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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Cast From The Herd. Excerpt # 53: A Traditional Wedding

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 53:  A Traditional Wedding

Soon it would be my brother Sharif’s turn to be on the village matchmakers’ radar screen. Word came about that there was a young lady in a nearby village who would be a perfect daughter-in-law. I recognized the name, my former classmate Rokiah. Village tradition had it that when someone brought up the name of a prospective bride, it would be up to the potential groom’s family to carry out the first initiative, pandang memandang (look and see), that would lead to, if promising, merisik (exploratory phase). 

So one day my father came upon the girl’s house on the pretext of being lost. As he approached the house, Rokiah was outside hanging her clothes and did not notice him. My father interpreted that as an unfavorable signal. Had it been otherwise, the process would have gone to the next level, jarum menjarum (lit. threading a needle), where the two parties would try to weave as it were an agreement with respect to such matters as the mas kahwin (dowry) and a propitious date for the Hari Beradat (lit. tradition day; fig. wedding day). 

It was one thing for my father to get bad signals from his internal antenna, another to explain that to the matchmakers. He would have to come up with a more acceptable excuse. That quandary tormented my father especially now that Sharif would be home that December school holiday and thus be more visible to the matchmakers. 

When Sharif came home during that December holiday with my uncles Nasir and Tahir, he told them that he had just sat for his Cambridge School Certificate examination as a private candidate through the International Correspondence School. He had done well at the trial examination and the school had offered him to register directly (upon payment of fees of course) for its Sixth Form classes instead of having to wait for the formal results that would not be released till March. That way, the school advised him, he would have a good head-start. 

My father overheard the conversation and interjected himself immediately. He said how pleased he was that Sharif was considering continuing his education. My father reminded him that he was university material despite not excelling in his LCE examination a few years earlier. He had been stricken with typhoid and missed months of school. My father had pleaded with the headmaster to let Sharif repeat the year. The answer was an emphatic no. There was no place for such accommodation or judgment. The rules were clear and strict. 

So when Sharif said that he was continuing his studies, my father was jubilant, and not just because he now had a ready excuse not to pursue that earlier marriage suggestion. Again, education rescued my father! 

Two years later Sharif passed his Higher School Certificate and secured an accountancy scholarship to the University of Tasmania where he met his future wife, Zainab Mat Akhir, a Colombo Plan scholar there in economics. They had a simple wedding in Australia. 

The closest to a big traditional wedding in my family was my Uncle Nasir’s. When he broke up with his Javanese girlfriend, the village matchmakers hooked him up right away with the young maiden of my grandmother’s choice. At the betrothal ceremony the ladies of our family went to the bride’s home bearing gifts of jewelry (including the engagement ring), fruits, flowers, toiletries, and the mas kahwin (dowry). The dollar notes of the dowry were folded origami-style into shapes of birds and flowers. With the various denominations being in different brilliant colors, the resultant figures were stunning. 

The groom had no role in this ritual; he was not even there. When the party returned, my Uncle Nasir pestered the entourage about his future bride. He had seen only her pictures. 

“You’d better brush up on your English,” teased my sister. 

“If I were you, I’d move up the wedding date before she changes her mind,” added Azizzah. 

The akad nikah (exchange of vows) was a few months later, on the evening before the bersanding (reception). Both were at the bride’s home. At the akad nikah the kadhi (judge) delegated the bride’s uncle to ask her (she was in a separate room surrounded by her female relatives) whether she consented to be married to this young man. Upon getting her verbal agreement, the kadhi asked the groom whether he was ready to undertake the responsibilities of being her husband. 

After the assent, the kadhi recited a few Koranic verses followed by the exchanges of gifts. The oohs and aahsfrom the guests signaled their approval. The groom now entered the bridal suite to meet his new bride for the first time, accompanied by his groomsman. The couple then emerged to sit on a raised dais for the berinai ritual when guests took turns sprinkling rice seeds (symbolizing fertility) and fragrant petals (sweet smelling), ending with the staining of the couple’s palms with inai (red vegetable dye). 

In the eyes of Islam, the pair was now married. By tradition however, they were not, so the groom returned home that evening with the rest of his entourage. 

The next day at the bersanding, my uncle was in his traditional attire with a keris (dagger) tucked underneath his cummerbund and a tanjak perched on his head, like a sultan. Indeed the couple was raja sa hari (king and queen for the day). My Uncle Tahir was the pengapit (lit. clamp; fig. best man) and held up an embroidered umbrella, more to shade himself than the groom. Meanwhile Sharif carried the groom’s suitcase, symbolizing the groom’s moving into the bride’s home. In more traditional ceremonies the groom’s party would also carry a sprouted coconut to be planted in the bride’s compound. I saw many a wedding where the groom was carried in a sedan-chair on poles over the shoulders of the men, in the fashion of feudal kings, or more recent, the African dictator Idi Amin. 

On arrival at the bride’s house my uncle’s party was kept waiting. After the appropriate long pause so as not to appear too eager, the bridal party emerged. Once side by side, the bride’s right baby finger was hooked around the bridegroom’s of the left hand as they proceeded to the house, with the kompang (drums) now more exuberant. 

There was not even a hint of a smile or any indication from the bride that this was her most joyful moment. Traditional modesty dictated that. They were then seated at the head table to begin the ceremonial feeding of each other. That was the first time I saw the bride smile when my Uncle Nasir, afflicted with the usual groom’s nervousness and clumsiness, accidentally smeared her cheek. 

By tradition there would be yet another bersanding, this time at the groom’s house, but our family dispensed with that. My father’s frugality had by now influenced the rest of the extended family. In the days following, the newly-weds visited relatives on both sides. That was the first time I was formally introduced to and spoke with my new auntie-in-law.

Next:  Excerpt #54:  Memorable Family Vacations


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