Naming Mo


I was just seven years old sitting on the family couch when my father came home. I was always very happy when he walked in the door, but this would prove to be no ordinary day. It was the spring of 1967 and when my father came home the first thing he said to my mother was that we could no longer stay in Egypt. He didn’t explain, my father just said we need to leave within the week and that we would be moving to the United States. My mother was stunned. With five children, how could she pack up a house in a week? He stressed the urgency, and she seemed to understand. Everything was packed quickly.

Years later as I got older, I realized that my father had fallen out of favor with the government and that he saw no other choice except to leave Egypt for a period of time. Apparently, my father had written an article that wasn’t liked and this translated into him not being liked. It wasn’t good not to be liked by the state in the 1960s.

We arrived hastily in New York a week or so later and it was spring. Being seven years old, I hadn’t really felt the coldness of spring in the East Coast, nor had I seen the beauty of the trees blossoming after a long winter. I was in aww.

We moved into the Concordia apartments in midtown Manhattan and we were on what I remember to be the 35th floor. I kept looking out the window because the cars below were so small. Now, I was truly in aww.

I remember my first day of school. I couldn’t speak English and they put a name badge on me that I couldn’t read. I realized people were trying to pronounce my name from looking at my badge, but they weren’t getting it right. Instead of Khaled, I was quickly renamed Colin by the few friends that I had made. From there I got the nickname Cal, and that’s what everyone called me for the longest time. It didn’t stick.

My security blanket at school as a little boy in a foreign land was my older brother Mohammed. When I needed something, I looked for him. When I needed to understand something, I looked for him. When I got scared, I looked for him. Everyone at school was calling him Mohammed, but I was being called Cal.

I decided my older brother Mohammed needed a nickname too. Initially, I gave him the nickname Moose, but that didn’t stick at home, or at school. From what I recall, following an episode of the Three Stooges, it dawned on me that Mohammed could been nicknamed Mo. Larry, Curley and Mo, so I started calling my brother Mo at home and then at school.

When I started calling him Mo around the house, very quickly my parents did too, and so did my siblings. Mohammed‘s nickname became Mo in late Spring of 1967.

In our school, the United Nations International School (UNIS), everyone ended up calling my older brother Mo. In my older brother’s yearbook he is referred to as Mo and no one refers to him now as anything else than Mo, including his son Adam.

A decade later as my father fell back into favor, we went back to Egypt in the fall of 1976. My older brother Mohammed enrolled in The American University in Cairo and I remember how his classmates would laugh when he would introduce himself as Mo. No one had ever heard of someone named Mohammed with a nickname of Mo.

On my most recent trip to Egypt, I was struck by how many Mohammed’s are now nicknamed Mo. And, it isn’t just in Egypt, every other Arab country I’ve visited including Iran, the nickname Mo is now common place.

In Egypt, there is Mo’s Café, Mo’s diner, Mo’s hair salon, you name it. Everyone and everything with a Mohammed in it is now nicknamed Mo. Now we have Mohamed Salah, the famous football player nicknamed Mo. I was just recently in London and every sign post said Mo, all the music was about Mo, and TV was full of Mo; Mohamed Salah that is. There was even a song with the lyrics “Mo Salah running down the wing, the Egyptian King” and it made me so happy and proud every time I heard it.

But, I was the first person in the spring of 1967 to take the name Mohammed and to introduce the nickname Mo. Could I have started the trend? My siblings will vouch for the fact that it was I in 1967 that gave Mohammed the nickname Mo. Everyone reading this from UNIS will all remember my older brother as being referred to as nothing other than Mo and it all started in 1967.

I wonder if in the future a linguist will try and find the source of the nickname Mo. In trying to solve this puzzle, will that linguist make his way back to our house? Will that linguist discover that this tradition of nicknaming Mohammed Mo work his or her way back to me?

And trust me, I am not trying to pirate the nickname, I am just laying claim to being an innovator. A linguistic innovator. Could I have actually changed the way the Middle East refers to what is usually their first born male child?

I guess in a way I’d like to be known as being the guy who started this trend, a person who gave creativity to a special name. A person who in his quest at just being playful started a tradition.

If anyone can remember someone nicknamed Mo before the spring of 1967, my theory is shot. If no such evidence can be found, the burden of proof will show that it was in the Sherif household in 1967 that the nickname Mo was born.

My older brother Mo should also be very proud of his nickname. He is likely the first Mo there ever was and for that reason alone my brother will always be the original, the true, the one and only Mo.

Yup, you got it, everyone else followed my brother’s lead. And, as for Mo Salah you have me and the Sherif family to thank for your nickname and that holds true for every other imitation Mo out there, famous or not. You’ll find the real Mo on the East side of Manhattan today, you can take my word for it. The one and only, the truly original Mo.

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© Khaled F. Sherif, 2020

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