Soraya: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on May 9, 2013

Queen/Shabanu Soraya, Tehran 1953 Queen Soraya, 1953 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s an Arabic import with a celestial meaning.

Thanks to Christina for suggesting Soraya as our Baby Name of the Day.

Soraya has never made the US Top 1000, but she was given to 217 girls in 2011 – only a few dozen short of the Top 1000.  She’s heard internationally, too, as far afield as Brazil, Algeria, and Japan.

But Soraya is mostly a Middle Eastern appellation.  Soraya comes from Thurayya – the Arabic name for the Pleiades, derived from a word meaning gem or jewel.

The Pleiades are a cluster of bright stars in the constellation Taurus.  The number counted and named varies over time, and different cultures have read all sorts of meanings into the stars.  In Greek myth, they’re the Seven Sisters, daughters of Atlas and a sea-nymph.  In Japan, they’re Subaru – the source of the auto manufacturer’s name.  In the ancient days of the Andes, the return of the constellation coincided with the harvest, so their name translates roughly to “storehouse.”  In Norse mythology, they were Freyja’s hens.

In the Islamic world, because Muhammad himself saw the stars, and once referenced them while speaking about the messiah.  There’s rich meaning to this name.

Born in 1899 in Syria, Soraya Tarzi was a feminist leader, influenced by her reformer father.  Soraya was also Queen of Afghanistan.  She and her family encouraged the education of girls and discouraged the wearing of veils.  But the times were difficult ones, and the changes didn’t stick.  Soraya was photographed on a visit to Europe, dining in the company of men without even a token head covering, and it caused a scandal.

And yet her name caught on.

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari was the daughter of a Persian father and Russian-German mother.  She married the Shah of Iran in 1951, but it was not a happy union, and the couple divorced by the end of the decade.  She lived the rest of her years in Europe, trading the title Queen for Princess.

It’s this second Middle Eastern Soraya who gets credit for boosting the name in the Western world.  Soraya saw some use in the US beginning in the 1950s.  And the princess stayed very much in the public eye.  There was an autobiography in 1964, a brief film career, a sunflower named in her honor, and a high profile for years, including an Italian biopic in 2003.

While Soraya is the dominant spelling in the US, there are plenty of other possibilities, including:

  • Zoraya, in use in the US since the 1970s, and given to 19 girls in 2011.
  • Thoraya, worn by Thoraya Obaid, a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations and citizen of Saudi Arabia.
  • The name takes on a literary sheen thanks to The Bookseller of Kabul, the tale of an Afghan merchant and his family beginning shortly after the September 11th attacks.  The booksellers’ wife is Suraia.
  • In the X-Men comics, Sooraya Qadir is better known as Dust.

At the same time Soraya attracted notice in the English-speaking world, she was embraced by Spanish speakers, too.  More than a few Sorayas come from places like Mexico and Spain.

All of this makes Soraya a logical choice for parents seeking a Spanish-Arabic appellation, or simply for those looking for a truly international name.  There’s lots to love about the glittering Soraya.

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