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Some Reflections on "Nisba" Or "What’s in a Name"?

Abstract of paper to be presented by Ken Brown, Mediterraneans/Méditerranéennes, at the conference "Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco"

The “unpackings” of words had an honored place among the major ethnographic passions of Clifford Geertz. In trying to make sense of the bazaar economy and the fabric and fabrication of Sefrou, he alighted on the premise that Moroccans perceive and categorize themselves and others by the attribution of names, especially by the use of ‘nisba’, a morphological process by which nouns are made into relative adjectives and incorporated into composite personal names. The claims for this “nisba system” ---“a guide for the construction of social reality”, “a concept of personhood”---are extensive.

Geertz’s claims certainly merit examination in their own right, as it were from the fox’s vantage point. But perhaps equally interestingly, they suggest some questions for the hedgehog. They renew our anthropological curiosity concerning anthroponyms, the culturally specific naming of men and women, and the general subject matter raised by observers of history as widely varied as Shakespeare and Primo Levi. Names taken and given in a world in which people have moved from the rural to the urban, from country to country and continent to continent, deserve some attention and unpackings in a Geertzian manner.

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