The anatomy of a name

Mixed Feelings

jasmine-tatah-online

I may not look like one, but I am a member of the Tatah family based in Bejaia, Algeria. And since my features distinguish me from everyone else in the family, I am constantly looking for ways to compensate for them.

This is part of my mixed experience. I’ve never felt like I fully belonged to my father’s Algerian side. But five months ago, I saw the data that validated my identity as a Tatah for the first time.

I received an AncestryDNA kit last Christmas and enthusiastically sent out a tube of my own saliva to be analyzed by scientists. My DNA would then be amplified, screened for 700,000 different single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, and associated with SNPs taken from regions all over the world by some cryptic lab owned by Ancestry.com.

I remember opening my results and seeing a perfect 50 percent of my genome linked to my East Asian ancestry and the other 50 percent linked to a combination of North African, Southern European and Middle Eastern ethnicities — a medley of Mediterranean-bordering regions that were a pretty clear indication of my Algerian heritage.

Before the DNA test, the only thing that directly connected me to my family was my name. It was the name that popped up in every email I sent and every form of identification I presented: “Jasmine Hafsa Tatah.” Although I’m aware I don’t really look like a Hafsa or a Tatah.

In spite of all of the teasing it subjected me to in elementary school, I’m proud of my name. It was the only connection to my family that felt official. But now, my roots were laid out right in front of me as percentages on a computer screen, and somehow that was even more real to me than my own last name.

It made sense that there were so many regions represented from my dad’s side — this complexity is one of the hallmarks of Algerian history. It is defined by generations and generations of colonization and migration.

It reminds me of the many history lessons my cousins offered me on visits to Bejaia. The Berbers, the indigenous people of Algeria (and much of North Africa) were conquered by Arabs, the Spanish, Ottoman Turks and, most recently, the French empire, until the country finally gained independence in 1962. Its history was turbulent. Eventually, it gained its independence. But besides that, it gained a reputation as a country of many influences.

And that history is directly linked to my dad and our extended family. The Tatah family is one of the few left from the indigenous people of Algeria — the oldest of whom endured the Arabs, Spanish and Turks, and the most recent of whom lived through the French-Algerian war and the end of French rule in Algeria.

And the members of the Tatah family are living relics of each of those layers of influence because many of them actually lived through this history. They endured an endless cycle of wars and subjugation and migration. And they still maintained Kabyle culture and tradition through that era of constant infiltration.

Every Tatah I know values their heritage and family above everything. The symbols and practices of the Kabyle people are integrated into the decor in their homes, the clothing they wear and the dishes they prepare. And family is still fundamental to their culture — it’s at the core of every Kabyle wedding, every Eid al-Fitr celebration and every impromptu gathering.

My dad brought that to us even through our American upbringing. He didn’t just give me my protruding nose bridge and my thick eyebrows, or the stories I could never believe. He passed on the essence of the native people and the Tatah family. He passed on his values of modesty, respect and selflessness. And he gave us a taste of his practices directly through his stories and photographs, and indirectly though the Kabyle art on our walls, the Algerian literature on our bookshelves and the occasional couscous stew in our kitchen.

And while my dad couldn’t control the balance of my facial features, he did give me the one concrete thing he could — his mother’s name, Hafsa, and his family name, Tatah. He gave them to me so I was always aware of the family I was a part of and had something to show for it.

But now I have evidence that I am a Tatah through my DNA and not just my name. I have evidence that I am more than just this American girl who is blind to her history. I have evidence that I am my father, and his parents, and all of the Berbers who endured centuries of colonists dating back to the Middle Ages until they finally defeated the French. I have DNA that reflects my eyebrows, traditions and tendencies I often forget about.

And no matter how far I am from my family or culture or history, nothing will take away the evidence that I am every bit a part of this complex layering of cultures as my Algerian-born cousins. And that is what makes me a Tatah.

Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.