I. Merisik: visitation, observation
Prior to the proposal, both families will visit one another and begin to think more seriously about the union. The merisik does not constitute a formal proposal, and it is possible that no progress may take place. In such cases, the young man’s parents or representatives will then look for another possible candidate.
You and I are lying in a hotel room in the heart of the city, light seeping in through the filmy curtains. It’s our eighth year together, and we still sneak away from our families to rented rooms in quiet corners where nobody knows us.
Lying skin-to-skin, we talk about the future, we talk about potential. There is the house we will rent in Petaling Jaya, the cats we will adopt. We consider the wisdom of conjoined bank accounts and vacations in strange places no one else wants to go. We talk about coronavirus and food and dictatorships and music and the past and stars and socks and furniture.
And suddenly we’re talking about marriage and then you’re talking about how it’s been weeks since you asked and did I have an answer yet, was I still worried, why did I still doubt that our love can overcome bureaucratic red tape. The whole world shrinks to the small space between my nose and your chest. There is a reason I can only think about this in the dark, where no one can see my face.
‘It’s just paperwork,’ you’re saying. ‘Just some Constitutional nonsense that doesn’t mean anything to everyday folks. What does it really matter if we love each other?’
‘But it’s different for me,’ I say. ‘Everything will change.’
‘Everything is always changing,’ you say. ‘So many people convert for love. Yeah, you’ll have to become a Muslim, but at least we’ll be together. We can weather the changes together. So what’s it going to be?’
Seema has already asked me about this two nights ago, in a sparsely populated bar in the shadow of the financial district, though I won’t tell you this.
I recall the knowing look she shot me over cocktail #6, how she leaned forward, her whole body a conspiracy. Her eyes missed nothing. She glanced first at the tiny gold circle on the table between us, then me. I felt—feel—cut open.
‘So, are you going to do it? You know there’s no going back if you do, right?’ Her voice low, searching.
Seema once told me that all girls are born with calculators for brains—always doing the mental tallying up of how much they are willing to lose for what can be gained.
I shrugged, picked up the ring and ran my fingers across its surface, the gleaming gold band sparkling with blue sapphires. Cold to the touch, it seemed to throb in my hands, a bomb about to explode. ‘How bad would it be, on a scale of one to ten?’
‘Pretty bad, but it’s your life, babe. You know what happens if you decide to marry him,’ she said. She downed the last of her pink cocktail, tongue sliding across the salt-flecked rim. Her dark purple lipstick stained the glass’s edge. ‘I’m biased, though. You know how I feel about all that.’
‘Marriage or Islam?’
She snorted. ‘Come on lah. We’ve all fallen in love with those cute Malay boys and we’ve all done the math, sayang. The numbers just don’t work.’ She cocked an eyebrow. ‘Anyway, you know how these Malay men are. Today, can party-party with all the rich Chinese girls and minum sampai muntah. Dah kahwin? Suddenly they’re conservative male chauvinists. Out with all the alcohol and drugs, in with all the tudungs and sejadahs!’
‘Din isn’t like that, though,’ I protested.
‘Isn’t he?’ Seema cut in. ‘Sayang, I like Din but he’s still a man. Marriage changes you—it changes everything.’
‘He’s different. He studied in the UK!’ I looked down at hands, fingers together in tight knots, hating the whine in my voice. ‘You think I’m making a mistake.’
‘Does it honestly matter what I think?’
I looked up then. Seema was looking at me—really looking at me, as if for the first time that entire night, and she’s not sure what she’s found. Her purple stained lips showed patches of maroon from where the colour clung to the cocktail glass. ‘Look, it’s like this lah,’ she said. ‘Will things be different? Yah, of course they will be! You’ll be married, and a Muslim. That’s just how it is. But we’ll still hang out.’
Seema has never been that careful with other people’s feelings, but she has always been honest. She once told me that all girls are born with calculators for brains—always doing the mental tallying up of how much they are willing to lose for what can be gained. That night, I saw her carefully wipe the humour from her face, her calculator brain whirring away.
Then she grinned and shrugged genially. ‘There’s like a million halal places in this city! I like chicken as much as I like beer—but no more porky bak kuh teh for you!’ She cackled. ‘Welcome to the Hotel California!’
II. Meminang: proposal, planning
Once an agreement for the marriage has been reached, the families will prepare for the engagement to take place.
They always tell you when you marry, you marry the family.
Here, when you marry a Malay (aka a Muslim, aka a Constitutional ball and chain, aka the Hotel California), you marry the family, the state, the sharia courts, and all their attendant traumas.
‘Converting to Islam in Malaysia is like checking into the Hotel California,’ dad used to joke with friends, beer in hand. ‘Once you go in, you can never come out!’ Everyone would laugh, and of course I would laugh too, but I could never meet anyone’s eyes. I wonder if you had considered whether my father would continue to make that joke if we got married. I wonder if I can still fake-laugh about it now.
You tell me that I will have a phalanx of women to guide me through the transition: your sister Maryam, your mother, cousins, an ustazah (I wonder if you’ve even asked them). Besides, you remind me, I’m Malaysian! I went to a national school! So many of my cousins are Muslim, I practically grew up half-Muslim myself! I have Malay friends! It’ll all be fine!
Fine, fine, fine!
I repeat the refrain in my head over and over so I can continue ignoring the niggling feeling that everything will not be fine. I don’t tell you that every time I think about how ‘fine’ everything will be, bile rises up and I want to make a run for it.
‘Converting to Islam in Malaysia is like checking into the Hotel California,’ dad used to joke with friends, beer in hand. ‘Once you go in, you can never come out!’
‘Don’t forget what I told you,’ my mother warned me when I told her you proposed. ‘You go through with this, there is no going back.’ These were her first words to me after several days of silence. Dad still isn’t talking to me.
‘You always said family is family. I’m still family, right? Din will be family too.’
‘Yes, we’re family, but it’s going to be different. Just like your aunty, you will be different. Maybe too different.’ Her eyes were hard, something unforgiving in them. ‘And don’t go thinking they’re going to so easily accept you too.’
‘Din loves me, ma.’
My mother looked at me pityingly, but also like I’m an idiot. ‘No U-turns here, ah girl.’
They said my aunty changed her fate the day she got the moles on her face removed. Moles, I am told, are markers of destiny. They are roadmaps of our lives’ journeys and removing even one could send cosmic shudders across your future. I dismissed most of this as superstitious nonsense, but my aunties clearly did not.
‘She was such a devout Christian back then, my god!’ I remember one of the other aunties exclaiming. The other two aunties nodded their heads and exchanged sad, smug looks. ‘Now she’s a devout Muslim, but makes sense lah. Once a zealot, always a zealot, even if the baju changes.’
‘See what happened to your Ah Yee? Husband has a second wife! She can’t beg or buy his attention, or claim a fair allowance. Hmph!’ Another aunty wagged a finger at me, one perfectly-shaped purple-tinged tattooed eyebrow arched over a sceptical eye.
‘Now, she never comes for New Year, never comes for Cheng Beng—even a simple mahjong game! That man also doesn’t allow her to play with us, says we’re all gambling addicts. Hah! We’re her sisters also still he pantang, ah? We’re supposed to be family, right?’
First aunty leaned forward, as if to ensure her words lodged DNA-deep inside my consciousness. ‘Never get your moles removed, okay? You go changing what nature gave you and bam!’ She smacked her hand on the table for emphasis. ‘Nature changes you.’
III. Bertunang: engagement, betrothal
Following the settlement, the bridegroom’s side will prepare various items to be presented to the potential bride. Similarly, the bride’s side will prepare gifts for the young man.
When I was a girl, our maid would cup my face, lightly touch each eyelid and say, ‘You have one big eye and one small eye, both Malay and Chinese.’
The idea thrilled me to the core. It meant I was a real Malaysian, one whole joined from two halves, the truest physical manifestation of what it meant to be muhibbah, to have goodwill for each other despite our differences. It is what set us apart from Singapore, Malaysians would smugly say.
I was different from everyone else — thanks to a childhood growing up with Muslim relatives, I felt double-blooded, double-cultured. Because of my heritage, I thought I could be a friend to all. I could easily step in and out of all the different roles I expected of me. I was a chimera, a shapeshifter, a peaceweaver. I would be the difference this country could only dream of.
‘The first mistake your aunty ever made was thinking she could be like them,’ my mother used to say. ‘She always thought if she just worked hard enough and stayed true, it would all come together.’
But I’m not like her, I didn’t say. I’m different, I’m half-and-half. I can do it.
‘Sayang, your girlfriend ni nak some rendang tak? I masak cukup-cukup untuk kita je, I didn’t think she would want some—she probably doesn’t even eat spicy, kan? I know these Chinese types, memang quite fussy about their food. Ah! Lemak lagi, not good for the figure, kan mereka sangat health-conscious? Nanti tak habis, tak suka—takpe we find something easier for her to eat.’
Your mother said all this in a cloying, honeyed voice that grated against my nerves.
‘No, mak, takyah susah-susah sangat—she’ll be fine with whatever you serve,’ you said, patient and appeasing. ‘She’s Malaysian right? Grew up eating all the same foods we did.’
Your mother sniffed dismissively, and I couldn’t even find it in myself to glory in your defence of me. The smile on my face was stiff as she bustled around the kitchen. I’d been instructed to stay seated, as ‘I’d only get in the way’. Of course she doesn’t hold it against me, after all I don’t understand how the family kitchen works yet, it’s fine! I’m from a Chinese family, it’s all very different and I’ll learn eventually.
‘The first mistake your aunty ever made was thinking she could be like them,’ my mother used to say. ‘She always thought if she just worked hard enough and stayed true, it would all come together.’
This wouldn’t matter, I told myself, because soon you and I would be moving into our own place. You have reassured me that we can do whatever we want with it, cook whatever we wish. Our lives would be ours to command.
‘Oh, speaking of—pastikan you don’t bring her old pots and pans to your new house, okay sayang? Kena beli yang baru.’
‘What?’ I say before you can stop me. ‘No, we don’t have to buy new stuff, my current ones work okay. I only bought them a year ago.’
Her nose screwed up, her mouth twisted like someone had unleashed the unholy stink of petai into the room, but delivered her next words with the smooth elegance and authority befitting a gracious datin, each one a carefully placed barb clawing deep under my skin.
‘You’ve cooked your Chinese food in them, haven’t you? Maaf, dear, they’re already contaminated and probably not good for Din. Lebih baik you give them to your family before you move in, since you all eat the same food, kan? Halal rules are very strict, you know, very different from what you are used to. Takpe, I’m sure you don’t know all this.’ She turned back to her simmering rendang, the bubbles popping in time with the blood pounding in my ears.
‘Thanks, mak, we’ll figure it out,’ you said quickly, your hand clamping down on my knee like I might leap from my chair, fingers grasping for your mother’s throat. I cannot say I wouldn’t.
‘She has a point about the pots and pans,’ you said later that evening. ‘We should probably go get some new ones, maybe make a trip down to IKEA.’
There was something resigned in your expression, something I could not understand. Was it acceptance? Regret? I think that was the first time you looked like a stranger to me.
IV: Akad nikah: solemnisation
While all the other ceremonies performed before and after the akad nikah are derived from traditional Malay culture (and may even be omitted), the akad nikah is an Islamic ceremony without which no marriage is valid.
It occurs to me that when someone says, ‘this person is going to convert,’ they never specify precisely what conversion is taking place. They don’t have to.
Sure, you could convert to Catholicism or veganism, or even the church of extreme high-altitude sports. But we all know that in Malaysia when people say ‘convert’ they mean ‘Islam’.
A week ago, you insisted that we try out a kursus kahwin, just so I could get a better sense of what was expected of me. Not the official one, you reassured me. Call it a trial run. I really didn’t want to, but maybe you had a point. Maybe I just had to experience something to believe this could work. Maryam dropped us off in front of a shoplot in the TTDI neighbourhood, waving like it was the first day of school.
‘Don’t worry about it, dear, you’re going to do so well!’ she called through the open window, already pulling away. ‘Think of it as a challenge, you’re going to learn so much!’
You kissed my knuckles and said: ‘She’s right, you know? This will help you fit in better with the community.’
Fit in? ‘Fitting in’ wasn’t what we talked about. Wasn’t the whole point that we did this our way? That we didn’t bend to society’s expectations? I was only able to offer a weak smile, a squeeze of the hand.
The state requires all Muslims and would-be Muslims to attend the kursus if they intend on shacking up with each other. I was told that during the course, we would learn how to manage finances, family planning, wills, taxes, as a married couple. Instead, the uztaz at the front has made several lewd comments about the wedding night, and presented an incorrect lecture about how women get pregnant.
‘Now men, you know how women can be—crazy and argumentative, and won’t let you even say a word!’ he said with a smirk. ‘Do not be afraid to employ a bit of the law of the hand—it’s your right as a husband!’
From across the aisle that separates the men from the women, we exchanged a puzzled look. For that brief moment, I felt us connect and I think maybe that is what this is all leading up to. You and me, together, facing whatever the world throws at us. Us.
For that brief moment, I felt us connect and I think maybe that is what this is all leading up to. You and me, together, facing whatever the world throws at us.
After the course, several other couples came up to us, their excitement at our novelty palpable. My grip on your hand tightened so hard you winced.
One girl with clear skin and purple contacts clasps my hand, thanked Allah and you for bringing me to Islam through the purity of love. She sighed, ‘You’re so lucky!’
‘How so?’ I asked.
‘You get to come to this all fresh! You get to experience learning about Allah from the beginning. None of the baggage from high school religious classes. I envy you so much.’
For the first time, I felt guilty for doing this only for you. I wondered if I should feel something more.
My aunties were never very good at keeping their voices low when they gossiped.
Then again, gossip is kind of like racism: you know it when you hear it. It has a particular kind of cadence in poorly hushed voices and unrepentant disgust. When a distant uncle got married to his third bride—his first Muslim—my aunties gossiped incessantly throughout the ceremony. Every time one of the men turned their disapproving eyes on us, I struggled to smother my giggles.
At the centre of the hall sat a clasp of men who shook hands in agreement over the silent bride, who sat a few feet away on a heavily embroidered pillow, her features a picture of serenity.
‘Are they really going to just leave her over there while they bargain over her life?’ one aunty spluttered.
‘So one-sided, ah?’
‘Waliao, if I were her, I’d run the moment I get the chance.’
I wonder if they would mutter the same things behind me, as I sat on my own silver-embroidered pillow, head bent, trying my best to dissolve into nothing. In my mind, I wouldn’t make eye contact with them either. How could I bear to see what I know will be in their eyes?
You would not meet my eyes either. Your head would be bent over the gilded pages of a Quran, your lips moving in prayer and promise. You look born into the role of the devout Muslims, of course you would—you have come on bended knee to this god your whole life. I wonder if it’s enough that only one of us will fulfil this bargain with him. You are the fulcrum on top of which the entire system is balanced, and I try to find the belief that that is all I need. We can forge a better world, we can be double-blooded together—we can be more. Right?
Years later, I still think about the quiet joy that radiated off the bride. Back then, it looked like compliance; now it seems almost radical.
V: Akad berinai: staining
Of the above three ceremonies, the berinai besar is the major one and is intended to cleanse the couple.
Say we did it. Say we said the prayers, signed the papers, paid the caterers. We would eat and smile, smile and eat, and then your father would stand up during the kenduri and say, ‘Today we have been gifted a daughter by our wonderful Chinese family. We can only hope one day we can gift you another child back, joining our families, our country, ever closer together.’
I know every single one of my family members would be thinking: Not if we can help it.
You are the fulcrum on top of which the entire system is balanced, and I try to find the belief that that is all I need.
Everyone would dutifully raise their glasses in respectful response. A fat relative may attempt a half-hearted toast, leading everyone with a yell: ‘Yam seng!’
The cheer would come and go, muted and petering out quickly. I would gulp down my flamingo pink air bandung, desperately wishing it was wine.
I look at you lying next to me, expectant. Outside, Kuala Lumpur flickers, the sounds of Changkat pulsate in the night, near and far away. This city of five million people is vast, but I keep coming back to the fact that this does mean something, even if you are unwilling to admit it.
It’s so simple for you: if you love someone, you marry them. Easy as anything. For you, the math will always add up.
‘Things won’t change that much,’ you whisper. ‘This is just something we have to do, something to stay together. So many others have done this before us, surely we can too. Isn’t it worth it if it means we can do this our way?’
I don’t say anything. Instead, I think about your mother and how she not-so-secretly hopes you’ll come to your senses about me—I wonder how you will tell her. I think about Maryam, trying so hard to help you hold this collapsing thing together. I think about that ustaz and all the jokes I will endure at my expense. I think about Seema and the clarity of the count she is keeping. I think about my parents, how the ends of our frayed relationship will cauterise to stubbed ends. I think of that girl with the purple eyes, her earnest joy in my newfound belief.
And in spite of all I know that will change and all the ways in which you are naive about how they will change; in spite of the endings and the threat of isolation—in spite of myself—I say, ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’