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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My First Secret: The Guanyin Tattoo

My Baba and Mama are always in my heart. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Last night, my brother Davis called me. “Hey, did you know that Baba and Mama read your blog?”

“No! I thought they just like it on Facebook without actually reading it.”

“Well, they do. I was a bit concerned since you mentioned your coke hangover in your last post.”

I was astounded. At the same time though, how silly it was for me to assume that Mama and Baba wouldn’t be interested in reading my blog? After all, I did quit my successful career as a librarian and plunged myself into the unknown and unstable life of a freelance writer. They don’t understand why I would give up my comfortable life for something so uncertain. They read my blog, hoping to make sense of the choices I made.

In many ways, I am nervous about writing In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom. It’s about politics; it’s about the clash of cultures. It’s also about identity and spirituality—but it’s also about secrets—there is an undercurrent full of them flowing through my story, and every so often, one of them rises to the surface.

On that note, it’s time for me to reveal a secret.

I got a new tattoo (sorry, Mama). It is an eight-inch tattoo of Guanyin, the Chinese bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. I got it a while ago, but I was too afraid to show it to my parents when I was in Taiwan last time. Last time I got a tattoo, Mama was so livid, she wouldn’t talk to me for days. Like many parents, they associate tattoos with gangsters and the unsavory underbellies of society. But this tattoo is important to me. I want them to understand why.

My Guayin tattoo.

My good friend Alex Prachthauser did a phenomenal job— my Guanyin is beautiful and serene, holding a water jar and a strand of willow leaves. I asked Alex to tattoo her as far up as my thigh as possible so she wouldn’t be visible unless I wear shorts. I did this intentionally so that I could hide her easily (mostly from Mama, Baba and other disapproving family members).

There are several reasons for getting this tattoo. First, it represents my vow to live my life with love and empathy. I strive to be cognizant of the suffering of others and help to make the world a better place.

Second, the tattoo is a tribute to my ancestral heritage, the aspect of me that I neglected and dismissed for most of my life. Also, it expresses my commitment to stay in Asia and learn about my own culture.  Since we’ve been married, Derek and I decided to stay in Asia for the long haul. However, up until this point, I am an Asian woman living in Hong Kong who knows so little about her own culture. I didn’t even try—I was what they call a”banana.”

Third, the tattoo also reflects my newfound fascination in Chinese gods, which is a little contrary considering my disdain for organized religions.  In high school, people took me to church with them, but Jesus never entered my heart. When I was in my mid 20’s, I learned about Islam while working and living in Dubai. I felt the religion to be culturally oppressive, and I became resentful towards it when I was coerced to convert (that’s another secret for a different time).

Despite my early indifference and later indignation towards religions, I am now interested in the Chinese folk religion. To me, judgment and fear do not pay a prominent role in the faith. My parents never used the idea of God as a crutch when I did something they didn’t like. They would yell that I was ruining my reputation or embarrassing them—they don’t care what a god thinks; they care more about what others would think of me, and how my actions reflect on them. I like that about the religion. I was so tired of people telling me that I was going to hell for believing in something or that something I was doing was haram, acts forbidden by Allah.

There are so many intriguing stories about my culture. But for me to share these stories; I have to reveal secrets. I have to tell the truth. My tattoo is only one secret, first of the many. However, the secrets I am going to share are not just mine. They are of my family’s too. In attempting to untangle my multi-layered identity and telling the truth, there is a part of me that worries about hurting the people I love the most. Sometimes the truth is painful.

I come from a place of love and compassion. My writing about my family is not in any way trying to or hurt them—instead, I intend to tell stories people can relate to and connect with. In doing so, I hope to help make the world a better place.

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The Goddess Who Found My Love

Mazu is the protector of the fishermen, Queen of Heaven in the Chinese folk religion. She also found Derek (according to Mama). Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

It was 2014 when Mama handed me a red bracelet made of red threads knotted together. She told me to put it on, so I did. Within six months, Derek and I started dating. A year later, we were married. Since then, Mama is convinced that the bracelet, which was made using a thread blessed by Mazu, led Derek to me. In other words, it was Mazu who found my love.

Mazu is well-venerated by people in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places where there are descendants from south China region.

In the Chinese folk religion, Mazu is the protector of fishermen and Queen of Heaven. As a mortal, Mazu’s name was Lin Moniang and she lived in the 10th century on Meizhou Island, near the coast of Fujian province. One day, she dreamt her father and brother were in a shipwreck. So she went to rescue them. She grabbed her father with one arm and she held on to her brother by clenching his clothes between her teeth while she swam to the shore. However, when she heard her mother call her name, she opened her mouth to reply. At that moment, her brother disappeared into the water.

The next day, she learned that her father and brother had indeed been in a shipwreck. Her father survived but her brother didn’t. She blamed herself. Since then, she devoted her life to helping others.  After she died, the local people built a temple in her honor.

Her fame grew as many fishermen reported seeing a young woman in a red robe with a lantern during storms who led them to safety.  People started to worship her for protection and blessings. She started to be known as Mazu, which translates to Mother Grandmother. To this day, she is well-venerated in many parts of the world where there are descendants of people from southern China.

Like many Taiwanese people, Mama is a big fan of Mazu. When one of our family friends had invited a well-venerated Mazu from a nearby temple to her home, Mama went to the welcome parade. At this parade, she saw the man whose job is to announce the arrival of Mazu—he was also the person who carried the red threads that had been blessed by the goddess. When he walked past Mama, he gave her two threads.

Mama and her friends met the announcer of Mazu during this year’s parade. The announcer is the one who carries around the sought-after red threads.

Mama was ecstatic. The red threads are sought-after because they bring luck.  She considered it a good omen that the announcer chose to give them to her. She took the threads to a shop that specializes in Chinese knots and turned them into two bracelets. I got one and she gave the other to my younger brother, Davis. He didn’t wear the bracelet though— Mama is convinced that this is the reason he is still unmarried.

When I was younger, I never believed the power of Chinese deities. I didn’t need them. However, after meeting Derek, I am not so sure. I can’t help but be thankful that I have such an amazing husband— maybe it was Mazu who led him to me. I took the bracelet off the day I married the love of my life. To this day, it’s sitting in my jewelry box. It’s just as lucky, only faded now.

I called Mama today and asked her what year she got the red threads at Mazu’s welcome parade.

“Funny that you asked. Facebook just told me that I was at that parade exactly four years ago today.”

Huh. Is it a coincidence, or there is something magical about Mazu?

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