What’s in a name?


Every time the doorbell rang, I scurried away from my mother’s grasp and the multiplication tables spread across the table. I raced to the front door, shoving my younger brother out of the way and tagging the knob as my father trailed behind. The wide grin on the faces of my father’s friends as their eyes settled upon the eight year old greeting them was the official announcement of my victory. As the adrenaline of triumph wore off, I settled back into my seat to prepare for my timed-tests; until the next ring.

I had a near perfect record. I always wanted to be seen as an adult and their recognition fueled my pursuit of excellence in everything I did. One night, however, my streak ended.

“Firmer!” my father’s friend exclaimed as our hands locked and shook in unison. I was crushed. Surely he couldn’t have expected more strength from a third grade boy? As he moved on to greet my father, he delivered the finishing blow.

“I was at Mohamed El-Sayed’s house and his son, Abdulrahman, greeted me with the firmest handshake.”

Ignoring the fact that he referred to a young man almost a decade older than I was, this was a personal attack. But I was also caught off guard by the name. I had lived in Muslim majority countries and was now a member of a large Muslim community in Oakland County. I went to a school of 300-some Muslim youth. Yet the instances of which I heard of others sharing my name were rare.

For some, a unique name may make them feel foreign, even in environments where others share the same background. I, however, relished being different. I took great pride in my name. It meant that I had to be better, in everything I did. Even if people couldn’t properly pronounce my name, I always stuck out because of it and that meant that I would be remembered; and I’ll be darned if I’m not remembered for being the best version of myself and making others better for it.

I feel a special connection to those who share my name, like we are members of a secret club. They share the struggles of misspellings and mispronunciations but also the excitement and pride of being given one of God’s most beloved names.

And so, despite the loss I had suffered at the mentioning of his name, I now had another namesake to follow. I came to know Abdulrahman’s family, well, though my interactions with him over the years have been minimal. Student commencement speaker at the University of Michigan, MD/Ph.D, Rhodes Scholar, Assistant Professor at Columbia, Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department; every one of these milestones was deeply personal to me.

Last week came the most monumental milestone, yet. At a packed house in Detroit’s Eastern Market, Abdul El-Sayed announced his run for Governor of Michigan. Much of the narrative around this campaign will be his faith, his age, and untraditional background. Abdul and I share a name, faith, and ethnicity. We graduated from the same school district and university. Our families are close friends and I supported his step-mother’s school board campaign. Yet none of these are the reasons I am most excited by the prospects of his campaign.

If we’ve learned anything from the embarrassment that has become our political climate, it’s that we have a shameful lack of principled leadership. The factors are many and the culpable even more.

Leadership has always fascinated me. It requires a belief in people and understanding that investing in their wellbeing and success is imperative. Leaders must have empathy to understand the condition of those they serve and empower their inherent creativity to positively impact their spheres of influence. Leaders are people of high character and inspire their communities to espouse the same ideals; to be good for goodness sake. They judge themselves not on personal accolades or even team milestones, but on how they treat the most vulnerable amongst us. The most powerful leaders welcome dissent and encourage their allies and adversaries alike to challenge them and create the necessary friction from which great ideas are born.

By every account and in every instance, this is what Abdul stands for and this is what his campaign will represent. He will be challenged, fairly and unfairly. He will speak for those whose voices are not always heard and those whose voices are heard too often. He will offer new ideas and empower his team to reshape old ones. Every step of his journey will be taken with class and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.

I’m not writing this to ask you to jump into supporting this campaign, head-first. Many of you may not agree with some of or even many of Abdul’s political stances. I know I will have my differences. But this isn’t about politics. Many of you reading this have called me a leader, either formally or informally. From the court, to the classroom, to community service and community building, to friendships and everything in between, I have always worked to make those around me better. I have modeled my behavior after the principles Abdul has built his successes upon. Yet I still have much to learn. The world needs our principled leadership now more than ever.

So join me as we follow a role model of mine on this journey. Maybe we’ll let you join our secret club.