A Taste of Malaysiana in Central Valley, California
M. Bakri Musa
Thousands of Malaysians who have visited or studied in California over the years know of or have met “Kim” Ahmad Sabian (Pak Mat) and his wife Rose Mohamad. Typically they know the couple through Rose’s signature Malay cooking. They have catered to former Prime Minister Mahathir who on a visit to Silicon Valley during one Ramadan many years ago suddenly felt the craving for Malay food for his suhor (predawn) dinner. They have also hosted countless touring diplomats and ministers who discovered that being away beyond a few days from their favorite sambal belacan and nasi lemak was too much to endure.
On the Saturday before Ramadan this year, Pak Mat and Rose were once again gracious hosts, this time for their California friends, families and neighbors. There were also guests from far away – Malaysia – Rose’s sisters and brother, and their families. The occasion was the wedding of their daughter Rosanna to her high school sweetheart, Kosal. My wife Karen and I have known Rosanna since she was a little girl, so the occasion was special for us.
It was a traditional Malay wedding in all aspects, from the food and decorations to the akad nikah (exchange of vows) and bersanding ceremony, embellished with elements of Americana. You would be hard pressed to savor a similar experience even in Malaysia today. Rosanna, being American born and raised, is very much the girl next door: poised, confident, elegant, and working her way through college! The occasion was a creative and exquisite blending of traditional Malay wedding, to highlight Rosanna’s heritage, with elements of Americana to reflect the couple’s upbringing. It is this artful fusion of the two that elevated the ceremony to new heights and made it so much more memorable.
The day began in the morning with a small akad nikah in the living room of the family’s Stockton home. The room was made to resemble a serambi (verandah) of a traditional Malay house, with a lush carpet substituting for tikar nipah (palm mat). In deference to comfort and modernity, there were two chairs for the bride and groom, flanked by another chair on each side for the official witnesses. On the floor were trays bearing gifts the couple had for each other.
All around were family members and friends standing at the back or sitting bersela on the carpet. The ceremony began with the family’s Imam Yusoof invoking a dua to bless the gathering. Then he explained in English the meaning of marriage in Islam, a divinely sanctioned contract between a man and a woman. It is entered upon freely and willingly by both parties. As such, he emphasized, the relationship of wife and husband is complementary and respectful.
The Imam drew liberally from the seerahs (practices of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.) to illustrate his point. He recalled how the Last Prophet of Allah, even though he was an acknowledged leader adored by millions, yet at home he was the humble husband readily sharing in the household chores. No household task was beneath this great man. The Imam was clearly addressing not only the young couple but also the many who were already married or contemplating marriage.
Then the Imam asked Rosanna whether she freely consented to be the bride of Kosal. When she replied in her clear voice in the affirmative, the Imam duly noted this and directed the two witnesses, one of whom was me, to also acknowledge this fact. Likewise, the Imam posed a similar question to Kosal.
With that, the Imam solemnized the marriage and recited some duas both in English and Arabic, invoking Allah’s blessings upon the young couple. I did not know what it was, perhaps it was the dua being recited in English so we could actually understand the prayers and what the Imam was saying, but there was not a single dry eye in the room. The Imam touched everyone with his dua.
That I thought was after all the true meaning and purpose of duas and prayers, to touch us emotionally and not merely the meaningless incantations of foreign phrases that no one could comprehend.
Then followed the giving of dowry from the groom and the exchange of rings and gifts; those too, were simple. After the ceremony, my wife told Rosanna that after factoring for inflation, devaluation and conversion rate, her dowry was approximately the same amount what she (my wife) received from me (RM49) at our wedding over 42 years earlier! Yes, the greenbacks were creatively folded origami-style into a bird, an American eagle no less!
Rosanna and her family are mindful that the dowry is but a token and symbol of the love and commitment the young couple has of each other. It is not, as it has now degenerated into, a culturally sanctioned extortion by the bride’s family to the groom’s.
The bersanding ceremony that evening was truly a Malay event, specifically a Minang tradition, reflecting Rose’s Rembau origin. Although held in a hall rather than at the family home, the event was far from being one of those sterile modern catered ones. Rose and her family had done all the decorations and cooking. The pengantin dais was duly decorated with bunga mawar floral arrangements. The only thing missing was a live kompang troupe. The digital taped audios more than made up for that deficit.
The family’s male members were the orang pangkar, the hosts, serving the guests, including the head table which was served by the bride’s younger brother, Hisham, just as in the village of yore.
In a traditional Malay wedding, the bride and groom are indulged as raja sehari, royal couple for the day. Just as we pay tribute to the king and queen, so too the assembled guests paid tribute to the bride and groom on the dais. That is the essence of the bersanding ceremony. It began with the parents of the bride and groom, followed by other family members and then friends and guests. It was also a chance for them to bless and express their best wishes to the young couple.
What otherwise would have been a strange ceremony in an equally strange land went off smoothly. Yes, a few of the guests took a while getting into the swing of things especially with the berinai and rice sprinkling rituals, but with Rose’s sister Norlela doing a splendid job as the Mistress of Ceremony, everyone quickly and smoothly became Malay that evening. At the end, the bride and groom went around each table meeting all the guests and to have photo opportunities with them.
While the ambiance was definitely traditional Malay, this was after all a wedding in California. The couple’s first dance, to the tune of Oceans Apart after the bersanding, was an Americana element.
The warmth and intimacy of the celebration was such that the guests lingered long after the event. That after all is what events like weddings are for, apart from celebrating the joining of a man and woman as husband and wife, to renew the bonds of family and friendship.
Late in the evening when the last guests had departed, there was the groom and bride minus their earlier elaborate wedding attire, rolling up their sleeves and helping with the clean up. Rose and Pak Mat’s new son-in-law Kosal had quickly adapted into his new Malay family, now becoming the orang pangkar. That more than anything brought back fond memories of the traditional weddings in my old kampong in Negri Sembilan.