This post is the eighth in a series which starts HERE.
I’m in a Tunisian cabine de telephone, about to phone home to the UK. I got married a week ago and can’t put off telling my mother any longer.
It’s a short phone call. She doesn’t have much to say. ‘You’re pregnant so I suppose it’s not a total surprise, but you know what I think so there’s no point talking about it any further.’
I don’t make things worse by telling her I didn’t understand a word of the Arabic ceremony, which had taken place in an untidy town council office. The party comprised myself, Samir, the unfriendly official (who had promised to speak in French but ended up doing the whole thing in Arabic), and two lads from our watersports base as witnesses. The official warbled on for ages and one of beach boys nudged me when it was my turn to say yes, naan. I had no idea what I was agreeing to. A couple of times I had to smother giggles. (Yes, I should have been taking it more seriously. But it was too surreal; my whole life by then was so weird that this incomprehensible ceremony with four foreign men was just another strange incident in the eighteen months I’d been living there.)
You might wonder why I bothered to get married but it was a practical matter. I had been informed by the British consulate that babies born in Tunisia to unmarried foreign women would not be provided with a birth certificate. My baby would be officially ‘stateless’ and I would have to apply to the UK Home Office for the child to be granted a British birth certificate.
That sounded pretty complicated – so we decided to get married (I never promised this was going to be a love story, did I?)
The town council official, the same unhelpful man who refused to speak French when he conducted the ceremony, told me I had to provide a recently issued birth certificate showing my current name. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded.
I was born in Canada and my surname had been informally changed when I was a child – this is acceptable practice in Scotland where you can change your name on a whim and without official sanction, but utterly incomprehensible to the bureaucratic Tunisians, for whom the birth certificate is more of a register, to be updated throughout life.
I explained this to the official until I was blue in the face but he wouldn’t budge. ‘Get me a birth certificate issued within the last month and then I’ll decide.’
Dinar after dinar clunked into a payphone until I managed to get through to the registrar’s department in the council in Regina, Canada, where I was born. No internet or email back then to help me but I got lucky. ‘I’m a pregnant British citizen who was born in Canada and I’m trying to get married in Tunisia and I need a recently issued birth certificate, please can you help me.’ She was so kind – she waived all fees and posted me the extract. [If by some miracle she ever reads this – Thank You!]
Except it wasn’t enough for Mr Grumpy-pants in Sousse town council – the certificate didn’t have the same surname as my passport. Three times I went to see him, queuing for hours each time, and on each occasion he refused to issue the marriage licence. It became something of a battle of wills. Eventually I took some sandwiches and water, went to his office and refused to leave until he issued it. ‘I’ll stay here until I give birth to my stateless baby!’ I said to him. I think if he could have got away with strangling me, he would have (but I got my way).
I’ve been trying to remember where Samir had been during these visits but I’m not sure. I don’t think he was bothered whether we got married or not; the situation was as strange for him as it was for me.
It wasn’t until after the wedding I discovered that because I was born in Canada, and my baby’s father was born in Tunisia, if my baby was also born outside the UK, she wouldn’t be automatically entitled to British citizenship. So I ended up returning to the UK to give birth; there was no need to have got married after all. Such is life.
The period of time between finding out I’d have to give birth in the UK, and actually leaving, six weeks before my due date, was fraught, partly because I worried my baby might be born early, and partly because my new husband was arrested and put in jail.
If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.
There’s also my facebook page: Fiona MacBain – Writer – thank you!