Postcard from Zaharah: A ride steeped in British tradition

Standing on the open-top semi state Landau — the horse-drawn carriage that had come from the Royal Mews, it was a picture of traditions blending right in front of the Malaysian High Commission in Belgrave Square here.

Malaysian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Zakri Jaafar, in his traditional black baju Melayu complete with songkok and songket sampin, held tight a dark red velvet folder close to his chest.

And beside him, his wife, Nor Aini Abdul Rahman, stood in her dark red Malay songket dress, making a stark contrast against a backdrop of autumn hues.

The horse-drawn carriage, signifying a tradition full of colour and significance, has long been used to bring ambassadors and diplomats to Buckingham Palace to deliver letters of credentials to the incumbent monarch.

"It was almost surreal for me until I sat on the carriage that I was actually going to Buckingham Palace.

"Indeed, it was one of the highlights of my career so far, being in the Foreign Service since 1992. Along the journey, I told myself, this is real, we are going to present the credentials to the queen and I will formally hold the post as the 22nd Malaysian high commissioner to the UK," said Zakri on his return from the palace after presenting the Letter of Credential from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Zakri had served as ambassador to Jordan from 2014 to 2017, and to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2017 to May this year.

He started his diplomatic journey in Chile and then Japan, before arriving in London in August this year at a time when the country and the whole world were in the grip of the pandemic.

The coronavirus is no respecter of tradition, no matter how steep it is. Instead of the usual two horse-drawn carriages, one to carry the high commissioner and wife accompanied by the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, and the other for heads of department of Malaysian agencies here, this time, there was only one carriage with the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps Alistair Harrison arriving in a limousine.

The carriage carrying the Malaysian high commissioner and his wife was pulled by four horses, but for ambassadors of other countries, it was only two horses.

"That shows the importance the Queen attaches to the Commonwealth," said Harrison.

Like more than 30 other diplomats and high commissioners before him, Zakri and his wife had an audience with the 95-year-old monarch via a video link, placing the dark red velvet folder on a table in front of the screen.

The monarch, dressed in a plum-coloured dress and wearing a pearl necklace and brooch, is now experienced and well in tune with the new normal mode of communication. She commented on the colour of the velvet folder, which she also noted matched the colour of Nor Aini's dress.

"The queen said thanks to this new technology, I am able to meet you today. Had we not have this new technology that we have today, there might not be any ceremony at all," added Zakri, who said the virtual meeting was nevertheless a meaningful one.

"My parents would have been proud of me," said Zakri, his voice full of emotion.

Pledging to continue to pick up where the pandemic had wrought damage, Zakri placed importance on luring back tourists from the UK to Malaysia, increasing the flow of investment and trade into the country, and stressing the importance of the UK as the preferred place for higher education.

In a speech during the vin d' honneur, a reception hosted by the Malaysian High Commission, Zakri gave a touching tribute to his wife, who he said had been supportive throughout his career by looking after the family, ensuring that he could focus on his job.

Realising the significance of the event in her husband's life, Nor Aini wanted to make it special by cooking for the reception herself.

To make it even more meaningful, she wore the dark red songket dress that was the wedding costume of her late Mak Ngah from Bukit Mertajam.

The dress was given to her mother and then worn by her younger sister for her Khatam Quran. On Nov 25, it made its grand entrance into Buckingham Palace on a horse-drawn open-top carriage.

This is the second time that Nor Aini had accompanied her husband to a similar ceremony.

"In Jordan, spouses were not invited for the ceremony while in Bosnia, the whole family was invited. But because the children were at school, my husband invited the Malaysian embassy staff," said Nor Aini.

Being a diplomat's wife, she said, had taught her a lot of things and she treasured the friendship she fostered with the locals wherever they were based.

The highlight of the ceremony it would seem was feeding carrots and apples to horses on the return journey to the high commission.

In true spirit of the Malaysian hospitality, while the horses enjoyed their carrots and apples fed by Zakri and Nor Aini, the horsewomen and men, too, were treated to Malay kuih, such as curry puffs and bingka ubi (tapioca cake).

It was a sight to behold and opportunities were in abundance for selfies and photographs to post on social media — not only for the guests of the occasion, but also for curious passers-by.

Steep-old traditions, whether compromised or watered down due to unavoidable circumstances, still hold their attraction that will remain long in our memories. And this is especially so for ambassador Zakri and his wife, Nor Aini.

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