• A Foreign Wedding

    My friend David and I had been traveling for what seemed like hours through the desolate outskirts of Riyadh. One by one, the blocky buildings of the capital had vanished behind us, leaving us alone amongst the unending sandbanks of the Najd Desert.


    A shape appeared on the edge of the horizon.


    “It looks like a prison,” I said to David, as I stared up at the compound’s towering walls.


    “They’re supposed to keep people out,” David laughed. “But they keep just as many people in.”


    Soon, we arrived at a checkpoint manned by a few members of the Saudi National Guard. A teenage soldier in an ill-fitting uniform pulled the taxi over and checked our iqamas, the residence permit issued to all foreign nationals. Meanwhile, the bomb squad combed the vehicle for explosives. After a cursory glance over our IDs, the soldier nodded his head and waved us through the gate.


    In front of us lay the vast expanse of a compound built to house expatriate workers on temporary contracts. The complex was a universe away from the rigorous social mores of the Saudi capital. Here, foreign men and women intermingled in swimsuits and bikinis while they drank homebrewed wine beside an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It was an oasis of the West amongst the windswept dunes of Arabia.


    Around us, the area was dotted with dozens of identical villas that would not have looked out of place on the Costa del Sol, where my family had often escaped during Britain’s wet and windy summers. But even the hardiest Spaniard would balk at the punishing heat that pushed the mercury towards 50 degrees.


    The car snaked around the complex until we reached a small villa, identical to all the others except for one detail: a vivid Union Jack bunting fluttering in the cloudless sky. Even though I had spent very little of the last two years in Britain, it was still enough to bring a smile to my face. Like so many English teachers in Riyadh, I had struggled to adapt to the strict and inflexible rules that governed Saudi life. Everyday activities like going to the cinema and listening to music in public were forbidden. Guilty pleasures such as an ice cold beer or a bacon sandwich were completely off-limits. Even talking to a woman in the street was frowned upon. As a result, my home and family seemed further away than ever. I had even bought a calendar and was marking off the days until I returned to England’s green fields and cozy pubs.


    As we got out of the taxi, we were greeted with the cloaked form of Margaret, our host for the afternoon, who had just arrived home from her job as a nurse at a local hospital. Still concealed inside her flowing abaya, her strong Celtic features looked out of place in the arid heat. After stopping only to hand us a glass of homemade champagne, she beckoned us inside.


    The bright interior was packed with a throng of British expats crowded around a brand new flat screen TV. We had come to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, who waved at the crowd as they made their way through the jam-packed streets of London, my former hometown. We were a motley crew, united by only the land of our birth and our willingness to live in a place that conjured up images of suicide bombings and public beheadings. There were people from the northernmost reaches of the Scottish Islands to the Southern town of Portsmouth. There were city dwellers and country folk. There were royalists and republicans, separatists and unionists, and people who had been away from Britain so long, they no longer knew where they were from. I noticed, with some irony, that such a group would never have been assembled back home.


    It was a strange sight, watching the most British of celebrations in one of the most alien countries in the world. And I started to wonder what meaning, if any, this event held for those present. Some had come for no more than a drink and a chat after a hard week on ‘the outside’. Others simply enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of such a rare occasion. But many seemed to take great pride in the marriage of these two individuals. My trip to Saudi Arabia was a short dash to regain some money after a year backpacking in South America, but others had been away from the UK for a long time. In some cases, it had been over 25 years since they had left Britain’s shores. Perhaps this occurrence was a chance to reconnect with the land they nominally called home, or a way to claw back part of the British identity that was slipping away from them.


    When Will and Kate emerged from Westminster Abbey, a thunderous applause rang out across the villa. Margaret handed around a tray of Scotch eggs and small cocktail sausages. Shortly afterwards, the royal carriage vanished amongst the crowds of London and the guests started to return to their lives of towering minarets and endless deserts.


    It was getting late as a taxi came to pick us up in the enveloping darkness. I saw Margaret waving goodbye as the taxi meandered back towards the main gate. As the barrier opened, bringing us back into the real world, I wondered what the future held for those who called this place home.

All Posts
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.