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.

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