What do you do if you're a Brit living in a strictly-Islamic country and you want to get married? You've met the love of your life and you want to tie the knot, but there are no churches, chapels, or cathedrals. In fact, there is no Christian representation in Saudi at all. You are also unable to turn to local civic services, since the only law here is Sharia Law, and therefore only Muslims can be married by the local authorities.
Enter the Consular section of the British Embassy, which exists to look after the interests of British citizens, wherever they live in the world. This includes providing help and support in emergency situations where British ex-pats are in distress, such as last week's bus crash in Jeddah in which two British Hajj pilgrims were killed, but it also includes the duties normally performed by a Notary Public in the UK, and those normally carried out by a Registrar with regard to Births, Marriages, and Deaths.
Her Majesty's Consul performs around ten such ex-pat marriages per year in his house here in Riyadh, and when the Consul is away -- as he is at the moment -- that authority passes to the acting Consul, which at the moment is Karen. So it was that, at 3pm this Wednesday afternoon, Karen performed the marriage ceremony for Kevin and Zaida in our house in the Diplomatic Quarter.
I had spent the morning tidying the lounge and Gina, our housekeeper, had cleaned it from top to bottom, in time for Karen and her colleague Sue to arrive at 2pm to get everything ready.
Our dining table was transformed with a Union Jack flag and laid out with marriage certificates, two registers (one for the Embassy's permanent records, and another to be sent to the General Records Office in London at the end of the year), and of course a bouquet of fresh flowers. Other essentials included the Embassy's digital camera, a CD of suitable background music, and two bottles of Champagne in the fridge.
The wedding party consisted of five people; the bride arrived first (unusually) with two friends, and they hid in the kitchen while we waited for the groom and best man to find their way to the house. Once they too had arrived the ceremony was ready to begin, just a couple of minutes late. Just at that moment Elliot and Abigail returned home from school, and snuck quietly into the hall to watch through the open doorway.
Karen had just got her first sentence out when Elliot's mobile phone went off!, so he had to run outside to turn it off. I think Karen was just as nervous as the happy couple, given the importance of the occasion in the couple's lives, and that this was her first wedding as Marriage Officer, but she did splendidly well and her nerves didn't show at all as she led them through the brief ceremony. It started off with the legal stuff about how they're both eligible to be married and over 18 etc., then came the "if anybody knows of any legal impediment why these two should not be joined in marriage" bit. We are required to leave the gate and front door wide open during these ceremonies, so as not to bar the way for anyone wishing to object to the marriage. No such objector appeared though, and Karen then went on to the marriage vows, with the bride and groom repeating them after her.
There were two rings, and after they had been exchanged Karen uttered the final phrase, "I now declare you Man & Wife. You may kiss the bride.", and we all applauded.
The next formality was the signing of the registers, during which I carried out MY official duty: opening the bubbly! We then had some more photos,
and chatted about the reception that was to follow and their planned honeymoon (in the New Year) for a few minutes as we drank our Champagne. Finally it was time for the bridal party to leave and for Karen and Sue to pack up all the "equipment" and take it back to the Embassy.
Yet another special and unique memory of our time here.