Sunday, April 27, 2008

Way to take the shine off our welcome home

We just got back from a glorious 8-day safari through Kenya. It was, quite literally, the trip of a lifetime. We're still dusty and tired and downloading photos (I took 285 and yk took 273 -- and this is AFTER diligent editing. Kenya is just spectacular and there is no end to the breathtaking photos one can take) we'll both update soon with tales of charging elephants, cheetahs on the hunt and leopards in trees, eating gazelles.

We arrived on the red-eye this morning, an hour and a half late. The customs hall was empty and we were third in line at passport control. Thanks to my pre-trip visit to the Mogamma, my Canadian passport sailed through, ka-chunk, ka-chunk -- entry stamps, done. Pass to the guy in back. He looks at me deadpan. I smile. He gives me back the passport and I go through.

YK's passport -- ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Pass to the guy in back. He passes it back to the guy in front but today, they did something different. This surprised me because YK has a much more legit and influential visa than yours truly. And they had already stamped and machine read his passport, so what was the holdup?

One white uniformed officer took the passport to one booth. We waited. Me on one side of immigration, YK on the other. Another uniformed officer took his passport and went to the left. Gave it to a guy who took it to the right. Back and forth, looking serious, for no apparent reason.

Finally, the officer called YK to the exit lane where I was waiting. He looked at me and said: "India?"
I held up my passport (the one he had just seen and stamped) and said, "No. Canada. What seems to be the delay?"
Officer to me again: "Hindia?"
Me to officer: "No Hindia. Canada. See?" flash passport once again.

YK passed through the barrier and the officer smiled at him broadly.
YK: "Is there a problem?"
Officer: "No, no problem at all."
YK reaches out for passport: "Great. Thank you, I'll just take that then."
Officer still holding on to the passport and smiling: "What about baksheesh?"

The penny dropped: So THAT is what this had all been about. We are such square Canadians that we don't even see the signs. But the thing is, we're such square Canadians that we don't pay bribes to get through international airports either. So we said, thanks buddy, but we don't think so. (Actually, YK's exact words were: "No baksheesh, you are a civil servant.") We grabbed the passport and went to baggage claim.

I've been in plenty of situations where extra money was requested or I was over charged. And in fact (see previous post: Malesh) I feel in some cases that me getting "taken for a ride" and paying extra during these hard times in Egypt is fine.

But today was not on. Officials using their position to intimidate us for money rattled me. And it left a really bad taste in my mouth. After returning from a holiday in Kenya where poverty is rampant but people are friendly, gentle and humble -- this was a jarring and unpleasant re-entry to life in Cairo.

As we pulled out of the airport, Cairo looked like an ugly hungry, beast. It was the first time in the six months I've been here that I felt that way.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Yes Saturday -- Revised Rant

So it is Saturday. YK and I went to the Mogamma this morning to finish my visa business.

I want to make sure that I did not give the impression that the Mogamma is inefficient. Because it is remarkable really that they manage to get so much done. The sheer volume of traffic in and out is astounding. Most of the work is done by hand, with paper forms (ie: gasp! no computers) and somehow, they manage to keep track of everything.

When I went back today every person I had dealt with a few days ago remembered my face, smiled and bid me salaam and a good morning. I did get shunted to a few different windows, but it was painless and quick. After scribbling on all my documents, they politely asked us (yk came with me this morning to watch the show. I think he was disappointed that it wasn't more of a zoo) to come back in an hour. So we meandered over to the Nile Hilton, had a croissant and a coffee and did some shopping. Upon our return, the nice lady at counter 42 asked me to pay the stamping fee (a mere LE3 and 50piasters) and I emerged into the bright Saturday afternoon sunshine with my residency visa neatly pasted into my new passport.

Expenses in all:

5 photo copies-- LE2
2 turkish coffees -- LE5
1 new visa -- LE3.5

I know, I know, it's over done, but I cannot resist....

Experiencing the Mogamma: priceless

Thursday, April 17, 2008

No Saturday

We're planning to go to Kenya on safari over spring break. In order to enter Kenya, one needs a passport valid for six months. My passport was valid for five months and 15 days. So, I went to the Canadian embassy and got myself a shiny new passport valid until 2013.

Ready for our safari? Not quite. Cathy at the Canadian embassy: "You know you have to now go to the Mogamma and get your residency visa transferred from your old passport to your new one, right?" Gulp. The Mogamma? "Don't worry", Cathy assured me, "It's really straightforward: you just have to go there and wait."

The Mogamma is a gigantic semi-circle wall of a building that towers over Tahrir Square like the fiery eye in Lord of the Rings. It is the central government complex and we see it several times a day as it looms ominously over everything downtown. I always imagined that once people went in, they never came back out again. It seemed to me like a giant, hungry beast that fed on anything that passed in front of it.

I found out today that the inside of the Mogamma is part railway station, part open air market, part stock exchange and part major highway at rush hour.

It has all the provisions to make a long wait bearable: beyond the metal detectors (I went through so many, I lost count) in the long, grey corridor just before the service counters, a man had set up a shoe-shine stall, another was selling biscuits, fruit juices, sandwiches and water. A little further, there was a counter with a huge boiling pot of tea with steam shooting out of it, it's lid dancing gingerly on top. Around another corner, a tray of about 20 glasses were prepped with sugar at the bottom and Lipton yellow label tea bags placed carefully in each.

I could not estimate how many people were in that building. It felt like millions. From every nation around the world. Women, children, men and families. Sitting in the waiting area, standing in the corridor and walking from counter to counter, department to department. It had the same feel as a public hospital I once went to in Karachi.

The employees quite possibly outnumbered the people they were there to serve. The ladies at the visa section were gossiping and laughing so loudly and raucously their tea just barely missed spilling on my pristine passport. In the middle of my application, the lady serving me dropped my papers and went into an inner office where we could all see four women yelling at two very skinny men. One man was obviously the manager, the other some sort of offending party. A guy with a long beard, short pants, prayer beads and a Brooklyn accent in line beside me said: "This is Egypt -- get used to it."

I went from counter 2 to 12 to 38 to 42 and then back again. Twice. I got yelled at in arabic multiple times, got shoved out of my place in line and smiled at by a guard with a machine gun.

I had people offer to help me many times as well. Even though the section manager had asked me to come back on Saturday, the PR manager stopped me to ask if I had gotten everything I needed.

Me: "Aywa, shookrun (yes, thank you) I will come back on Saturday, insh'Allah."

Helpful PR manager: "Saturday? Why Saturday?"

Me: lame shrug of shoulder (bloody useless Arabic lessons....) I don't know Mister, this is your government, I'm going to do what the nice lady from counter 38 told me to do.

Helpful PR manager:"No Saturday. You get what you need now. Canada: very nice. Take this. "

He scribbled something (in arabic) on a piece of paper and sent me back into the fray. At this point, I was happy to just pay my money fresh at the airport and forget the whole thing. But noooo, satisfaction guaranteed seemed to be this man's motto. Admittedly, the piece of paper got me more respect this time around but several counters later, my visa was no closer to being affixed in my new passport.

I was starting to feel dizzy. And I think I might have cut in front of a family of Somali refugees (sorry, it's not me, it's the note) and a group of Palestinian students but still no new visa. I couldn't take it anymore, so I left the building (careful to avoid the helpful PR manager) with my business half done. Ever the Canadian, I was more than happy to just come back on Saturday.

Turns out the Mogamma does not eat people alive. It just chews on them a little.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I've started working part-time and that means I have started commuting part-time. I get stuck in the morning rush and try to grab coffee or dinner with friends at the end of the day to avoid participating in the evening rush. Sometimes I succeed. And sometimes, I sit in traffic, chewing on exhaust and trying to make conversation with my cab driver as gridlock eats us up for what seems like hours (most times it is hours...)

The standard cab fare from Zamalek - where we live - to the AUC campus - where we work -- is normally about 5LE (a little less than $1). When I first arrived, I made sure I knew just enough Arabic to make my way home and negotiate the appropriate fare. I constantly tried to find ways to get 5LE notes as change so that I could hoard cab fare. I was going to pay 5LE and not a piaster more.

The trick is to know how much is standard and how much you are prepared to pay, hand the money to the driver and walk away. If you turn back or hesitate, there's a long, loud, pointless negotiation for more money. And my Arabic just isn't strong enough for that.

Everytime I got in a cab, I would make sure the driver wasn't taking the scenic route to increase the fare. "Ya Mohammed, just because I'm going to the American University, does not mean I don't know how much this ride is going to cost". "No, no, turn left here -- it's shorter this way." "Why would you take July 26 at this time of day?" I was constantly on guard, lest someone tried to rip me off or take me for a "foreigner".

In recent weeks, I've begun to hear about rising food costs and shortages of daily staples. We work for an international institution, live in the most priviledged part of town and spend money like it's falling off a monopoly board. We are so far removed from the challenges of the average Egyptian, it is ridiculous, really. What we spend on a dinner with friends is often the monthly income of a local policeman or teacher.

Learning this has made me more philosophical in many ways. I no longer get angry at the cab driver or stress out if my ride is 30 minutes instead of 20. Malesh, we'll get there when we get there. Me sitting in the back of his cab squacking in my incomprehensible Arabic isn't going to clear the traffic. If we take the longer route, sometimes that means we move the whole time instead of taking the shorter route that literally soaks my every pore with lead and diesel exhaust. Sometimes it means we take the longer route and there's no upside, but there you go. At least I have the priviledge of being able to afford to be driven to and from my work.

Now, when the driver asks me for 10LE from campus to Zamalek, I don't argue. I just say ok and hop in their cab. And when I reach my destination, I do what I have always done: I get out, thank the driver, pay him and walk away.

I am probably not making an ounce of difference in the overall situation of the people around me. But I'm finding that my stress levels are lower. And that is worth the all the 5-10LEs notes I can find.

All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008