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Le mariage dans le pourtour méditerranéen de l’Europe : du modèle à la comparaison

“The Island of Love”

(Civil) marriage ceremonies of Middle East nationals in the Republic of Cyprus
« L’île de l’amour » : cérémonies de mariage (civiles) des ressortissants du Moyen-Orient en République de Chypre
Michela De Giacometti


Depuis plusieurs décennies, la République de Chypre est devenue une destination principale en Méditerranée pour célébrer les mariages civils des couples internationaux. Les ressortissants libanais et israéliens sont particulièrement concernés par ce phénomène de mobilité matrimoniale, celle‑ci représentant pour eux la possibilité de célébrer des mariages non autorisés ou découragés dans leurs pays d’origine.
Cet article s’intéresse à l’émergence d’une « sociabilité non conventionnelle » dans le cadre du rituel de mariage civil à Chypre. Il explore en premier lieu les discours existants au Liban et en Israël au sujet de cette pratique sociale pour ensuite faire le lien entre ceux‑ci et les représentations symboliques et politiques liées à la mobilité matrimoniale circulantes à Chypre.
Dans la République de Chypre, les modalités spécifiques d’intégration de futurs mariés au circuit économique et touristique du mariage relèvent du langage de l’amour romantique. À travers une approche ethnographique, cet article s’attache à analyser les tensions politiques sous‑jacentes à la mobilisation de ce langage et le façonnement d’un récit de soi et de l’autre qui en découle. Cette analyse se base sur l’observation des interactions entre célébrants et époux, ainsi que sur le répertoire symbolique mobilisé lors du rituel, ces éléments permettant d’insister sur la dimension morale des « mariages d’amour ».

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From a “divided island” to “the island of love”

  • 1 Lebanon counts eighteen religious sects (Christian and Muslim) and family affairs of Lebanese are r (...)

Mid‑July 2002, a Lebanese Sunni woman got married to a Lebanese Maronite man at the Municipality of Nicosia, in the Republic of Cyprus. Because the marital regime in Lebanon is religious1 and they were of different religious ascriptions, they could only opt for conversion to one partner’s sect to get a religious marriage in Lebanon. Determined to avoid religious ceremonies as a consequence of their anticlerical and secular ideas, they travelled to the island to celebrate a civil marriage.
The marriage ceremony took place within the Municipal Town Hall. That day no other couples were waiting for their turn to get married, as usually happens nowadays at any civil marriage bureau in a Cypriot municipality during a working day.
The moment the couple entered the celebrant’s room, a tape of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was playing. To begin the ceremony, the celebrant’s assistant took two books from the drawer of her desk and showed them to the couple. She then asked the man and the woman to put their hands on the books and pronounce an oath of mutual disengagement from other wedlock. The books displayed were a copy of the Bible and a copy of the Quran.
Following the refusal of the couple to pursue her request, the celebrant made do with asking the couple to pronounce, after her, the required sentence by placing their hands on their hearts.

  • 2 I refer to Law 104 (I) 2003, which takes the name of Marriage Law, and follows the Civil Marriage L (...)
  • 3 According to the last Demographic Report referring to the year 2016 on a total number of 13,558 mar (...)
  • 4 The market of “wedding mobility” is not a new phenomenon. The most prominent example of wedding mob (...)

1During the past three decades, the Republic of Cyprus has imposed itself in the Mediterranean as a main venue for the celebration of civil marriages of foreign nationals. Attracted by the geographical proximity of the island, Lebanese and Israeli men and women find themselves particularly concerned by the phenomenon of wedding mobility, as it represents the means for otherwise “impossible” marriages to unfold. The long experience of civil servants in celebrating marriages between alien nationals has – with time – smoothed the procedures needed to obtain a marriage certificate according to the Cypriote family code2. Although the Republic of Cyprus hosts weddings for nationals of a variety of countries across the world, marriages of Lebanese and Israeli citizens are the most celebrated, after those of British citizens3. One important feature distinguishing Middle-Eastern nationals’ marriages in Cyprus consists of the deliberative choice of wedding venue. While for other nationals civil marriage is in general legally authorized in their own countries, and citizens thus opt for a celebration in Cyprus because of personal taste, up until now, Lebanon and Israel’s family codes have not integrated the institution of civil marriage along with religious marriages. However, the national laws of Lebanon and Israel guarantee the legalization of civil marriages contracted in other countries; a legal framework that gave rise to a veritable wedding commerce abroad4.

  • 5 The city of Larnaca hosts an international airport, serving as destination for most of the flights (...)

2Though the Republic of Cyprus constitutes one among other destinations for to‑be spouses of all origins, it is nevertheless the faster solution for Lebanese and Israeli5. Indeed, there are many facilities to provide administrative and organizational procedures. Today’s couples can benefit from many package deals provided by travel agencies (both in their countries of origin and in Cyprus) that organize almost every step of the marriage journey. Moreover, foreigners getting married in the island are facilitated by the Cypriote Marriage Law that grants the possibility to get married on the same day; the notice of marriage is given to municipalities, a solution known as “Urgent Provision”. According to this provision, spouses with no Cypriote nationality are not compelled to take residence on the island before the marriage. Consequently, marriages of non-Cypriote nationals fall by default under the abovementioned provision. Cypriote municipalities also provide a special service that operates daily, to transfer the marriage certificates straight to the Cypriote Minister of Foreign Affairs for receiving the apostille, before delivering them back to spouses. Spouses can therefore record their marriage on the same day before competent embassies, and finally take a flight back to Beirut or Tel Aviv.

  • 6 During my stay in the Republic of Cyprus I regularly attended civil marriage celebrations at the To (...)
  • 7 Housemann 2008.

3This article draws on my personal observations of marriage rituals within two Cypriote wedding venues, the municipalities of Larnaca and Nicosia. My ethnographic fieldwork in the Republic of Cyprus has taken place in different moments and modalities, as it run parallel to my main research about civil marriage practices and civil rights’ mobilizations in nearby Lebanon. Over a period of two years (2016‑2017), I undertook four travels from Lebanon to Cyprus to follow to‑be spouses. I then decided to establish myself in Cyprus for two months to intensify observations and undertake interviews with marriage celebrants6. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the interactions occurring during the time of a civil ceremony between nationals from the Middle East and Greek-Cypriote civil celebrants. Following Michael Housemann’s definition of rituals as the “actualization of exceptional relations”7, I observed marriage rituals in Cyprus as times and moments of unconventional sociality.

4On the one hand, I explore how a discourse about civil marriage as a social practice circulates in countries such as Lebanon and Israel, since this constitutes the capital of knowledge Cypriote civil servants and celebrants draw upon. On the other hand, rather than seeing the wedding mobility to Cyprus from the perspective of Middle Eastern nationals as being disjointed from its translation into a wedding industry in Cyprus, I will focus on the emergence of symbolic and political meanings embedded in the interactions taking place during wedding celebrations in Cyprus, a region where the institution of civil marriage turns out to be more appealing to foreigners than to Cypriote residents. To complicate my analysis, in the last part of the chapter, I will turn back to the significance of mobilizing religious symbols within the frame of a civil ceremony. My observations of marriage rituals in one particular Cypriote municipality offer the material for my conclusions.

5The preparation of civil ceremonies in Cyprus articulates peculiar temporalities and requires unknown professionals to supply couples with services they would not have been able to provide for themselves (such as the procurement of wedding venues, documents’ legalization, etc.). When asked about their experience of civil marriage in Cyprus, many of my interlocutors agreed on the serial and trivial quality of the ceremony, a moment where people “have to stand in line, waiting for their turn to get married”. A Lebanese informant entrusted to me that her marriage looked “ridiculous”, and celebrants appeared to be in a hurry. Her witness, she told me, was the celebrant’s assistant, who played a tape of the Wedding March when the celebration began. These descriptions have to be put next to marriage conventions in many Middle-Eastern countries, where the success of celebrations is determined by the degree of ostentation. To the contrary, intimacy qualifies marriages in Cyprus, whether it is desired by couples or unintentional. Often, couples travel to Cyprus alone the day before the wedding and search for municipal witnesses. They stay overnight (usually in a hotel) and go back to their country on the same evening the marriage has taken place. The ceremony at the Town Hall is frequently preceded and followed by moments where unknown attendants to the same, repetitive ritual assemble. Typically, the encounter between Lebanese and Israelis in waiting rooms is an occasion of mutual curiosity.

  • 8 The wedding ceremony has already been the object of anthropological and sociological analysis that (...)

6Because of the restrictive juridical architecture that regulates family affairs in Lebanon and Israel, civil servants of the Republic of Cyprus have fashioned a peculiar imagination of their role in celebrating civil unions of alien nationals, particularly those from the Middle East8.

  • 9 Argyrou 1996, 2; also see Herzfeld 1997.
  • 10 Argyrou 1996, 2; also see Herzfeld 1997.

7In a study on the transformation of wedding celebrations occurring in Cyprus from the early 1930s up to the early 1990s, Vassos Argyrou (1996) illustrates how weddings may become the subject of discourses that, by means of their recourse to the idiom of modernity, contribute to the reproduction of a “symbolic domination”, unfolding in a series of relations of inequality “between social classes, age groups, men and women, city dwellers and villagers, mainland and Cypriot Greeks, and between the two main communities of the island, Greek and Turkish Cypriots”9. Focusing on a period of conspicuous socio-economic and political change, which include independence from Britain in 1960 and the island’s ethnic partition, his ethnography of wedding rituals reveals how social and cultural divides are “resisted and legitimated”10.

  • 11 Papadakis 1998.
  • 12 The “Cyprus problem” is often cited as such in the media arena and sociological literature to descr (...)

8It has already been shown that the ethnic partition of Cyprus has nourished a contested nationalist discourse11. The academic enterprise to conceptualize the “problem” of a “troubled island” is then justified12. By contrast, this paper aims at shedding light on the ambivalent use of the idiom of “love” as it is deployed by Greek-Cypriot civil servants when confronted with other ethnic and national groups. To this purpose, I will show how they give form to a peculiar narrative of the self and the other, as well as to ritual practices that creatively combine religious symbols with the aim of being inclusive.

Tying the knot in Cyprus: different usages of a branded marriage

  • 13 As an example, at the beginning of 2015, when I started my fieldwork in Lebanon, a judicial debate (...)
  • 14 Moody 2008, p. 9.

9As my ethnographic experience in Lebanon, and a comparative enquiry I undertook into the personal status codes of Lebanon and Israel revealed, marriage represents a conflicting terrain for religious, civil, and political agendas aiming at both preserving or challenging kinship institutions13. In Lebanon, specifically, resorting to a civil marriage does not go without consequences for the couple itself (especially in case of interfaith marriages), the extended family and, ultimately, the community. Social effects might range from families’ difficulties of acknowledging interfaith unions (frequent in Lebanon but still the object of collective, religious and political controversies) to the opinion that civil marriage celebrates and encourages weak conjugal bonds compared to the religious ones. In other words, civil marriage delineates an imagined space of moral ambivalence. For family-making should be first and foremost a collective act, and not an “individual act of agency”14 as civil marriage presuppose.

  • 15 Joseph 2011; et. al. 2004; 1994.

10For countries such as Lebanon, Souad Joseph has largely argued for the primacy of the communitarian ethos over individuals’15. What Joseph calls “familism” is to her an invariant feature of Lebanese society that, throughout its institutionalization, structures political and power relations. Marriage, being foundational to the configuration of Lebanese society according to the Lebanese Constitution, epitomizes the importance of communitarian ties.

11A similar configuration in terms of family laws is to be found in Israel, where only the Orthodox Rabbinate has the authority to accept and legalize marriages. As for marriages between Palestinians and Jews, they are still far from fashioning an imaginary of “happy ending” stories (Sharot 2015). With a difference regarding cohabitation, which is granted and practiced in Israel, but is socially discouraged in Lebanon, getting married in both countries still assumes an importance across cultural, communitarian and class lines.

  • 16 An example of these caricatures can be found in the following sentence: “Poor him, his daughter got (...)

12To contain pressure from civil movements aiming to implement civil marriage in Lebanon and in Israel, sentences such as “Do it outside Israel” and “Cyprus is not very far” have been used by prominent politicians and citizens in the two countries respectively to distract public attention from the lack of motivation to modify family laws. In Lebanese private media, for instance, it was possible to run across satirical jokes making a sardonic use of the patriarchal register to lampoon male-dominated society’s values, for which civil marriage may become potentially disruptive.16

13Civil marriage then tends to be charged with contentious qualities and interestingly, it appears as a marginalized phenomenon, socially and spatially (with it being celebrated abroad).

14Nevertheless, the reasons individuals state for traveling in order to celebrate a civil marriage complicate the picture.

15For the purpose of delineating variables in practices and ideologies of a Middle-Eastern public within a civil marriage ritual in Cyprus, I consider here my experience with Lebanese couples. I will only refer to Israeli couples by means of my observations and knowledge of local literature, since I have not undertaken a proper fieldwork among them.

  • 17 Interethnic relationships (i.e. Lebanese-Palestinian, Syrian-Palestinian, or Lebanese with other fo (...)
  • 18 Mikdashi 2014.
  • 19 Souad Joseph (1997) has already illustrated that religion and sect are different sociopolitical cat (...)
  • 20 Official statistical data on interfaith marriages and, more generally, civil marriages of Lebanese (...)

16In Lebanon, the dominant representation of civil marriage, when evoked in public or in ordinary conversations, tend to equate it to the celebration of interfaith marriages17. Despite the fact that conversion remains a possible, legal and practiced solution to navigate the intricate system of personal status laws18 in order for people to get married or divorced, changing one’s sectarian affiliation is a source of personal and social discomfort19. If interfaith marriages incontestably dominate, this representation is nevertheless challenged by the increase in same‑faith marriages20. About thirty couples of same sect and different religious affiliation have been the subject of my inquiries in Lebanon, together with law professionals, civil right activists, political and religious representatives. Whether belonging to the same sect, or to different ones, couples who decide to marry in Cyprus are issued from the middle or the upper-middle classes and dispose of an economic income which enables them to afford a travel to Cyprus (though families still contribute to wedding expenditures). Very often they have received a higher education and currently speak more than two foreign languages (english and french being the most common). Life experiences often take them abroad for a while (to complete their studies or find a first job) and expose them to an internationalized environment they tend to reproduce locally. Despite a general tendency to classify them as cosmopolitan citizens, when it comes to marriage, different attitudes are at play and are made manifest in a ritualized context.

17Interfaith couples (mostly Muslim-Christian) are generally motivated by seculars stances, but it happens as well that civil marriage occurs to avoid conversion, thus allowing one’s personal status law to prevail over the other’s when personal beliefs and family concerns are at stake. Here, especially, women and men identify civil marriage with equal gender rights and opportunities, which interestingly enough contradicts with their general disengagement from undertaking a comparative study of foreign civil family codes before tying the knot. Moreover, for some people, the celebration of a civil marriage does not contradict the centrality of religious practices and ceremonies.

18It is particularly significant that among Lebanese couples that are less seduced by secular stances, the tendency to double the marriage with a religious one (or more than one) in Lebanon is a matter of fact. Needs for economic transitions (enabling couples, for instance, to get a bank loan to buy the marital house) before the “real” marriage (the religious one), takes place at home are less evoked but still constitute motivations for those couples.

19Secular orientations and civil rights’ engagement are strong motivations for same‑sect couples who do not want to turn to religious authorities to celebrate their marriage. Civil marriage in such circumstances, as informants explained to me, occurs to accommodate them in a pressuring social environment towards which they feel the need for institutionalizing a relationship or a hidden cohabitation. For them, it is also popular to double the wedding celebration (or wait to do it) in Lebanon, but this practice is quite often accompanied in speeches with a vague “we made it for the family”.

  • 21 Rault 2009.
  • 22 Bourdieu 1982.

20Therefore, personal beliefs and political orientations presuppose different degrees of emotional engagement and a plurality of usages of ritual, which also include a “non-symbolic use” of it21. For those whose civil marriage administratively precedes the religious one, the “symbolic efficacy of ritual”22 seems resolved in its capacity to produce a new juridical situation for couples, which still need a “real” personal and social acknowledgement.

  • 23 Navaro-Yashin 2007.
  • 24 Beauvalet and Gourdon 1998; Boudjaaba 2013.

21Opposite behaviors reveal, by contrast, that what happens in the Town Hall orients affectively and effectively to‑be spouses and that administrative practices are “not neutral ideological artefacts”23. As it was observed elsewhere24, the presence of relatives and friends (some of them being called as witnesses instead of local civil servants) constitute an example of it.

  • 25 Bell 2009, p. 197.

22In his study of the PACS (pact of civil solidarity) in France, sociologist Wilfried Rault (2009) suggests that ritual performances, made to attenuate symbolic violence that derives from accomplishing mere administrative actions, does not always operate for PACS couples. Despite that, the absence of celebration is not less significant for the understanding of ritualization as a “strategy for the construction of certain types of power relationships”25. The articulation between absence and presence of ceremonial aspects not only describes how couples’ different behaviors operate in marriage rituals, but also sheds a light on civil servants and celebrants’ concerns.

Multiple political meanings of love and blessing

There are few moments in life as sacred as the moment the bond of eternal partnership is forged, and the union of love is confirmed. For many, this day is one of dreams coming true, envisaged in a location that embodies romance; where sunshine marries sea and the scenery evokes emotions as powerful as the vows you make. This vision is Cyprus, or “the island of love” as it is so perfectly referred to. Whether you are escaping for an intimate ceremony, or planning a lavish affair with family and friends, Aphrodite’s island caters for weddings of all styles. After all, it is the birthplace of the Goddess of Love and Beauty, as well as the island of kings and queens, and therefore love has been at its very essence for many centuries. […] And where better to marry than a destination that takes you from wedding straight to honeymoon? […]. Your wedding experience – and that of your guests – will be a magical moment that is as enduring as your love.
(Cyprus Tourism Organization – Website)

23There is something striking about representations and accounts of civil marriage that circulate within Cypriote Municipalities. For some civil servants, the use of profit-making language goes hand in hand with references to the liberal idiom of romantic love, modernity, and personal freedom. The quote above, posted on the Cyprus Tourism Organization’s website, epitomizes some ideas that civil servants shared with me during my fieldwork. I analyze these discourses on love and “blessing” (the object of next paragraph) in relation to the peculiar situation of the wedding industry concerning nationals from the Middle East. My argument is that the use celebrants make of romance is meant to cement the moral dimension of civil marriage mobility; a way, in other words, to compensate, in this particular region, the deficiency of Middle Eastern countries in granting their citizens full rights to celebrate non-religious unions at home. In Cyprus, the specific modality of addressing to be‑spouses and integrate them into an industrial and touristic circuit is through the language of love and trueness.

  • 26 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

24In relation to civil weddings, the argument of one informant from Larnaca’s Municipal Hall is in fact that it potentially increases tourism flux in the island. Thus, he explained to me that “every person who gets married is a potential tourist”26. For a country that has been emerging from a severe economic recession, the civil marriage industry can easily be characterized as generative of public and private income. Interestingly, the point adopted by my interlocutor to make this industry more appealing concerns to‑be‑weddings’ patterns:

  • 27 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

Most of the people coming here consider it [civil marriage] to be a process. There is no wedding for them! It’s a process! It’s a process that needs to be done, and what they consider to be their actual wedding is the one that maybe they will do in their country of origin! So, if they are going to have a party in their countries in Lebanon, or in Israel, they consider this [civil marriage] to be a process. This could change! We could suggest people different places. I do not expect people themselves to search for these places. When they call the Municipality, we would say, you know? You could do your wedding on the famous beaches of the country, on the salt lake, on the promenade… I would sell my city! I want this to be tourism. So, if I get to prove to them that this is not just a process, it’s an actual wedding that demands happiness, and efforts, then people will come! If you are doing a wedding in the sunset on the promenade, or skydiving, I am actually pretty sure that friends will come, because it is something unique27!

  • 28 Personal interview, April 26, 2017.

25My emphasis on the words “process” and “actual wedding” serves to draw attention towards my interlocutor’s perception that civil marriage is missing something, namely it should not be “just a process” and municipalities’ servants should therefore be able to capture happiness and uniqueness as being at the core of the wedding ceremony. In the same vein, a woman who has been working for more than ten years at the Marriage Office of Larnaca’s Municipality told me that over time, she herself embellished the marriage and waiting rooms, since, she explains: “It’s a special day, and we have to make it nice”28.

  • 29 Personal interviews with celebrants in Nicosia and Larnaca Municipalities, April-May 2017.

26During my daily observations of marriage rituals in both the Municipalities of Larnaca and Nicosia, I have noticed celebrants holding spouses’ hands, or asking men to take their hands out of their pockets while standing, suggesting the right posture they should take to make the ritual “more heartfelt and romantic”29.

  • 30 Bozon 1992; Dumont and Pollet 1990; Lalouette 2001, Maillochon 2016; Segalen 2003.

27In the literature, the question of how to find a ritualistic gesture to identify non-religious rituals is not new. In Republican France, for example, rites of civil marriage, baptism or funeral have induced scholars to reconsider symbolic and social dimensions of administrative acts30. Here, ceremonies acquired a new centrality as distinctive objects for the invention of new traditions, or the re‑elaboration of codified symbols, like religious ones. In the Municipalities where I have conducted my observations, the emphasis that civil celebrants put on welcoming wedding venues also seems to suggest that caring for making settings and rituals “warmer” keeps phenomena such as white marriages at bay, since these latter have become the object of administrative scrutiny in the context of international migration.

28Moreover, there exists a tacit consent among celebrants about unutterable topics. Divorce is one of them. Frequently, as I was told by the personnel dealing with marriage administrative procedures in Larnaca, when to‑be spouses decide to celebrate their marriage with their families, it frequently occurs that persons related to the bride or the groom (interestingly civil servants describe the majority of them as being brides’ fathers) discretely attempt to collect some information about procedures to be followed in the case of divorce, or about the content of Cypriote family laws. I found it particularly illustrative of how ceremonies can manufacture knowledge. I realized that spouses and their families in Lebanon remain generally unaware of civil marriage’s legal issues and consequences. People carry with them worries and prejudices about the unexpected implications of marrying under a foreign law. Administrators in Cyprus, interestingly, cannot provide any answers, since their duty is limited to pre-marital procedures, and, furthermore, they feel embarrassed by technical (and not exactly auspicious) requests that they connote as inappropriate on someone’s wedding day.

29Narratives of civil servants reveal another aspect of the use of the idiom of liberal love, which is the place they assign to the individual. The individual becomes the primary site of agency for having, first of all, escaped cultural prejudices or family opposition towards their choice of marital life. In Cyprus, as I will show in the quotes below, ethnic conflicts between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes become the historical reference celebrants draw upon to anticipate and project into the imaginary others’ life‑stories. By recalling his feelings during the celebration of marriages between, for instance, Israelis and Palestinians, a municipal counselor told me that:

  • 31 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

I am a bit romantic; this is the epitome of the happiness and the happy moments I am doing. Because, even in these troubled moments in the Middle East, we see people overcoming religion and borders, and overcoming history and getting married. You have to understand that it is not just a Palestinian marrying an Israeli; it is a matter of whole families coming from Israel, even if they do not approve that! These are moments I think I am doing something great, instead of something procedural31.

30The following considerations help us understanding how he figures out conflicts arising from unions like the one he has just evoked:

  • 32 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

I don’t know that! I just imagine. Because we have this in Cyprus as well: we have weddings between Turkish-Cypriotes and Greek-Cypriotes and I know how difficult it is for people to accept this kind of relations and this kind of weddings! But this is very unique! You have to be a strong person and you have to find another strong person to make this work and to take the decision to do it! […] You know, I am very cautious asking questions, because I might bring things that are uncomfortable for people to answer and I don’t want it in this day32.

  • 33 Povinelli 2002; see also Povinelli 2003.

31His words and analysis resonate with the acknowledgement of what Elizabeth Povinelli33 describes as the “autological subject”, or the self‑making individual, and the “genealogical subject”, or the socially oriented subject. To my interlocutor, this perceived divide cannot but be silently and cautiously deduced from the stories of those he celebrates marriages for. To find arrangements for it, he needs to elaborate a universal code for the understanding and legitimizing (vis‑à‑vis imagined or real social and cultural resistances, including in Cyprus) of unions that are socially disqualified. In other words, the role of celebrants and civil servants in the marriage and wedding machinery in the Republic of Cyprus can be read as an attempt to restitute a moral dimension to the phenomenon of civil marriage that in the Middle East (including in Cyprus) is associated with a marginal and exceptional practice. Again, the usage of the language of romantic love, which goes with the idea that the couple is the minimal unity of solidarity, secures, for my informants, a successful celebration.

32The last ethnographic event I will present concerns a celebrant I met at the Municipality of Nicosia. Her habits strictly echo the vignette that I introduced at the beginning of this chapter, and they reproduce on another level the idea that civil marriage needs a moral reinforcement. To her, what is missing in civil celebrations is “holiness” that she symbolically reintroduces by mimicking the Greek-Orthodox religious repertoire of gestures.

33As I did in Larnaca, in Nicosia I spent days observing one ceremony after the other at the Municipal Town Hall’s Marriage Room. Unlike the homonymous setting in Larnaca, which has been thoroughly adorned by municipal servants, in Nicosia’s room decorations are less the object of pageantry’s display. Many couples of different nationalities paraded in and out the Marriage Room every day, and every time the formation of a new wedlock was announced, the celebrant, a Greek-Cypriote woman in her fifties, made an unforeseen gesture: she held the signatures book and made the sign of the cross with it in front of the couple and from their perspective, as if they were actually carrying it out. When I interrogated her about the meaning of her repetitive gesture, she explained to me it was for her “like a blessing”. It is not impossible for celebrants to keep evidence of spouses’ religious affiliations, which are requested to fill out the form provided by the Municipality to apply for civil marriage. Yet, this woman incorporated a religious gesture into the ritual, regardless of spouses’ origins and religious ascription.

34Ethnographic research suggests that gestures like hers convey political meanings. I have not seen elsewhere in the Republic of Cyprus what I witnessed in Nicosia, the divided capital, where conflict between two Cypriote ethnic groups is made even more evident through its inscription in the urbanscape. Her gesture, that appears inappropriate within a civil institution like the Municipal Town Hall, signifies her apprehension to smooth over religious differences. In other words, she suggests using the sign of the cross as a cultural symbol of the Greek-Orthodox tradition, rather than referring to its theological meaning. By doing so, she puts aside individuals’ beliefs and backgrounds, yet, her gesture, because it is procedural in the context of the ceremony, remains uncontested. To push the analysis further, her gesture is political in the way that she unconsciously establishes a religious and ethnic symbolic domination; civil marriage in the Republic of Cyprus has a relatively young life. Although it has existed since 1923, it was not until the new family law of 1990 was approved that Greek-Cypriotes were entitled to a civil marriage, and until the 2003 Marriage Law that Greek and Turkish Cypriotes can legally intermarry. Civil marriage has thus become a source of legalizing ethnic relations that have been in conflict for over forty years. By adopting the cross as a cultural and ethnic metaphor, she raises it as sign of Greek-Orthodox cultural domination over other identities such as Islam.


35The modalities of the encounter between celebrants and couples in Cypriote Municipal Town Halls assume the form of a transitional and performing moment where different actors, expectations, as well as cultural and social symbols enmesh. The portrayal of civil marriage mobility to Cyprus as it circulates within the Municipalities of the island is framed in the recurrent statement: “We bring people together, despite their religious backgrounds”. The ways in which cultural and religious differences are treated, as ethnographic research suggests, changes according to celebrants’ personality and orientation, but it tells us that the institution of civil marriage, relatively young in Cyprus and still very controversial in the rest of the Middle East, cannot exist without a symbolic reinforcement aiming at restoring morality. With respect to the experience of my Christian and Muslim friends’ marriage which opens this chapter, the act of asking to swear on the Bible and the Quran, even though spouses intended to “escape” religion, reveals the intention of promoting an equal, though unrequested, treatment. On the opposite side, the attitude of Nicosia’s Municipal Councilor and marriage celebrant, which can be perceived as imbalanced, illustrates a diffuse concern of providing couples with something they miss, namely a blessing.

  • 34 See the special issue of the anthropological journal Terrain, n. 27, 1996 on love, as well as: Gell(...)

36The language that frames my other interlocutors’ representations insists on the qualities of romantic love, not only as a means to increase Cyprus’ popularity in the global wedding industry but also, and above all, to emphasize the idea that impossible and unconventional unions become true, provided that we agree on the ideals of the liberal individual and modern love patterns34. More generally, foreign nationals (and particularly those from the Middle East) who get married in Cyprus contribute to the progressive institutionalization of civil marriage’s ritual and industry within and around the island. In this last sense, civil marriage celebrations are moments that articulate creative modalities of the encounter between civil and religious instances, and that ultimately shed a light on their interdependence.

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L’Amour 1996 = “L’Amour”, special issue of the anthropological Journal Terrain 27, 1996.

Argyrou 1996 = Vassos Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean. The wedding as symbolic struggle. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Beauvalet and Gourdon 1998 = Scarlett Beauvalet and Vincent Gourdon, “Les liens sociaux à Paris au xviie siècle : une analyse des contrats de mariage de 1660, 1665 et 1670”, Histoire, économie & société 17/4, 1998, pp. 583‑612.

Bell 2009 = Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Borowiec 2000 = Andrew Borowiec, Cyprus, a Troubled Island, Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 2000.

Boudjaaba 2013 = Fabrice Boudjaaba, “La banlieue et Paris dans le premier xixe siècle. Le choix des témoins au mariage civil à Ivry‑sur‑Seine”, Annales de démographie historique 126/2, 2013, pp. 141‑172.

Bourdieu 1982 = Pierre Bourdieu, “Les rites comme actes d’institution”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 43, 1982, pp. 58‑63.

Bozon 1992 = Michel Bozon, “Sociologie du rituel du mariage”, Population 47/2, 1992, pp. 409‑433.

Dumons and Pollet 1990 = Bruno Dumons and Gilles Pollet, “Enterrement civil et anticléricalisme à Lyon sous la Troisième République (1870‑1914)”, Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 37/3, 1990, pp. 478‑499.

Evans 2003 = Mary Evans, Love. Un unromantic discussion, Cambridge, Polity, 2003.

Gell 2011  = Alfred Gell, “On Love”, Anthropology of this Century 2, 2011.

Herzfeld 1997 = Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation‑State, New York, Routledge, 1997.

Hoschschild 2003 = Arlie Russel Hoschschild, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

Housemann 2008 = Michael Housemann, “Relation rituelles et recontextualisation”, in H. Wazaki (ed.), Multiplicity of meaning and the Interrelationship of the Subject and the Object in Ritual and Body texts, Nagoya, Nagoya University, 2008, pp. 109‑114.

Illouz 2006 = Eva Illouz, Les sentiments du capitalisme, Paris, Seuil, 2006.

Souad 2011 = Joseph Souad, “Political familism in Lebanon”, The Annals of the America Academy of Political and Social Science 631, 2011, pp. 150‑163.

Souad 2004 = Joseph Souad, Framings: Rethinking Arab Family Projects, The Arab Family Working Group, 2004, online:

Souad 1997 = Joseph Souad, “The Public/Private: The Imagined Boundary in the Imagined Natio/State/Community: The Lebanese Case”, Feminist Review 57, 1997, pp. 73‑92.

Souad 1994 = Joseph Souad, “Brother/Sister Relationships: connectivity, love, and power in the reproduction of patriarchy in Lebanon”, American Ethnologist 21/1, 1994, pp. 50‑73.

Kreil 2011 = Aymon Kreil, “La Saint-Valentin au pays d’al‑Azhar : éléments d’ethnographie de l’amour et du sentiment amoureux au Caire”, in Martine Gross, Séverine Mathieu and Sophie Nizard (eds), Sacrée Familles ! Changements familiaux, changements religieux, Toulouse, Éditions Erès, 2011, p. 71‑83.

Lalouette 2001 = Jacqueline Lalouette, La libre pensée en France 1848‑1940, Paris, Albin Michel, 2001.

Lavanchy 2016 = Anne Lavanchy, “The wedding ceremony binds the spouses in marital union. Material and Immaterial flows in production of spouses’ relatedness”, Sociologus 6/1, 2015, pp. 55‑78.

Maillochon 2016 = Florence Maillochon, La passion du mariage, Paris, PUF, 2016.

Meier 2008 = Daniel Meier, Mariage et identité nationale au Liban. Les relations libano-palestiniennes dans le Liban de Taëf (1985‑2005), Paris, Karthala, 2008.

Mikdashi 2014 = Maya Mikdashi, “Sex and sectarianism: the legal architecture of Lebanese citizenship”, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 34/2, 2014, pp. 279‑293.

Moody 2008 = Pervez Moody, The Intimate State. Love-marriage and the law in Delhi, London, Routledge, 2008.

Navaro-Yashin 2007 = Yael Navaro-Yashin, “Make-believe papers, legal forms and the counterfeit. Affective interactions between documents and people in Britain and Cyprus”, in Anthropological Theory 7/1, 2007, pp. 79‑98.

Nicolaou 1998 = Eliana Nicolaou, “Recent developments in family law in Cyprus”, in Andrew Bainham (ed.), The International Survey of Family Law, The Hague/Boston/London, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1998, pp. 121‑134.

Papadakis 1998 = Yannis Papadakis, “Greek Cypriot Narratives and Collective Identity: Nationalism as a Contested Process”, in American Ethnologist 25/2, 1998, pp. 149‑165.

Papadakis, Perestianis and Welz 2006 = Yiannis Papadakis, Nicos Perestianis and Gisela Welz (eds), Divided Cyprus. Modernity, History, and an Island in Conflict, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2006.

Povinelli 2003 = Elizabeth Povinelli, The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy and Carnality, Durham, Duke University Press, 2003.

Povinelli 2002 = Elizabeth Povinelli, The Cunning of Recongnition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 2002.

Rault 2009 = Wilfried Rault, L’invention du PACS. Pratiques et symboliques d’une nouvelle forme d’union, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009.

Segalen 2003 = Martine Segalen, Éloge du mariage, Paris, Gallimard, 2003.

Sharot 2015 = Stephen Sharot, “Living separately, loving tragically: Cross‑ethnic Romance in Israeli Films”, in Fran Markowitz, Stephen Sharot and Moshe Shokeid (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Nation Building and Unbuilding in Israel, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2015, pp. 123‑138.

Weber 2007 = Anne-Françoise Weber, Le cèdre islamo-chrétien : des Libanais à la recherche de l’unité nationale, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 2007.

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1 Lebanon counts eighteen religious sects (Christian and Muslim) and family affairs of Lebanese are regulated by fifteen different personal status codes. The marital regime is therefore religious. Lebanese of different sects can legally intermarry by choosing one personal status code (usually by means of conversion). The juridical and judicial system in Lebanon is particularly complex, giving space to different configurations of creating (and breaking) marital bonds.

2 I refer to Law 104 (I) 2003, which takes the name of Marriage Law, and follows the Civil Marriage Law 21/1990, granting the institution of civil marriage also to members of the Cypriote Greek community on an optional basis. Although civil marriage has existed since 1923 (as an emanation of British colonial order), before 1990 the competence of civil courts over marriage was only extended to Cypriote citizens belonging to neither Greek nor Turkish communities. As a consequence, in the Republic of Cyprus, “until 1990 there was a genuine regime of religious marriage” (Nicoualou 1998, p. 124).

3 According to the last Demographic Report referring to the year 2016 on a total number of 13,558 marriages, 9,632 were civil marriages. Out of these latter, 2,449 were marriages between residents of Cyprus, constituting 25.4 % of all civil marriages celebrated in Cyprus. Yet, 56.5 % of civil marriages between residents of Cyprus concerns women and men of foreign nationalities, most represented of which are nationals of Greece, the UK, Romania and Bulgaria, as far as Europe is concerned; the Philippines, Russia and Bangladesh as far as non-European countries are concerned. The remaining 7,183 are civil marriages between non-residents of Cyprus. Out of the all marriages celebrated in Cyprus during the year 2016, marriages contracted by British, Israeli and Lebanese nationals figure on the first three positions in the Report’s classification respectively, a trend that has not changed since 1980. Regarding data concerning residents of Cyprus of Lebanese and Israeli nationality, only 36 marriages were recorded in 2016 concerning male residents of Cyprus of Lebanese nationality. There are no data for residents with Israeli nationality. This may lead to the conclusion that the majority of marriages (civil and ecclesiastical) of Israeli and Lebanese in Cyprus concern non-residents and, likely, involve the celebration of a civil marriage. In fact, following my personal surveys among civil servants in the Municipality of Larnaca, which represents the main marriage destination for nationals from the Middle East, between 2,000 and 3,000 civil marriages are celebrated every year, and marriages of Israeli nationals and Lebanese nationals exceed others.

4 The market of “wedding mobility” is not a new phenomenon. The most prominent example of wedding mobility can be found in Las Vegas, a destination for couples form all over the world that want to get married by overcoming many legal procedures or want to creatively personalize their own ceremony. On the mobilization of romantic and love symbolism in the context of liberal capitalism; see Evans 2003; Hoschschild 2003; Illouz 2006.

5 The city of Larnaca hosts an international airport, serving as destination for most of the flights coming from the Middle East. In particular, there exists a direct and daily connection between Larnaca and the airports of Beirut and Tel Aviv, situated less than 200 km from Cyprus’ coasts, which allows to-be spouses to plan a one-day trip with the purpose of getting married.

6 During my stay in the Republic of Cyprus I regularly attended civil marriage celebrations at the Town Hall, where I was accepted as a PhD student in anthropology making a research on civil marriage rituals (occasionally volunteering myself as photographer when couple came alone). In some cases, I met the spouses for an interview after the ceremony. Celebrants regularly switch, though only two persons were regularly called to celebrate most of the marriages I attended. Altogether, I exchanged with a dozen of peoples, being celebrants or civil servants. With only four or them I had deep and repetitive exchanges.

7 Housemann 2008.

8 The wedding ceremony has already been the object of anthropological and sociological analysis that insists on the intersectionality between administrative power and couples in shaping meaning of relatedness, especially in the context of international migration. As an example of this literature see: Lavanchy 2015.

9 Argyrou 1996, 2; also see Herzfeld 1997.

10 Argyrou 1996, 2; also see Herzfeld 1997.

11 Papadakis 1998.

12 The “Cyprus problem” is often cited as such in the media arena and sociological literature to describe Cyprus’ ethnic division. Titles such as Cyprus, a Troubled Island (Borowiec 2000) and Divided Cyprus: Modernity, History, and an Island in Conflict (Papadakis et al. 2006) constitute only two among many examples of how the sociopolitical conjuncture of the island has been translated into scholarship.

13 As an example, at the beginning of 2015, when I started my fieldwork in Lebanon, a judicial debate was still dragging among Lebanese administrators, politicians, jurists and citizens concerning the registration of some civil marriages contracted on Lebanese soil. Between 2011 and 2013, in fact, some civil rights activists elaborated a procedure that enables couples to get married in Lebanon before a public notary, by means of applying what is given by the jurisdiction as a right to contract non-religious marriages, a clause that remains a dead letter in the positive law. It was not the first time civil movements engaged in such a battle, though this time the magnitude of the event and the judicial action it provoked were unprecedented. As previous episodes have already shown, reactions to this latest attempt to challenge the system of personal status affairs took the form of religious and sectarian hostility. Further elaborations are the object of my ongoing doctoral work. Anecdotally, the echo of this battle reached some wedding planners and law professionals in Cyprus, who expressed some concerns about a potential decrease in income deriving from Lebanese civil marriage mobility, as well as about their personal affairs.

14 Moody 2008, p. 9.

15 Joseph 2011; et. al. 2004; 1994.

16 An example of these caricatures can be found in the following sentence: “Poor him, his daughter got a civil marriage. He didn’t deserve that!” (Yā harām, bynto tjawazyt madanī. Makān bīstāhal), Radio Pax Beirut (March 2016).

17 Interethnic relationships (i.e. Lebanese-Palestinian, Syrian-Palestinian, or Lebanese with other foreign nationalities, whether European, African or Asian) are also the target of civil marriages abroad but I will include them here in as much as they are evoked by celebrants to refer to an imaginary of social constraints, together with their counterpart of Israeli-Palestinian marriages.

18 Mikdashi 2014.

19 Souad Joseph (1997) has already illustrated that religion and sect are different sociopolitical categories in Lebanon. Maya Mikdashi (2014) goes further by introducing personal status law as an operative category to show the restricted sociological use Lebanese can make of it. Briefly, the purpose of conversion is to transit from one personal status law to another in order to benefit from the others’ set of laws in matters of personal affairs. This transition does not amount to the personal and collective acceptance of and integration with what the new sect personal status code is meant to represent. In other words, a Christian who converts to Islam will be submitted to a new personal status law and will be recorded in the civil registry as Muslim, but they can still feel close to Christianity when it comes to faith or personal beliefs. Nevertheless, this vision supposes not only the institutionalization of a state-sponsored legal framework, as is the case in Lebanon, but also the existence of undisturbed individuals being able to navigate the system (whether openly or covertly) regardless of interpersonal, familial and communitarian relations, which is at the very least unlikely in Lebanon.

20 Official statistical data on interfaith marriages and, more generally, civil marriages of Lebanese are not available and are the object of controversies between religious authorities and civil movements. It is generally acknowledged that both kinds of marriages are growing in the country. To see how I supplied to lack of statistical data, refer to footnote 4 of this chapter. For a comparison with previous researches about mixed families in Lebanon see Meier 2008, on interethnic Lebanese-Palestinians marriages and Weber 2007, on Christians-Muslim public and private dialogues.

21 Rault 2009.

22 Bourdieu 1982.

23 Navaro-Yashin 2007.

24 Beauvalet and Gourdon 1998; Boudjaaba 2013.

25 Bell 2009, p. 197.

26 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

27 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

28 Personal interview, April 26, 2017.

29 Personal interviews with celebrants in Nicosia and Larnaca Municipalities, April-May 2017.

30 Bozon 1992; Dumont and Pollet 1990; Lalouette 2001, Maillochon 2016; Segalen 2003.

31 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

32 Personal interview with a municipal counselor and marriage celebrant, April 27, 2017.

33 Povinelli 2002; see also Povinelli 2003.

34 See the special issue of the anthropological journal Terrain, n. 27, 1996 on love, as well as: Gell 2011; Kreil 2011.

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Michela De Giacometti, « “The Island of Love” »Bulletin de correspondance hellénique moderne et contemporain [En ligne], 1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michela De Giacometti

PhD candidate, Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux (Iris) / EHESS

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