Mid-July 2018. I am dressed in black – ripped jeans, a sleeveless loose top and black sandals. I am on my way to see a friend who is in town from Nigeria for work. Running late, I request an Uber. I know where the conversation is going the second the Uber driver says ‘you have a pretty name – Zahrah’. I had not even put my seatbelt on. ‘It looks more like Arabic’. The driver continues to speak as I battle with the very tricky contraption. I am finally strapped in. I am now also ready – aware the driver has more questions for me now that my seatbelt is safely secured. We begin our journey. It is only then I reply. ‘It is’.
I had arrived in Washington, DC six weeks prior. This was not the first time in my very short tenure in the US capital that an Uber driver struck up a conversation with me solely on the basis of my first name. Prior to this journey, Uber drivers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan have asked me about my name. This tends to happen either within a few minutes into my journey if I am in an Uber X, or after a passenger exits the vehicle, if I am in an Uber pool.
The first time it happened, the driver – who may have been of South Asian descent (I did not ask his country of origin) – started a conversation once the other passenger in the Uber pool had arrived at their destination. ‘My brother’s wife’s name is Zahra’. I assume it was spelt that way based on the way he pronounced it. ‘It’s Muslim name? You Muslim?’