violent anti-Semitism on the rise across Europe, it would be wise for them to change the family name of “Blumenthal” with its overtly Jewish-Germanic links. They decided on the blandest name possible - literally - both to ensure their survival and to blend in, in their chosen home of England. It was a name chosen for that reason at that time and it served its purpose well.

 

I have wondered whether changing from the name “Bland” is somehow disloyal to the memory of my great-grandmother’s wise decision, without which I may not be here. But times change, thankfully for the better. We can now increasingly celebrate the difference and diversity in our backgrounds rather than having to hide them. I like to think she would feel happy about that and see my decision as being driven, much like hers, by pragmatism in response to shifting attitudes - instead of feeling bound by sentimental obligation to a sequence of letters chosen a century ago. 

 

Ben Boulos

February 2021

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 © Ben Boulos