The Norwegian King and Queen celebrated their golden jubilee of fifty years of marriage last week – and strange as it may seem, there are interesting lessons to learn for people even in Pakistan from the life of the Norway royals. The main event in Norway was a large religious service in Oslo Cathedral, it still having close ties between church and state, although with religious freedom for all and an increasing Muslim community. The couple arrived in the same big black cabriolet car from the 1960s, with number plate A5, which they had used in 1968. That time, it had taken nine years for the reigning King Olav V, the father of the then Crown Prince Harald, now King Harald V, to get his father’s and the government’s permission to marry Sonja Haraldsen, a ‘woman of the people’, a commoner, not of royal heritage and upbringing. Now she has become more royal than the rest, people say, and she saved the institution because Harald gave his father an ultimatum: either to marry Sonja or not marry at all, and live the rest of his life in secret with the woman he had chosen, or maybe he would have abdicated and then married as an ‘ordinary citizen’, but that was never talked about publicly.
In either case, it would have meant the end of monarchy in Norway since the post of king is inherited by the first born of the ruling king or queen; today, also women can hold the mostly ceremonial post. If Harald had not married and had off-springs, Norway would have become a republic, with an elected president. Well, maybe that would have been just as well in a democracy like Norway, since to have royalty in our time quite anachronistic. Pakistan’s way of selecting a president, as was just done here, follows more democratic rules than the way it is done in Norway. However, the majority of the Norwegians say in opinion polls that they like the monarchy (as the other Scandinavian countries also do), and of all the political parties, it is only the small socialist and Marxist parties out on the left that are against the institution, but even they don’t see it as a realistic option for the time being. The popular king, queen, crown prince and princess don’t need to worry about their jobs and roles; they symbolise a kind of unity, diversity and continuity in the country – above ‘ordinary people’, yet, also like everyone else. The Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that last year when the king and queen celebrated their 80th birth days, both born in 1937: “You are ordinary people in extraordinary jobs.”
Before the Oslo Cathedral service was held last week, the king and queen had spoken in quite some detail about how they had lived secretly for nine long years before they could marry. The only safe place they could meet was in Sonja’s childhood home at Vindern in Oslo. It was a life in hiding and secrecy. It was true love in disguise, yes, under the veil and behind closed doors. I am sure many journalists knew about it, or at least had their suspicions, but in those days, they showed more restraint and decency than the media would have done today when such as story would have made good bucks, both for print, electronic and social media. Well, if the media had covered it, maybe the young couple would not have had to wait that long to get married; the media certainly being part of democracy.
I watched the Oslo Cathedral service on my laptop in Islamabad. The bishop of Oslo, Kari Veiteberg, is a woman, and the cathedral dean, Anne-May Grasaas, is also a woman, and the third top clergy, ‘preses’, the coordinator of the land’s eleven bishops of the protestant Church of Norway, Helga Haugland Byfyglien, is also a woman. Fifty years ago, all were men, obviously. The world has changed since then! Interestingly, too, the Bishop and Dean, hold doctoral degrees in theology, which is not so common. The Oslo bishop has carried out some research, but in addition, she has worked among substance abusers and homeless in the capital and Norway’s second city of Bergen, and she and her husband, also a clergy, have international experience, too.
In her sermon last week, she mentioned that a main Biblical text used on the occasion was from an area in Palestine where Christians and Muslims live side by side. Furthermore, among the young people reading texts from the Bible, were members of the royal family; there was a boy in a Sami national dress, belonging to Norway’s indigenous people; and there was one boy with Somali features, speaking with distinct Oslo accent, more so than Bishop Veiteberg, who used her dialect from West Norway. This all underlines some of the diversity of modern Norway.
As Veiteberg’s sermon ended – it being a celebration of love – she drew attention to all love being a creation of God. The artistic performance seamlessly ending her sermon was by two young men, one a singer and the other one showing off some ballet dance steps, all indicating affection and love of between two of the same gender that would in the past only be shown behind closed doors – yes, with parallel to the way Harald and Sonja had to live before they were allowed to come out and get married fifty-sixty years ago. The Crown Princess Mette Marit wiped off a few tears during the emotional performance. Incidentally, she was also a commoner when she married – and most royals today marry outside the royal circles, including in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and UK. We live in a time when that is the rule of the day, and it saves the institution and reduces the risk for inherited and congenital deceases since most royals in Europe are related. Furthermore, today, like many others, the royals also divorce, which recently happened to the Norwegian Princess Märtha Louise. Yet, as it should be, the parents have joint custody over their three children, and they live in the same neighbourhood.
What lessons can we draw from all this then, from the Norwegian and other ‘first families’? I believe one lesson that is essential is the fact that life is not too different either we are born rich and poor, either we live in Norway or Pakistan, be it in a small village or a big city, and so on. In the end, the existential issues in life are universal. Also, our religious thoughts, struggles and beliefs, irrespective of religion, have many similarities. True, there are also differences in everyday life, but under the surface they are fewer than the commonalities.
When the history of the lives of the Norwegian royals was talked about in quite some detail recently, it shed light on important issues in everyone’s life. In Pakistan and elsewhere, it may make us reflect on issues related to marriage practices, with arranged or semi-arranged marriages being common. In our time, everyone should have the right to choose his or her life partner, or none. Yet, we still follow conventions and traditions; we often do rather what is expected of us than what our heart tells us.
Let me end my article today by mentioned the obvious, but what we don’t always think about, notably that every person’s life journey is unique and individual. We should balance traditions and demands, be considerate to family and community. Yet, we must not be old-fashioned and outdated either. Many old ways are not right; others may be. And we should remember that in the end, we must do what is right in our hearts, and we become the best and most productive persons if we do what we truly believe. Let us remember, too, that my life’s journey, and yours, cannot follow any blueprint. Each of us must find our own way. No one else has walked our road before us, and no one else will follow exactly the same road after us either. We can learn from others, including the Norwegian royals. But each of us must live our own life – in a mixture of many things: harmony, tolerance, equality, duty, service, and even opposition and rebellion. In the end, we should be able to say that we did our best for oneself and for others. If it was celebration of love, as for the Norwegian king and queen, that would be good and right. But for most of us, maybe even the royals, life would most of the time be less passionate and ideal, and that could also be a good and happy life.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.