Ara Sarafian was raised to cherish his Armenian heritage – but he never saw names like his own in 1980s Australia. Here he traces the country’s steps beyond Acropolis Now, towards multiculturalism. By Ara Sarafian.

By any other name

Armenian–Australian writer Ara Sarafian.
Armenian–Australian writer Ara Sarafian.
Credit: Stuart Spence

When I was six, my father sat me on his knee and taught me about genocide. He opened a book and pointed to a photo of severed heads neatly arranged on a shelf. “In 1915, the Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians,” he said.

He turned the page to a photo of emaciated women and children. “Our ancestors were marched through the Syrian Desert without food and water.”

He leafed through the entire book and each time he turned the page, the photos were more and more gruesome. Heads on spikes, bodies hanging from a gallows, corpses of people who had been burnt alive.

Dad looked me in the eyes. “The Ottomans wanted to eliminate Armenians from the face of the earth, but they failed. Our culture survived. Now it is your responsibility to keep our culture alive.”

To help with this, my parents had given me a traditional Armenian name. They named me after Ara the Beautiful, a legendary Armenian king and the heartthrob of the 9th century BC.

As a kid, other Armenians celebrated my name and my namesake. But when I started school, the same name made me feel like an outsider. No one else had a name like mine. In fact, I hadn’t seen my name appear anywhere.

Whenever we went to the shops, I’d gravitate to the revolving display racks, spinning them wildly as I looked for my name on personalised key rings and mugs. “You won’t find your name there,” my mother told me after many futile searches, never explaining why.

I continued searching.

Before and after school, I sat centimetres from the TV with cat-like attention, hoping to hear my name on one of my favourite shows. I’d listen to the names of the kids on Sesame Street. I’d scrutinise the names of children who submitted drawings to Mr Squiggle. And I’d desperately wish for Miss Helena from Romper Room to call my name from her magic mirror. But nothing.

Nor did I ever find anyone with the names of my cousins or uncles or aunts: Vrej, Rosine, Hagop, Arousiag, Nerses, Bayzar or Dikran.

This went on until one day my mother finally told me, “You won’t hear our names on TV. You will only hear Australian names.”

But wasn’t I Australian?

I started primary school in the early 1980s. The White Australia Policy had only come to a definitive end in the 1970s, so I was one of four non-Anglo kids in my year. And only two of us didn’t have white-sounding first names: me and a girl named Meifen* Ooi. One day, I bumped into her with tears streaming down her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Kids are calling me Piss. Because I told them my surname isn’t pronounced Oo-ee. It’s pronounced Wee.” As I comforted her, I realised everyone at school had been pronouncing her surname in an anglicised way. I also realised everyone had been pronouncing my name and surname incorrectly too.

Most Armenian surnames end with –ian. Khachaturian. Tankian. Kardashian. My surname Sarafian comes from the Arabic saraf, which means moneychanger – the profession of my ancestors. Before the Armenian genocide, my great-grandfather was a successful businessman. He owned so much land that it took a full day to ride a horse across it. But on the eve of the genocide, the friendly Ottoman marshal of my great-grandfather’s land warned him of the impending massacres. He told him to leave everything and escape immediately. My great-grandfather took his advice, and when he later started a new life in Egypt, the only thing he had was his name. His identity.

By the time I finished primary school, I knew the entire NATO phonetic alphabet – after constantly hearing my parents use it when spelling our surname to white Australians. “Sierra, Alpha, Romeo, Alpha, Foxtrot, India, Alpha, November.”

People often struggle with my surname because it’s unfamiliar. But it’s strange that in a country where a more than quarter of us were born overseas, foreign names are still a stumbling block.

By the time I finished high school in the early 1990s, there were a few multicultural names and faces appearing on Aussie TV. This diversification started in the late ’80s with The Comedy Company’s character Con the Fruiterer, albeit a white man in olive-face. But his fictional family was a new vocabulary for white people, who gleefully twisted and hissed their tongues to get in on the joke of ethnic names: “Marika, Roula, Soula, Toula, Voula, Foula and Agape.” We “ethnics” were so happy to be represented on-screen that we didn’t realise we were the butt of the joke.

Con the Fruiterer was soon followed by Acropolis Now, which also capitalised on ethnic stereotypes. “Skips” continued to laugh at us “wogs”, but at least they were saying some of our names now.

And presenting the news over on SBS was George Donikian. Armenian Australians lost their minds when they saw the –ian suffix of his name. “Finally, a surname like mine on TV,” I thought. But I wondered if he would’ve made it onto TV if he didn’t have that Anglo forename: George.

In an interview, George said when he first started out on radio, his bosses told him his Armenian surname Donikian was too difficult to pronounce and remember. He had to go by the pseudonym Donekan, which sounded like the more acceptable Irish name Donegan.

What did this mean for people like me, who had two names that were difficult to pronounce and remember?

Aussies have rarely been challenged with non-Anglo names of celebrities, media personalities or politicians. Aside from a few outliers such as Waleed Aly, Poh Ling Yeow and Anh Do, most people on Australian TV have easy-to-pronounce-and-remember white names, whether or not they’re white. Why don’t we see anyone named Muhammad or Fatima, two of the most common Arabic names? Where are all the Chinese and Sudanese names, or the Indian or Lebanese names? Diverse names need to be more prominent so Aussies can get used to them, because names are the vernacular of identity.

A series of studies has demonstrated higher occupational achievement with white-sounding names in Western countries compared with non-white names. One, from Sydney University in 2017, concludes that “using a white first name is associated with significant benefits in the labour market. However, renouncing a racially suggestive first name may be associated with large costs related to notions of an individual’s identity.”

If people need Anglo names to get opportunities, can we truly claim Australia is such a successful multicultural society?

My father’s Armenian given name was Meguerditch. “It means baptist,” he’d say proudly. But when he arrived in Australia, he anglicised his name to John. “I became John the Baptist,” he’d say, joking that in a past life he played an integral role in the baptism of Christ.

Although he was incredibly proud of his Armenian name, anglicising it was a show of good faith to white Australians. My mother did the same – Maro became Marie. They were demonstrating that although they were foreigners, they were keen to fit in.

When my parents migrated here, the Armenian culture was already burning strong in them. It was a big part of their identity. They anglicised their names without any fear of losing their connection to the Armenian culture.

But like many migrants, my parents were worried that their Australian-born kids might lose touch with their roots. Their ancient culture had been passed down through countless generations and had survived extermination. But they feared it wouldn’t survive migration and assimilation.

So they gave me the most Armenian name they could think of, and they made bloody sure I knew what my ancestors suffered for this privilege.

My name still creates barriers and difficulties in multicultural Australia, but every time I think about using an anglicised name, I remember sitting on my father’s knee when I was six years old. I remember the photos of severed heads on shelves, I remember the men hanging from the gallows, I remember the bony women and children on death marches. And I remember that my name is laden with my identity. I couldn’t possibly change it. 

* Given name has been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "By any other name".

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