Between the Lines

James Penha

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors' Choice Award. Penha edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry. @JamesPenha

Although a passionate native New Yorker, I have lived in Indonesia for a quarter-century in order to be with my same-sex partner, a Muslim born in Sumatra.

For most of these years, it seemed ridiculous for us to consider living in New York.

After all, it took years to demonstrate well enough to the State Department that Ahmad was not a risk to remain illegally in America, and so could be trusted with a tourist visa. Only after George H.W. Bush signed legislation introduced by Barney Frank to rescind the decades-old regulation prohibiting homosexuals from entering the United States could I write a supporting letter discretely describing our relationship. I explained that since I was contracted to return to my employment in

Jakarta, Ahmad would certainly be returning with me after a holiday visit to my family in New York.

After 9-11 Ahmad was able to renew his tourist visa. However, on our 2002 visit to New York, as we were waiting for our bags after passing through immigration, the officer who had processed our entry suddenly appeared and demanded that Ahmad follow him for additional (“secondary” was the officer’s word) questioning. The officer refused to explain further, and given the recent news of renditions and Guantanamo, I was left terrified that Ahmad would simply disappear. After an hour or so Ahmad found me with our bags. He was shaking but unharmed. Mostly he had waited for an officer who eventually asked some rather harmless questions and then moved him on to me.

Although Homeland Security never explained to Ahmad why he was chosen for “secondary” inspection, we came to understand over our next decade of annual visits that just about all Indonesians and Muslims passing through Immigration at JFK were treated (Ahmad included), to “secondary” inspections. Ahmad’s being taken off to secondary inspection became routine for us, and yet it never lost its effect of a sickening level of anxiety for me or for Ahmad.

However, we both loved New York so much that we did not miss even one of our yearly visits.

In June 2013, we drove from New York to visit Washington, D.C., and as it happened, while we were on a tour of the Capitol, it was announced that across the street the Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. This meant of course that the federal government would have to recognize Ahmad as my spouse if we ever married. Perhaps then we could live permanently in New York.

The following year, with more hopes than plans, we brought with us on our trip to the U.S. all the documents required for a New York marriage license. We thought it a good omen that for the first time in a dozen years, Ahmad was whisked through immigration without a trip to secondary inspection. On July 4th weekend, we boarded an Amtrak train to the wedding-friendly city of Niagara Falls where we were licensed and married by the court clerks in the City Council chamber. It was lovely.

Immediately, we began the process to obtain Ahmad’s green card, but back in Jakarta we wondered if it made sense. As much as we loved New York, was it worth it to uproot ourselves and live in a land that had never before been particularly welcoming to us, and especially not very welcoming to Ahmad?

Today, thanks to the incendiary rhetoric of the Republican candidates for President and their cronies in the conservative media, Islamophobia in America is worse than ever—worse even than after 9-11.

I remain the Catholic I was baptized, but neither Ahmad nor I are very orthodox. We pray to the same God, but we give him different names. We obey some different rules, but we have never had an argument over our religious rites and beliefs. We have never tried to convert each other; we believe we shall find each other in one afterlife anyway.

Therefore, especially while living in Indonesia where Muslims are in general, far more moderate and ecumenical than the fundamentalist Christians who try to evangelize them here, I am angered when American politicians speak of Christianity and Islam as warring civilizations. Ahmad and I live in one home in one society in one civilization.

I am afraid of the terror that politicians foment in the United States against and among Muslims. I fear the policies and laws that will thus be enacted. I cannot trust our future in the United States.

And I am not even the Muslim half of our family! But the fear and the anger and the mistrust lead me to suggest to my husband that we stay where we are for now.