I have an alternate history epoch taking place in 10th Century Islamic Renaissance, but I have a large Bedouin tribe that does not use anything to indicate a person's name or identity. This is a big Catch 22 every time I try to wrap my head about it.

I don't want a number or symbol, I want it to be foreign for this tribe to refer to someone specifically. Historically, they might say they are son or daughter of so-and-so (Bin So-and-so / Bint So-and-so), but I want to avoid any way to name a person.

In an effort to prevent this from being idea-generating or too-broad, and to be able to select a correct answer, I'll narrow it with the following:

  • Our 10th Century Arabic world;
  • People must be able to provide a response; if asked by the Caliphate "who did this," they cannot answer;
  • Numbers or symbols are not acceptable, as this would give identity.

In the end, I need a mechanism to make it impossible for someone in the tribe to name someone when questioned at length about 'whodunnit' even if they wanted to. I think that this is impossible, so I'm bringing it to our WB brains.

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    – James
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 17:02

33 Answers 33


It's hard ... really hard. People are known for having names, accumulating nicknames, and naming things.

Which means they'll have to work at it.

I could imagine these guys' tribe having some superstition which says that nobody must learn your name, for fear of name-based witchcraft. Similarly, nicknames you keep for too long become targetable. So...

Everyone is addressed by title... Mister, Miss, Ma'am. You never speak your name. Heck, your parents never told it to you. Yes, it's hard to gossip about your tribesmen, but you manage, using shared history. Sidle up to your friend and murmur "I heard that someone, some big-nosed snaggletoothed girlfriend-stealing son of a camel, went to the city and got pickpocketed, ha ha!"

Maybe there's a monthly ceremony where they burn any nicknames they've gotten in effigy, and to show that it shouldn't be used anymore. Otherwise every village will inevitably have a guy referred to as "Klutz ibn Klutz of the Clan al-Klutz".

As to confounding the Caliph ... a lot depends on the tone of your story. If you've got a lighter atmosphere, the Caliph can be foolish and befuddled...

Caliph: Who stole the Goats of Destiny, nomad?

Nomad: One of the guys, I'm sure.

Caliph: Yes, yes, but what's his name?

Nomad: [gasps] One doesn't ask such questions. I don't know the name of anyone in our tribe.

Caliph: [agog] Not even ... not even your wife?

Nomad: Luckily, we have a distinctive tent.

Caliph: [sighs] Well, what's your name? At least I'll get something out of this interrogation.

Nomad: Oh, my parents never told me. They said it was a nice, strong sound, though. Lots of those back-of-mouth consonants. I'd hate to be one of those guys who has to go through life with a stupid name.

Caliph: Go away. Just ... go away.


You could always just use pronouns with no descriptor:

Stranger: Excuse me, but who lives here?

Tribesman: he lives there.

Stranger: But who is he?

Tribesman: someone.

But also make sure that whenever they refer to a tribesman like that, it is not uppercase, because even that would title them.

Another thing to remember is to refer to a tribesman in many different ways and similar if not identical ways for different people. This would keep people from associating that pronoun with that particular tribesman. I relate to your situation, because in a short story I am planning the protagonist doesn't have a name.


It's really difficult without names or numbers or symbols. I can share a few thoughts:

  1. They could always point at each other with their fingers. I mean if somebody asks you, "Who did it?" You could find the one who did it and point your finger at him. Depending on the size of your tribe this could work.
  2. They could use nicknames if you don't count them as names. Like, "Who did it?" - "It was The Blue Bear." Of course that means that the person should know the nickname of another person.
  3. If your tribe knows places you could use that in your tribe. Like, "The man from the hill right of the red lake" or "The witch from the grey rock".

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