The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part III

*** This post is a part of a series. To get caught up, check out “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II” 

The Arab Spring kicked off in Bahrain four months after I moved there. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In the living room, the imam and Gökhan’s whole family was waiting for us. The imam guided me to repeat the Shahada, the Arabic script that would declare me a Muslim. “La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah,” which translates to “I testify that there is no other God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” He said it slowly, pausing after every few syllables to allow time for me to mimic the foreign sounds. Even as I was uttering them, I didn’t believe them— I merely made the sounds to appease Gökhan’s conservative and religious mother. Afterward, I signed a piece of paper that the imam had prepared. Shortly after, he declared us husband and wife.

Shortly after the nikah, we legalized our union in Canada. Then we moved to Bahrain in the fall of 2010. Our marriage was a secret— our plan was to get ourselves settled in our new home, give Gökhan some time to look for a job, and once he starts working, then we will tell our family about the marriage and have a proper celebration.

However, the universe had a different plan for us. In December 2010, a young fruit seller in Tunisia, a North African state located between Libya and Algeria, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in front of a government building. His self-immolation was a protest against the unfair “protection fees” demanded by the police. The event was a catalyst that ignited the Arab Spring— massive protests swept across the Middle East, from Egypt to Yemen to Syria. To this day, almost eight years later, the civil war in Syria rages on.

Bahrain is a small island state in the Persian Gulf, the site of the first oil rig in Bahrain. Also, the white dress I was wearing was the same one I wore for the nikah.

The Arab Spring caught on in Bahrain on Valentine’s Day 2011, led by the Shia Muslim majority against their Sunni minority rulers. Within weeks, with the help of the Saudis, the government took control and cracked down on the demonstrations. The Bahraini government shot the protestors, killing and injuring many.  They also arrested bloggers and activists. Furthermore, they charged the medical professionals with treason for treating the so-called “enemies of the state.” It was a terrible time in Bahrain— helicopters were whirling and buzzing in the sky 24/7, the roads were closed randomly when a protest was suspected and the smell of tear gas had become the norm.  The turmoil made it difficult for Gökhan to find work.

I was stressed-out and depressed. The civil unrest shook me to the core— growing up in Canada, I never experienced the government persecuting their citizens for speaking up against them. Looking back now, perhaps the situation in Bahrain was not so different from when the KMT first moved to Taiwan in the late 1940’s. I asked Gökhan to get a job elsewhere and take us away from the Middle East.

A year and a half later, he finally secured a job— in Dubai. He had dismissed my desire to leave the Middle East and chose to stay. By this time our marriage had crumbled— our union was built on compromised integrity and it couldn’t withstand the stress of political turmoil. Also, I never stopped resenting him for putting me through nikah and the coerced conversion to Islam. Instead of following him to Dubai, I got a job in Hong Kong to be closer to my parents in Taiwan. We broke up.

Three years later, Mazu found my love. After a whirlwind courtship, Derek and I became engaged on January 1, 2015. My parents were overjoyed— they adore Derek and was glad that I would share my life with an intelligent, capable, and loving man. We are happy and madly in love.  Everything was perfect, except there was one problem: I was still legally married to Gökhan.

I had tried to obtain a divorce as soon as I moved to Hong Kong. However, I learned that although I was able to marry in Canada as a non-resident, I was not eligible for a Canadian divorce. In Hong Kong, as a new resident, I also didn’t qualify to apply for a divorce.

I called Mama and told her my big secret. “Hi Mama, aren’t you so happy that I am about to marry this amazing man? By the way, can you help me get a divorce?”

She was shocked of course. And angry. And hurt. She yelled at me over the phone. However, she did help me. Within weeks, Gökhan flew to Taipei in March 2015. We filled out some paperwork in a municipal office and legally dissolved our union.

I learned a lot from my relationship with Gökhan, like communicating expectations, and accepting the people I love for who they are (instead of trying to change them).  Even though going through nikah and living in Bahrain was challenging, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything else. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned the lesson I needed to be in a loving and equal partnership.

In October 2015, Derek and I had our Halloween art deco wedding. Since then, he’s been my partner, my champion and the most ardent supporter of my writing. I am ever so lucky to have him by my side.

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The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II

*** This post is a part of a series. To get caught up, check out “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part I” 

I agreed to participate in nikah without knowing what I was getting myself into. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“This is not part of the deal,” I shouted, shaking my head. The pins keeping my lavender headscarf in place pricked my scalp. “You promised that I didn’t have to convert if I go through the nikah!” I glared at him; my gaze was accusatory.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” Gökhan muttered, “You don’t need to go through with it if you don’t want to. It’s completely up to you.”

Is it up to me? No, it’s not up to me! I started to cry. Gökhan looked at me with his thoughtful eyes. He handed me a tissue. I dabbed my eyes, blew my nose, and continued to sit on the bed and cry. I looked up and saw myself in his mother’s vanity mirror. My make-up had smeared, my lavender headscarf had fallen off, and my face looked like the damp, soggy tissue in my hand. Gökhan fidgeted next to me, occasionally patting me on the shoulder and repeating the phrase, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Don’t you fucking understand? I shouted inside my head. From now on, we can never be truly happy together. If I don’t convert, your Mom is going to hate me forever, and I am going to feel lousy making you choose between her and me. However, if I do convert, I will resent you for as long as I live. I kept my head bowed because I couldn’t stand looking at the helpless expression on his face. I couldn’t utter a word because I knew that if I tried to verbalize what I was thinking, I would either start wailing or screaming.

I liked the fact that Gökhan added to my multi-cultural identity.

If I had known what I know now, I would have walked away—a marriage cannot be built on coercion and compromised integrity. Part of our attraction to each other was the fact that we came from such different worlds, which was intoxicating to explore. Also, I was his ticket out of Denmark and his parents’ house. For me, I liked that he added a layer to my multi-cultural experience and the idea of an exotic boyfriend who had grown up in completely different cultures than mine. I bragged to friends that between the two of us, there are four passports. I have spent my whole life crossing borders and adapting to different cultures, and I thought I was ready to cross a new one with Gökhan.

I was wrong.

I wept for an eternity, shed enough tears to fill the Bosphorous. On the other side of the door, the imam was waiting for me to change my wicked, wayward ways and his entire clan was expecting us to profess our undying love and commitment to each other. I cried and cried. I didn’t know how to get out of this mess.

Out of nowhere, Gökhan’s father walked into the room. He was smiling. He closed the door behind him and started laughing. I gave him a look of bafflement as he spoke rapidly in Turkish. He paused and nodded his head. Gökhan looked at me and interpreted what his father had said, “My dad said you are taking this whole thing way too seriously.”

His father grinned at me, said a few more words and nodded again. Gökhan translated, “He said it’s totally fine if you don’t want to go through with it. But you could also put on a show by pretending to convert, which would make everybody happy.”

I stared at his father, shocked that he had just asked me to go out there and tell a lie in front of the whole family. It’s not that I hadn’t thought of it myself, but it felt inconceivable to make a roomful of people believe I was something that I wasn’t. He chuckled, nodded at Gökhan again and left without saying another word. What his father wanted me to do was what he had done, and also what Gökhan had done his whole life: pretend and go through the motions to make peace. I felt defeated and exhausted. I forced my gaze back to Gökhan. Oh, what I would do just to make this awful situation go away!

After taking a couple of deep breaths, I asked Gökhan to fetch my makeup bag from the next room. I cleaned my face with a fresh tissue and wiped away the black smudge under my eyes. When Gökhan returned, I smeared a thick layer of foundation and powdered my face. Then, I applied a sparkly lilac eyeshadow that matched my lavender headscarf. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I grinned. I readjusted my headscarf. My eyes were still puffy; my smile looked pathetic but convincing enough to those who didn’t know me. I smiled again and knew that my mask was secure. I reached for Gökhan’s hand and led him out of the room.

** To find out what happens next, read the final post, “The Secrets of Nikah, The Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part III

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The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part I

I participated in Nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony, without knowing what I signed up for. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“If you want to be with me, and be accepted by my family, you will need to convert,” Gökhan, my boyfriend of four months said.

“No,” I stared at him as if his face had warped into the head of a goat. Converting to Islam was unthinkable. Being secular was my religion, and I wasn’t willing to change it.

He explained that all I had to do was to pretend, to do it for a show, which was what he had done his whole life. I still refused. I wasn’t going to fake it and be someone I wasn’t. He called me spoiled, stubborn and selfish. I cried but persisted. It was a battle of wills that lasted the whole day.

“If you love me, you will accept me for who I am,” I argued, my eyes blazing, “you wouldn’t ask me to compromise my integrity.”

Eventually, I broke him down with a combination of persistence and tears. “You won’t need to convert,” he said, hugging me, “I will talk to my mother.”

Less than a year later, I arrived in Denmark to meet Gökhan’s family for the first time. The room we stayed in at his parents’ house was bright and airy. It had a large window facing the yard filled with an assortment of flowers, as well as a garden of tomatoes, cucumbers, and various herbs. There were twin beds on each side of the room, one for each of his younger sisters. We each occupied an individual bed throughout our visit. His mother made this arrangement because she thought it’d be improper for us to share a bed until the nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony.

I went to Denmark one summer to meet Gokhan’s family for the first time.

I told Gökhan that I was willing to take part in the nikah, as long as I didn’t have to convert to Islam. He talked to his mother who agreed that I wouldn’t have to. Overjoyed that her son would no longer live in sin, she invited the whole extended family, prepared an elaborate spread, and summoned the prestigious imam, the religious leader who would officiate the ceremony.

On the day of the nikah, I found myself in the center of the room wearing an ivory, ankle-length, cotton maxi dress with grey embroidered flowers at the hem. I bought the dress a few days before because it was long and covered my legs. The top portion was too revealing for Islamic taste, but I bought it anyway because it was a comfortable and sexy summer dress that I could wear again. I wore a white cardigan, buttoned-up all the way, to cover my tattooed arm and immodest cleavage.

Gökhan’s three aunts were fussing around me, trying to pin a lavender pashmina over my head as a temporary headscarf. His little sisters, aged 11 and 13, whose room had turned into a bridal dressing room, stole curious glances at me. When I returned their gawks with grins, they gasped, turned their heads and pretended it was normal to have this stranger in their bedroom, about to marry their big brother.

His boisterous aunts laughed and chatted in a combination of Turkish and Danish— languages alien to me. They clamored and made animated gestures with their hands and clapped as they giggled over some anecdote I couldn’t comprehend. I stood amid this commotion with a dumb smile on my face and nodded my head as Gökhan’s only English-speaking aunt asked me if I was doing okay.

Despite the chaotic confusion in the room, a part of me was having fun, soaking up his aunts’ contagious excitement. I felt euphoric and found myself smiling more as time passed. I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup when Gökhan poked his head in the room, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute in the next room?” he asked in a quiet voice, avoiding my eyes, his thick, dark brows furrowed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

He sat me down on his parents’ bed. Averting my quizzical eyes, Gökhan said, “I told the imam that you were a Buddhist when he asked me what your religion was. He said since you are not neither Christian or Jewish, you would need to convert.”

His words took a few moments to sink in. Once I understood the gravity of the situation, I started to panic. Did he know this was going to happen before talking me into the nikah?

*** To find out what happens next, stay tuned for the next post, “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II.”

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