• Edward Stephens

Getting Married to an Acehnese is like, whaaaaat?

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

Photo of extended family, Lebaran 2019. AUTHOR PHOTO.

Garuda Flight 717 touched down in Jakarta, Indonesia. I got my bags and headed for the Damri bus terminal. The smell of Indonesia – clove cigarettes, pungent jackfruit and sweat – blended with burnt jet fuel lingering in the air and the diesel smoke of idling buses. The familiar wave of heat and humidity hit as soon as you stepped outside the terminal.

I boarded the bus heading toward Slipi and stowed my luggage underneath. In earlier years you dumped your bag up front and hoped no one pinched it. These days you got a ticket from the driver and he stored it securely in the cargo hold.

After getting off at my stop – the side of the road at some intersection – I staggered around in the dark for a while and made a few phone calls. Eventually I found the right house. Full Jakarta spec – copper coloured iron bars for a fence, nondescript house front, spikes on top of the fence. A figure emerged in the dark ushering me inside to the more opulent interior. I dropped by bags on the porch and stumbled into the entrance hall, with customary leather couches, where my future mother-in-law and a few family members were waiting.

Everything was being monitored under the watchful gaze of a Javan tiger. Long dead, stuffed and mounted on a pedestal, he was keeping watch over the house. No wonder they were extinct in the wild, they were all sitting in somebody’s living room. This one was sent as a gift to Pak Wo, my future in-law and a retired National Police commander. I’m not sure what you had to do to get one, and I wasn't game to ask.

After a brief introduction with everyone, I sipped at my disposable cup of water – the kind that litter Indonesia’s streets and waterways – and a tense interview followed. This was my first meeting with my fiancé’s family. It’s would normally be done with an entourage of relatives accompanying me. But as a bule -- pronounced boohley, slang for white foreigner -- it was just me. I was on my way to the Future Researcher’s of Indonesia Program at the Novotel in Bogor. This had been a convenient stop-over while everyone was in town at the same time.

My future mother-in-law, Bunda, was dressed like the mother of the nation. She wore a long, flowing hijab with matching attire. She looked like she was dressed for battle, the same way a CEO would when faced with a hostile merger. After all, I was the interloper who had stolen her daughter’s heart. She’d gone to Australia to get a master’s degree. Now Bunda was faced the prospect she would come home to Indonesia with a husband.

The meeting must have gone well, or as well as it could. While everyone remained stoic, Pun, Bunda’s brother, offered me a ride to a hotel and a feed at McD along the way. His assistant, a young nephew or cousin, fed notes of rupiah to the toll booths and carried Pun’s belongings. I got paraded to their house, before Pun escorted me to hotel’s reception, making sure I had enough cash for a room, among the salarymen and South Korean’s that frequented this particular joint.

I called my partner. She filled me in that the meeting had gone well. While the characters had remained stoic, even tense by Western standards, things were on track.

I was just beginning to learn about Acehnese culture. Generally, they are less prone to rhetoric. The sweet words we Westerners are accustomed to. In Indonesia, these are associated with the Javanese, long the dominant ethnicity holding Indonesia’s economic stronghold, the Island of Java. The Acehnese also tend to associate sweet-talk with dishonesty, and my wife’s family would usually show politeness through action rather than rhetoric.

While they had remained stoic and their words few, they made sure I was fed, found me accommodation for the night, and paraded in front of some extended family members. These were all displays of politeness through action. The Acehnese do engage in rhetoric, but stoicism has become a common, if not dominant trait for many, if not most people. It is best to judge someone by their actions rather than their words.

While giving me a ride, Pun was full of questions. Was I a real Muslim? Had I been circumcised? If not, when would I be? Did I have the documents to prove all this to the KUA, the Indonesian office of religious affairs, whose approval was needed for a legal marriage in Indonesia? Was I converting to Islam just to get to Gaby? Was it a genuine conversion? My answers seem to have satisfied him, and he admonished me to keep studying Islam. The best way he suggested, was via YouTube.

He fired up the screen on his Oppo, and Zakir Naik was in full flight during a sermon, in trade mark style, full of venom, complete with Indonesian subtitles. This was the first time I came across Naik, considered by many to be a hate preacher and banned in several countries. He seemed to be popular among some of the smartphone toting, 4G equipped Acehnese.

But later I had some unscrupulous dealings with Pun despite him being a very good bloke, which made this encounter more interesting. It made me feel that his talk about religion was more rhetoric, than anything. I would later find this be something which is surprisingly common in Aceh, despite it’s outside image, and despite the stoicism and politeness through action that were highlighted earlier.

Aceh is Indonesia’s westernmost province. Even with air travel, it’s quite remote from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital on the island of Java. It’s a place with a long history of colonial domination, insurgency, civil conflict and natural disaster. Much of what the Acehnese think of themselves has been formed in resistance to outsiders they’ve been in conflict with, like the Dutch or the Javanese.

As a foreigner, this would usually be explained to me in analogy. I’d heard similar explanations in Padang – another province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In Aceh, they claim the Javanese wear their kris – a traditional Indonesian dagger – at the back, concealing their true intentions while greeting you with a smiling face. The Acehnese, meanwhile, would wear it at the front, alerting you they were ready for a fight.

In the case of meeting my then-fiancé’s family, I’m sure that if I’d pissed them off, they would have left me on the street to get a taxi or a Grab-car. Ultimately, the negotiations proved successful.

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