What’s in a Name?

Most of us interns struggled with Arabic names when we first arrived at TYO. To further confuse things, some names are so common that they are shared by three or four students in a single class. Though we don’t always think about it, many of these common Arab names are heavily stereotyped in the U.S. (For more on this, check out this article). TYO has given us the opportunity to overcome these cultural stereotypes by getting to know the unique personalities behind even the most common names. After spending time with many Nours, Ala’as and Muhammads, it would be impossible for any of us to simplify our colleagues and students to an easy stereotype. Let us introduce you to the individuals behind three of the most common names:


The name Ala’a was new to me when I arrived in Nablus, and I was surprised to hear it from both boys and girls. I eventually discovered that Ala’a for boys is spelled with an ain in Arabic (علاء) while Ala’a for girls is spelled with an alef (الاء). To further confuse things, both these names are different from the Arabic word for god, Allah (الله) even though they might sound identical to foreigners.

One of the many Ala’as I know is a 10 year old student in my art class. When I first met Ala’a, she was shy and stand-offish with me. Though she never caused any problems in class, I also didn’t feel that I was connecting with her. However, a few weeks ago we took some of the students to a night time concert - an Arab Idol spin-off - at An-Najah University. After this out-of-class adventure, Ala’a has opened up considerably. In class, she is often jumping up now to volunteer an answer. And recently, she and a few other girls have been coming up with nicknames for the interns - a sign that she's becoming more comfortable in the classroom. Mine is Su-Su and Ala’a insists upon using it, even though I joke that I won’t respond to this name.

Another Ala’a is a volunteer in the same class. Ala’a was originally a volunteer in another class, but became an emergency addition to my team when my translator was unexpectedly absent. Ala’a speaks impressive English and was able to help me get through the lesson with few mishaps. We bonded over this stressful first experience together, and she’s now a constant fixture in my class. Ala’a is one of the people here that I love to talk to about language. She enjoys discussing the subtle differences between English and Arabic. For example, she recently taught me that the word for kite in Arabic literally translates as “paper airplane.” Similarly, firework is “fire game.”

Finally, one of the male Ala’as I’ve met is a university student in my Professional Competency class. At the beginning of every class, I ask the students a practice interview question, and Ala’a’s answers are usually as literal and as brief as possible. However, last class he surprised me by saying that his greatest success to date was staying in Palestine to improve the country, even though he had had the opportunity to leave. Since this incident, I have noticed that many of his hopes for this future are focused on the same theme- to be a stubborn survivor.


Nour (نور‎) means light in Arabic. Used for both boys and girls, it is one of the most common names in my Music and Art class. However, even though three of my students claim the name, each student is very much his or her own person.

My first Nour (right) is calm and quiet. She is a very steady and stable student, always willing to give my lesson plans a shot without complaining. Never once have I had to ask her to stop talking or to listen; however, she is hardly homey. Nour simply bubbles over with kindness, cheer, and enthusiasm. As time has gone on, Nour has started sharing her personality with everyone more and more. It seem her shyness is slipping away.

My second Nour (middle) is an absolute ham. Smart-alecky, clever, and quick, Nour does not miss a trick. At first he was a bit of a handful, but now we’ve come to understand each other. Once, after I caught him running down the hall, I asked him to turn around and slowly walk back. Rolling his eyes at me, he turned on his heels and began skipping in slow motion down the hallway. Even though Nour has a bit of spunk, I always appreciate him keeping me on my toes.

My third Nour has hardly ever uttered a word, at least not to me. It was not until I watched a video of the class that I realized how engaged he was. While many of my students sat stoically, Nour sat in the corner, laughing, smiling, and enthusiastically clapping his hands. Although he might not talk much, he adds considerably to the overall class energy. Rarely have I caught him without a smile.


My first student Muhammad is filled with creativity.  It is difficult think of any more pertinent skill in a Music and Drama classroom.  Of course respect is also equally important.  Muhammad learns learns more and more about respect each day.  He used to always cut in front of girls and lines and disregard their ideas when the objective was working together; however, recently he is improving.  I see TYO’s programming bump up his level of respect each day and I am sure that it will soon approach his level of creativity.

My second student Muhammad is always wearing a smile, a smile that becomes even bigger if you agree with him that Barcelona is superior to Real Madrid (learn more about this heated rivalry from reading the post of a former intern Julie).

Muhammad, the translator, is always filled with two elements that do not need any translation: energy and passion.  He has been committed to TYO since the early days.  Over his time here, he has developed positive relationships with the students and insight into how to best engage them in class.  His advice proves to be immensely beneficial to all of us interns who only have months and not years with our students.  While Muhammad is has tremendous knowledge already, he wishes to return to school so he can become an even better teacher.

Whenever we hear the name Nour, Mohammad or Ala'a, it will be hard not to think of these incredible youth we've been working with. We have learned so much from all of them - creativity, energy, enthusiasm, and patience. TYO isn't just a place for children to learn and grow, but for youth, university students, mothers and interns to thrive too!