Henna decorated my hand like icing. A six-year-old child held up a design on a smartphone so the henna artist could use it as a reference, but for whatever reason my face drew more attention. Foreigners didn’t come often to Lubuk Linggau. The henna artist was a delicate-featured girl of 16, not yet a woman: more like a solitary limb with a sumptuousness of its own. She knew nothing of her own beauty, only of curiosity betrayed by long glances at older members of her own sex, blue eyeshadow.
Reclining next to her on the bed was a woman I earlier saw floating around the house. She was an aunt of the bride-to-be, unveiled for the time being, hand propping up an unblemished face framed by luscious hair that—I knew—she had let down for me. I never asked her age. Fifty. Skin-tight jeans strained around thigh propped on thigh, and her sweater rippled along her torso so that she lay before me like a breast of meat upon a platter. Family woman. Stroking my right arm, on which the paint had begun to dry, she told me that adorning oneself with henna was an Arabian tradition. As a Muslim, to be of Arabian descent was considered a signifier of pure blood.
I told her I was neither Muslim nor Arabian. She told me I looked Turkish, which I was meant to take as a compliment. Combing her fingers through her hair, she reclined further on the bed. “You know there are some things we like about America, and there are some things we don’t like.” When I asked her to elaborate, she told me she had heard rumors about the West’s inclination toward moral chaos and free (premarital) sex. Without mention of my personal history I informed her that in fact most Americans were both moral and religious. She looked me over, and when I held her gaze she told me both her sons were single.
Later the same woman leashed out out sex jokes in the dressing room to the bride and groom, who blushed into the cushions of their marital bed. I had sat through a 36-hour bus to witness this. The bride was a friend of mine, my former-student of conservative upbringing whose passion flushed over everything she spoke. Now she was quiet. Three months ago this marriage had been arranged by her parents. One day as she napped on a dorm room floor she woke to an urgent call from her her father demanding that she get on a bus from Java to Southern Sumatra, where her soul mate had been selected from the hatch like a golden egg.
The egg was round enough, with chubby cheeks like parentheses framing a waxen smile. The morning had his fingertips dipped in henna so that now, on the evening before his wedding, his stains camouflaged with the fringe on the pillow he held in his lap. We asked him to tell us the story of his proposal.
“Our mothers met in town and started talking.” he said. “My mother told me about Zie’s accomplishments and showed me her picture, and it was then that I knew: ‘that’s my soul mate’”. Zie smiled. Her henna traveled up her arms like red and black lace. That morning I had witnessed the bride and groom joke and banter like old friends. When I asked Zie how she was feeling, she closed her eyes into bliss and said one word. “Happy.”
I had heard of some wild phenomena in Indonesia, and had steeped long enough in this country’s superstitions to recognise I knew nothing of the inner-workings of nature, nor of God-sent revelation, but was it true a partner could be chosen out of obedience and a photograph?
“First, I resolved to marry,” said the groom. “Then I fell in love.”
The women in the room pursed their lips at the statement. Indonesia was, after all, a country in which “love” (in that ass-backwards sense, pretended or not) was the focal point of youth. But on my end, after thinking over the groom’s words, they began to make sense: when we resolve to move, we move; when we resolve to see the best in something, it shows itself. This no-nonsense approach to love seemed the same system Americans took to finding jobs, which might explain why 50% of Americans are more committed to their professions than their spouses. So what was backwards? One thing was clear: The groom spoke with his finger pointing up – to his parents, then to Allah, in who knows what order.
At dawn we had a breakfast of fried fish rolls. While the bride dressed for the initial ceremony, I and two other friends (also my former students) prepared in the guest room. It had taken a solid half hour of shuffling in someone else’s shoes beside a small parking-lot’s worth of caged sheep to get a cup of instant coffee, and I enjoyed it slowly as I watched my friends adjust and readjust their veils according to Muslim fashion.
Zie was the first friend my age to marry. My friends in the United States still hustled from partner to partner, experimenting with degrees of attraction and compatibility. In previous years Zie’s attempts at love were modest and partial, hinging on the oversight of her parents, so that now, 23 and in her prime, she would surrender all her curiosities into the hands of one man she was arranged to love.
Fixed into my memory will always be Zie in the opening procession, hiding in the dressing room as her fiancé’s family filed into her home. Outside the door, her father sat at a floor table across from her husband-to-be. Beyond her was a document devised by her Imam, the marriage papers illuminated by neon lights, soaking up the signatures of others. A sea of eyes waited for her. She sat beneath that weight like a knight or a saint, lips trembling but never sinking below parallel, body erect and draped like an Arabian chandelier. In a moment she would emerge, profess love to her parents, and sign herself over to a new life.
Dawn to dusk would be filled with greetings between guests and forced servings of ice cream. Inside the marriage tent outside the bride’s home, my friend and her new spouse stood like dolls atop a floral cake, accepting serenades from veiled mommas in tight dresses, hips bigger than their husbands, evocative rhythms thumping to lyrics about adultery.
I could see why, in a culture where relationships meant everything, marriage was more dense than I had ever been asked to comprehend. In Indonesia, marriage was a demonstration of gratitude for fortunate upbringing, a commitment to one’s home, status, family, neighboring community, and the fusion of all under God; the spouse was the adhesive. And I could see why it was all too rich to jeopardise. During my short stay in the bride’s home, warmth permeated my Western-individualist shell, flooding from extended relatives tending the wedding stew out back with the sheep, neighbours stroking hair and linking arms, cousins confiding love and curiosities, Zie’s mother cooing us to sleep. Despite being foreigner and the only non-Muslim guest, I was welcomed into this nucleus as if I, too, belonged there.
When night fell and the newlyweds recovered from the day’s exhaustion, the groom drove us to the family-owned Pesantren (Muslim boarding school), where he and Zie would one day serve as teachers and headmasters. When we arrived it was already night, and a breeze swept through the grounds of the boarding school where in the daytime the children gathered to play. The groom’s brother held a prayer discussion inside a dwelling at the center of the lawn, where a small library partitioned off a lounge for communal study. Our bridal party stopped by to say hello. The students were of mixed gender, between the ages of 10 and 18 and not more than 30 in number. The groom’s brother sat cross-legged at the center, introducing the newly weds to the children. And I, the hastily-veiled woman with the alien face.
As I looked over the students, packed together like a nest of mice, I noticed they had the same receptive eyes as those of Zie, who, regardless of where she was or was required to be, possessed a spirited enthusiasm beyond what any human being could oppress. This spirit was grounded in her commitment to prayer five times a day, a sense of inner-identity and belonging that I would search for all my life. As we returned to shovel down the half-finished bridal cake, I released a sigh of happiness for Zie—without a doubt the most radiant bride I had ever seen—whose choices might by comparison always seem limited, but whose purpose would never be without.