5 years ago today, my husband and I got married in a shotgun wedding in the ghetto of Jakarta, where I pretended to speak Arabic, looking like a Betawi princess marrying a corpse, in a punk party beside the open sewers. Here is the story:
To get married, I had to become a Muslim first (in Indonesia the couple must share the same religion). To convert to Islam, I had to say 2 sentences in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic, but I could repeat the phrases the Imam told me. We did it word by word, sound by sound.
The day of the wedding arrived. The whole ghetto was decorated with silky curtains and fake flowers. The neighbourhood was crackling with energy: everyone had a role to play. Many of the women had been up all night cooking for the feast to come, and the men were busy smoking. Everyone was decked out in their best batik.
The bridal preparations began at 7am. They dragged me out of bed and told me not to shower (because it would bring rain and ruin the wedding). Gentle hands guided me to a house where a makeup artist slopped creams and cosmetics all over my face. I had no say in the proceedings, except to refuse the fake eyelids, made from sticky tape and orange gunk. The fake eyelashes were fine.
I was given lots of makeup and massive hair, including a red hair bun, despite the fact that I’m blonde. On my head there were strings of flowers and gold decorative birds sticking out dangerously. The groom nearly lost an eye every time he got too close, but maybe that was the point. An outfit I’d never seen before (much less tried on) was presented for me to wear. It was a red/gold skirt and intricate lace traditional top (kebaya), only slightly too big. I was dressed in the traditional costume of a Betawi bride, with very ‘70s hair and makeup. I felt weird.
The groom looked hilarious: he was bejeweled and sarong-ed wearing a Muslim hat (peci) and white shirt. I’d never seen him wear anything but black t-shirts and jeans, so I couldn’t keep a straight face. For reasons best known to themselves, the makeup crew covered his face with white powder, giving him the exact pallor of a corpse. We posed for stilted photographs with every uncle aunt, cousin, relative, friend, neighbour, and random person that wandered unwittingly into the kampung.
Then the ceremony began. We kneeled on the floor surrounded by important family members, the Imam, the witness,and the Dept of Religion officials who were telling us what to say. There was only a handful of people present, and no audience, as no-one else could fit in the room. A piece of white lace was draped over our heads to symbolise something. The microphones were turned on, and they started speaking. Most of it was in Indonesian, except for the bits in Arabic, which included the wedding vows, as far as I could tell. There’d been no rehearsals or explanations before the ceremony, so I was pretty lost. Just like when I converted to Islam the week before, I made my vows in a language I didn’t understand. I’ve got no idea what i agreed to, but I’ve been married ever since.
We signed some papers, swapped wedding rings, and kissed. The official part was over, so we pressed cheeks with the others in the ceremony. It was a moment of calm happiness, so imagine my suprise when my husband burst into tears. I’d never seen him cry before, so I panicked. I imagined he’d realised it was a big mistake to marry me. Suddenly everyone was crying; i didn’t know what was going on! Next thing I knew I was crying too, half in confusion and half caught up in the atmosphere. But everything was fine; it was just another part of the wedding.
We emerged from the house to the elaborately decorated laneway to greet the guests. They were an interesting mix of local families, dressed up to nines, and heaps of our crazy punk friends, still dressed in their punk rock t-shirts and grimy jeans with mad hair. They’d come from all over Indonesia to be there, even though our invites were only by text message. The punk guests arrived in waves, each new wave falling over laughing at us: the bride and groom looking all traditional and proper.
I was summoned to change clothes, this time into a gorgeous green sarong and lace kabaya (which I’d actually tried on the day before). The sarong was secured with traditional waist binding that was tight on my belly. As I was 3 months pregnant it wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it looked great. I got re-haired and re-made up and this time they put a totally outrageous amount of gold decorations on my head. There was kilos of it, including a little curtain of gold dangling over my face (chada).
We were taken to the throne room for photos with guests. We posed until our smiles were grimaces, then escaped outside to the laneway. There was a buffet of food and everyone was encouraged to eat and eat again. Someone had prepared a special vegan meal for me of tempeh and tofu. There was also a band who’d set up a stage, completely blocking the laneway. They played really loud dangdut music, which is a genre popular among the masses. I was summoned to sing on the stage, so I did my one dangdut hit, and everyone was dancing.
We danced, we ate, we posed for more photos: it was awesome fun, but it was tiring in the tropical heat. The tight stomach binding was getting unbearable, and my head was sore from the weight of the gold decorations. I desperately wanted to have a shower and peel off the fake eyelashes, but there was a few more hours of festivity first. I couldn’t stand the pressure of the chada against my forehead any longer, so I begged help to remove the head gear, cut the binding from my belly and slipped into pants instead of the sarong. Eventually I was allowed to shower; although it was just a bucket of cold water on a concrete floor, it was the best shower ever.
So that was the story of my big fat Muslim wedding, five years ago today. Since then we have moved countries and had two children. Life isn’t always easy, but I couldn’t be happier.