Sunday, February 2, 2014

What kind of name is Hettena?

Hettena: \'hə-tɛ-nə\

It's a question I've been asked all my life and it's one of the main reasons I've decided to launch this blog. The short answer is: I don't know.

The Hettenas were a family of Baghdad Jews who migrated to Egypt in the 19th century. In another branch of the family, the name was translated as Khettena, as seen in Victor Hettena's memoirs. And in yet another branch, a watchmaking family in Singapore, the name is Khatena.  I have found records of Iraqi Jews named Khtaina or Khetaina.

So, the first syllable in Hettena may be the hard have come from the Semitic letter כ (kaph) -- the hard k sound found in Arabic and Hebrew or it may be the letter ח (heth), usually transliterated as ch, with the sound coming from the lower throat. The letter ח (heth) is also found in many Semitic languages: Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic.

Another theory -- much harder to prove -- is that Hettena is derived from Hittite, the empire established in 1600 BC in modern day Turkey. The Hittites are mentioned in the Bible as the second of twelve Cananite nations descend from one ח or heth. (That letter again!)

There are few Jews left in the Arab world today, but before the state of Israel, Jews like the Hettenas lived together with their neighbors for centuries. The rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries put most of the world's Jews under Arab rule, a situation that lasted until the arrival of European powers.

The Jews of Arab Lands adopted the language of their conquerors and many of their customs. My Baghdadi ancestors gave their daughters Arab names. My great-grandmother, born in Baghdad, was named Farha and her sisters were Tofaya, Massouda, Habiba, and Aziza.

And yet another theory about the Hettena name is that it comes from Baghdad Jewish Arabic. Hettena may come from the word for in-laws in this Arabic dialect that many of my ancestors spoke. This language -- now nearly extinct -- sounds like a cross between Hebrew and Arabic. You can hear samples here.

With the rise of Europe in the region, life for the Hettenas changed dramatically.  Jews living in Arab lands were among the first to embrace Western culture and Western values.  My earliest known ancestor named Hettena is my great-grandfather, Ezra, a cotton merchant born to Baghdadi Jews in Bombay in British India, a haven for Jews seeking their fortunes or fleeing persecution in Baghdad.

I have not yet been able to find Ezra Hettena's birth records (or death records for that matter), but it's clear he didn't spend a long time in Bombay. He married Farha in Baghdad sometime in the 1870s and she bore him three daughters there.

After the opening of the Suez Canal, the family moved to Port Said, Egypt in 1880 and then Alexandria and finally Cairo, where they settled. Along the way they had six more boys.

Ezra's children show the influence of European culture on the Jews of Arab lands: My grandfather, the youngest of the nine children, was named Albert. His sisters were named Sophia, Emma and Fanny. Sophia spoke Italian, English and French in addition to Arabic.

That's a pretty astonishing change: Farha and Habiba to Emma and Fanny in a single generation.

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