You Make the Most of It

In addition to the changes in my professional life over the past year, my personal life has changed quite a bit as well.

Around the time Our Dear Leader was starting to show his true color and subsequently guiding our school down the short but steep road of assured destruction, I found myself involved with a girl. What started out with some flirting at work, and a few coffee dates during my breaks from teaching slowly turned into a relationship. By the time I was finally coming around to accepting my fate as a future Assistant Principal, our relationship had evolved into quite the serious affair. Long story short, it came to a point that we sat down to for a serious conversation and, rather quickly, things progressed from there.

It was slightly more complicated than your typical serious relationship, and although we had a number of serious obstacles to overcome, we eventually did the necessary and I proposed. Granted it wasn’t to her, but to her father, in what would end up being one of the most awkward conversations I have ever had. In the end things worked out. By the time I was getting ready to head back to the States and mull over my impending soiree into administration, I was committed, converted, and ready to start planning the future with my fiancée.
Upon my return to the Kingdom, we arranged to hold an official engagement ceremony. Known as a Fatiha (fah-tee-hah), it’s an event that brings the families together to bless the couple and make an engagement official. Seeing as none of my family was able to be present, I brought the Brit and another good friend who also works as our school counselor to act on their behalf. The Counselor is an all around good guy and has proven to be one of the most genuine friends I’ve come to make here in Saudi. He was a friend of the Brit who came a few months into Our Dear Leader’s tenure, and, being Syrian, he was able to do a number of the formalities in Arabic that neither myself nor the Brit could do during the ceremony.

The Fatiha was divided into two parts. The first was for the men. We gathered in the salon of my fiancée’s parent’s house (basically a living room with its own front door that’s separated from the rest of the house) where we first made introductions. After pleasantries, the Counselor took the place of the patriarch of my family and explained in Arabic why we were there and basically made a public offer of my proposal. In response my fiancée’s grandfather represented her and replied in Arabic to accept. We then all said the Fatiha, which, for lack of a better way to describe, holds the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the first page of the Quran, and is said in every part of the daily prayers that Muslims say five times every day. It’s also said at a number of other occasions such as funerals or other religious functions, and is basically an affirmation of reverent grace (hence the ceremony is named as such). We then had a round of congratulations, which included shaking hands with everyone in the room while simultaneously kissing cheeks (in the European fashion), then having dessert, tea, and coffee. After an hour or so all the men who weren’t related to my fiancée left and it was time to begin the second half of the ceremony.

I was escorted by all the adult male relatives into the regular living room where my fiancée was seated amongst all her female relatives. Besides the shrill sounds of Arab women (not too dissimilar to the stereotypical, and slightly racist, noise made when kids used to pretend to be Indians whilst playing Cowboys and Indians, but without using your hand), it was a pretty typical party with pictures, dancing, treats, and pleasantries. After a few hours people started to leave and the Fiancée and I were left to round out the evening with a few moments of peace.

In the months following the Fatiha, the Fiancée and I were able to see each other on a regular basis, although it was only allowed with a chaperone, which pretty much meant either at her parent’s house or in a public place under the supervision of her father or brothers. It wasn’t nearly as archaic as it sounds considering it wasn’t all that long ago that people in many Western countries still abided by the same rules, and it was interesting as its own experience. We still managed to see each other on a regular basis, whether chaperoned or in secret, and things were going well despite all the pressures of work.

Although we ended up setting a date for our wedding in January, we managed to secure a date in court in November to make our marriage official. This is typical for any marriage here in Saudi because an official document must be signed in order for an actual wedding ceremony to be carried out. The wedding ceremony is more of a social affair, which pretty much amounts to a public announcement of marriage rather than an official one. When our court date came around I asked the Counselor to act on my behalf again and met the Fiancée’s mom, dad, grandfather, and uncles at the court house. We waited our turn in front of the Sheikh (an Islamic judge), who presided over a short hearing and explained a number of things to us. Seeing as I don’t speak Arabic and the Sheik didn’t speak English, the Counselor translated for us. This worked out better than I anticipated, especially since the Sheik was rather long winded. At one point the sheik spoke for several minutes and when it came time for the Counselor to translate he simply said ‘He said a lot and I don’t really want to translate all that, but what really matters is that you keep true to your wife and never stop communicating with each other. I’m going to keep talking like I’m translating, but really it wasn’t that interesting. Just keep nodding like you’re interested and he’ll think you’re listening…’ After ten more minutes we were legally married.

From this point on we were allowed to see each other without a chaperone, however it was only supposed to be in public and still had to be approved by her father. We celebrated with a nice dinner and began planning our wedding. Earlier in September I had moved into a new compound (more on that in a later post), so we spent some time setting up our apartment and continuing with wedding preparations. With the help of the Counselor I applied for visas for my parents and sister so they could join us in January, and thankfully things went well. Although there was a bit of paperwork on their end, and more than few trips to various offices on mine, everything went fairly smoothly.

Our wedding took place in during my school holiday in late January. It was actually rather cold and unusually rainy for most of the week compared to the average winter, but it didn’t put a damper on any of the festivities. Because my family was visiting, we had a number of get-togethers with my fiancée’s family in order for them to get to know one another. Looking back, it was all a bit weird for everybody involved, but bringing two very different cultures together usually is.

The wedding itself was split into two parts. A normal wedding in Saudi is split into two halves; one for men and the other for women. Normally, these would be held simultaneously, but because I only had 5 or so men I would’ve been able to invite to the men’s wedding, we only planned an official ceremony for women. In place of the men’s ceremony, my father-in-law held a large dinner for several dozen of his male friends and family members. After the men’s dinner had finished and all the men had left, the women folk were invited into the room and we had coffee, desserts, and there was lots of relatively awkward but spirited dancing.

The actual wedding ceremony was held in the ballroom of one of the nicer hotels in Khobar. There were several slipups with the ceremony, which were to be expected, but the biggest inconvenience was being told the night before our weeding by the hotel that we needed an official document from both the regular and religious police in order to make it legal for the wedding to take place. The morning of our wedding, myself, my dad, and my father-in-law spent several hours driving around Khobar to the different police stations to get the stamps and signatures we needed. It ended up working out much better than I anticipated, and despite a few miscommunications and some time spent wandering around doing nothing, we were easily able to make time for a haircut and a shave before heading back to my compound to get ready. Meanwhile, the women were all at a salon getting themselves dolled up.

Around 5pm, my dad and I drove to the hotel. We went to the suite we would have for the night, and after seeing my bride in all her beauty, we waited around for about an hour for the photographers to show up. We took an hour and a half’s worth of pictures in front of a big blue curtain (they would all later be photoshopped with nice backgrounds). Around 9pm we were ready to begin the ceremony. In the entrance to the ballroom we made a type of prom-like processional with my sister escorted by my wife’s oldest brother, followed by my wife’s grandparents, my parents, and my wife’s parents. My wife and I walked down the aisle, walked up onto the stage, stood for alone some pictures and cheering, and took a boat load of pictures with our immediate family members. All the other men left the room, at which point we had our first dance, cut our cake, shared glasses of juice, and then I left the room.

I sat in the hotel lobby with all the other male relatives for the next three hours while the women continued dancing, eating, taking pictures, and doing who knows what else. Around 12:30am, all of the male family members and myself went back to the ballroom. We were able to grab something to eat, danced to a few songs, took a few more pictures, and then we called it a night. After awkwardly being escorted back to our hotel room by my mom-in-law and two of my father-in-law’s sisters, we were officially and ceremoniously married. 

The next day my wife moved into my apartment in my compound, and we spent the next few days with my parents and my sister in Bahrain. The week had its ups and downs, but overall it was a good time.

The rest of the school year was fairly uneventful as far as my personal life went. In June we were able to fly back to the States for a summer holiday where we had a fun party at my parents’ house with my friends and family, and we also spent some time outside Toronto where my in-laws now permanently reside.

All in all, the past year had quite a few changes and more than a few interesting experiences. When I first moved to Saudi I never imagined this is quite how things would’ve ended up, but this place has a pretty weird way of changing things in ways you’d never expect.