Transcribing Levantine Arabic Names into Spanish

Identifying individuals from the Levant in Spanish-speaking Latin America is challenging due to differences between the naming conventions of Spanish and Arabic. While Levantine Arabic naming conventions emphasize paternal lineage, those of Spanish-speaking Latin America tend to include maternal lineage as well.

This creates a problem for investigators in that a single individual can have drastic variations of his or her name across borders. However, by using a combination of regional knowledge and open-source resources, in some cases it is possible to confirm the identity of the individual.

Levantine Arabic Names

Names in the Levant typically comprise three parts:

  • Given name
  • Father’s given name
  • Father’s surname

Consider, for example, a man named Ismael Mohammed Youssef. According to Levantine naming conventions, he is the son of Mohammed Youssef. His brother Ziyad’s full name is Ziyad Mohammed Youssef.

Who is Ismael Mohammed Youssef?

The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned a Lebanese citizen named Ismael Mohammed Youssef, along with his brother Ziyad, in 2011 for allegedly helping drug traffickers launder their ill-gotten gains. The Treasury announcement lists Ismael Youssef Abdallah as a possible alias for Youssef. It also mentions that he has ties to Latin America.

Sayari analysts found that when searching for Youssef by his Lebanese legal name in Panama, there were no hits. However, when they searched by the alias listed by the U.S. Treasury, Ismael Youssef Abdallah, there were several. 

Let’s break down why.

Levantine Arabic Names in Spanish-Speaking Latin America

At a minimum, rendering Levantine Arabic names in Spanish requires transliteration—that is, transcribing a word from one script into the corresponding letters of another. Transliteration can result in multiple spelling variations (e.g. محمد as Mohamad, Mohammad, Muhamad, etc.)—a familiar problem for analysts investigating global networks. 

But transliteration is not always enough. We need to consider variations in name construction as well as spelling. For example, a Lebanese individual named Ismael Mohammed Youssef appears on Panamanian documents as Ismael Youssef Abdallah. This makes it easy to assume that this Ismael is a completely different person, unless you have an understanding of local naming customs.

Naming Conventions in Spanish-Speaking Latin America

Names in Spanish-speaking Latin America typically are comprised of three parts:

  • Given name
  • Father’s surname
  • Mother’s surname

In this case, Youssef’s Levantine name, once written according to local customs, would only retain his given name and father’s surname. In other words, his father’s given name, Mohammed, would be omitted. If the alias provided by the Treasury is accurate, it would indicate that Youssef’s mother’s surname is Abdallah.

To confirm this, we need to return to the Levant.

Checking the Lebanon Voter Registry

This is where voter rolls come in handy. Because Youssef is a Lebanese citizen, we can check the Lebanon voter registry to find out his mother’s name.

When we pull up Youssef in the Lebanese voter registry, we are shown not only personally identifiable information such as his date of birth and full name, but his mother’s name as well.

The name of Ismael’s mother is disclosed on his Lebanese voter record as Nawf Abdallah. This would make his name Ismael Youssef Abdallah under Spanish-speaking Latin American naming conventions.

Searching for his brother Ziyad reveals that he too is a son of Nawf Abdallah, confirming that he is indeed Youssef’s brother.

Lebanese voter records are available in Sayari Graph and updated annually.

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