I hope changing my name from Bland has a positive impact on people from mixed backgrounds

My decision struck a deep chord with so many people, especially those with mixed heritage backgrounds who have grappled with the same questions of identity linked to their name

Ben Boulos
Saturday 20 February 2021 13:27 GMT
Lockdown gave Ben Boulos the time he needed to begin the process of changing his name
Lockdown gave Ben Boulos the time he needed to begin the process of changing his name (Getty Images)

When I introduced myself to people in the past, as Ben Bland, it always surprised me when some would ask: “Is that your real name or did you make it up?” After all, who would make up and choose a name so plain, ordinary and, dare I say it… bland?

I recently learned that the answer to that was my paternal great-grandmother, Mary. In the early 1920s, she decided – and convinced my great-grandfather, Mark – that with violent antisemitism on the rise across Europe, it would be wise for them to change the family name of Blumenthal, with its overtly Jewish-Germanic links. They decided on the blandest name possible, literally, to ensure their survival. It was a name chosen for that reason at that time and it served its purpose well for a century.

So why replace a name that has never caused me any problems, is easy to spell, virtually impossible to mispronounce, and without which I may not even be here today?

It is because I started to increasingly feel that it was masking so much of my identity and heritage, not just the Jewish ancestry on my paternal grandfather’s family line, but also the Sudanese-Egyptian heritage on my mother’s side of the family.

I wanted my name to give a more complete picture of who I am and the culture, faith and heritage that have shaped me as a person and my perspective of the world.

That is why, when I decided to change, I felt Boulos rather than Blumenthal was the name I would start using. As someone with a mixed background, I grew up speaking fluent Arabic alongside English, even though I was born in the UK. I still speak and understand Arabic conversationally, although I have never learnt to read and write the language (it remains an ambition to be tackled sometime).

I was brought up in the Coptic Orthodox faith, one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world, and that link to my heritage continues to this day when I attend services that are conducted in a combination of English, Arabic and Coptic.

Why now? A simple answer: lockdown.

Changing your name is a big thing. No matter how imperfect, for most people it is with you from birth and there is hassle involved changing it. I have thought about it on and off over the past few years, but time and headspace are needed to make that decision and, like many people, I unexpectedly found I had that in abundance over the past year. I also wanted to speak to my family about it to make sure they were all happy about the move, which they have all enthusiastically supported.

I have been taken aback and really moved by the level of interest in the backstory and my reasons for doing this – and how much it resonates with so many other people. I only really wrote my blog article to give context and explain the change so people were not left wondering why I had suddenly started using a different name on TV.

But it struck a deep chord with so many people, especially those with mixed heritage backgrounds who have grappled with the same questions of identity linked to their name.

Some are people who have reluctantly changed their name through marriage. Others, like me, feel that the surname of one parent does not fully reflect the whole of their identity. And there are many who have also discovered that their Jewish ancestors changed to more anglicised names for safety, survival and better prospects in the early 20th century but now want to reclaim some of that identity and heritage.

Viewers, colleagues, even people I have known all my life got in touch to say they had no idea about my background and they shared similar thoughts and insights about their own. Reading all those experiences was fascinating and I was very touched that people felt they wanted to get in contact and share those with me.

Some said they felt foolish having known me for so long but never knowing about my background. My response? There was nothing to feel silly about: with the name “Ben Bland” why would anyone think to even ask. It is exactly why I felt the need to change it.

All of this made me realise it was absolutely the right decision for me and hopefully one that will have a positive impact on others.

I was particularly moved by one message from someone I have never actually met and is no relation, who emailed me to say they had been at the point of changing their own surname in the other direction – to make it more anglicised because they found it a struggle with people constantly getting it wrong. But my decision and explanation had made them feel stronger in their identity and keeping it with all its heritage despite the frustrations of repeatedly having to spell it out. Their surname? Boulos.

On my shelf at home is a gift from a friend I worked with in Manchester more than a decade ago – a beautiful little hardback edition of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Pigling Bland. It may have to make way for one of her other classics, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, eventually, but for now it remains there as a poignant little reminder of the name I once had, as my own tale begins a new chapter.

Ben Boulos is a presenter for BBC World News/BBC News

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