Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Abu, umm, khal, bint amm…


Traditional Palestinian family / Photo
Traditional Palestinian family / Photo

After the birth of their first child, parents are given the honorary title of abu (father of) and umm (mother of) by their relatives, followed by the name of the firstborn son. If they only have daughters, then the couple is called abu or umm in the course of time, followed by the name of the eldest daughter (a well-known example is the late PFLP leader George Habash, who was called Abu Maysa).

The honorary title abu can also used as a nom de guerre: Yasser Arafat, for example, was often called Abu Ammar (after Ammar ibn Yasir, a supporter of the Prophet Muhammad).

Having children was (and is) highly valued. Childless couples sometimes adopt the husband’s brother’s child (even though the children are not orphaned). Childlessness can be reason for divorce or – where Muslims are concerned – for taking a second wife (on the assumption that the first wife was infertile).

The father's family

As a rule, the ties with the father’s family are considered more important than with the mother’s.

To distinguish kinship via the father or mother, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces are given distinct names: uncles and aunts on the father’s side are called amm and amma, on the mother’s side khal and khala; nephews and nieces on the father’s side are called ibn amm and bint amm if they are the children of the father’s brother, and ibn amma and bint amma if they are the children of the father’s sister; nephews and nieces on the mother’s side are called ibn khal and bint khal, ibn khala and bint khala respectively.

Grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides are called jadd and jadda respectively. A close friend of the parents is often called amm (uncle) or khala; female friends are called khalti (my aunty). If you ask an older gentleman on the street for directions, he will also be addressed as amm or hajj.

Fanack Water Palestine