Day 26: Disappointment At The Visa Office

Oh Cairo, how you’ve let me down.

I’d been looking forward to this day since I landed in Egypt, and now it’s been ruined. Burned to ash – my dreams smashed to bits. 

Today was the day that I had planned to go to the Mugama, Cairo’s leviathan central administration building. A monstrous concrete mouth with thousands of offices and plexiglass windows for teeth, the Mugama appears ready to devour Tehrir Square whole:

This behemoth is the key hub for Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior. It houses everyone from the General Department of Women’s Affairs to the Ministry of National Education; from the General Organization for Sewage and Sanitary Drainage to the Rehabilitation Department – and almost every innumerable bureau in between.

My own business there today was with Egypt’s Passports, Emigration and Nationality Administration. While Egypt issues six-month tourist visas to American citizens, these visas must be renewed at the Mugama for every month after the first that a tourist plans on staying. With four weeks down and thirteen days to go, today was to be my turn.  

Egyptians and foreigners alike speak of the Mugama – a legacy of the Nasser days – with a mixture of dread, disgusted mockery and disbelief. As if no matter how many times they’ve had to show their faces at the infamous place, they still can’t come to grips with how sprawling, indifferent, inefficient and cruel it is.

Horror stories of this paper-pushers’ mecca abound, both in the press and on the streets: A lifelong Egyptian spends months here fighting and pleading for his identification papers; refugees from around Africa are summarily arrested and detained under orders issued from its murky bureaucratic soup; my Egyptian-born taxi driver, on the way there, recounts wide-eyed-testimonial-style his nightmarish weeks of shuffling from office to office after the Mugama decided one day that his son’s birth certificate was not in order; even straightforward visitors’ guides guarantee a long wait to get simple tourist visas like mine renewed.

The Mugama is nothing short of legendary, and has become a symbol for all that is bloated and defunct within the government. The wildly popular 1992 comedy, Terrorism and the Kebab, uses it as the setting of a farce depicting the lunacy of modern Egyptian bureaucracy:

As freelance journalist Rod Amis put it, “The Mugama was the home of the rubber stamp, of endless queues and being sent away without answers, expected to return if answers were needed…. Some people said that paperwork in the Mugama could disappear, as though into a black hole, and that in some deep cellar whole lives were lost.”

So. Those of you who know me can imagine my relish at having to visit the place, at the chance to assemble my own hellish Mugama tale and recount it here in lurid colors. While having the time of my life in Cairo these last four weeks, I’ve also gotten to witness a few examples of the country’s Big Brother network, from paying my “mobile phone tax” to an eerie run-in with some cops in Heliopolis (I’ve been advised not to write about this online).

But today’s visit was meant to eclipse all that, to shine as a singular illustration of an overgrown autocracy. Indeed, I have been pre-writing my dyspeptic, kvetching Mugama-blog-post in my mind for weeks – me, standing in line for hours as a single lackadaisical attendant rifles through papers; me, getting sent to one wrong office after another, sweating profusely and cursing All Things Apparatchik; me, awakened finally to the true meaning of the term “Army of Idiots.”

I really couldn’t wait.

I showed up today at the Mugama, passport in hand and comfortable waiting-around shoes laced tightly to my feet. I was ready to be dehumanized – I’d set aside the whole afternoon for the experience, and was prepared for the Mugama’s worst.

There were no lines at the initial security checkpoint, which surprised me. Still, my backpack was searched and my camera confiscated – a promising start, or so I thought.

But things started to go downhill immediately. The security staff were friendly and alert, and directed me straight to the Passports, Emigration and Nationality Administration on the second floor. As I made my way through the corridors, I found the administration all but deserted. I passed plexiglass window after plexiglass window, labeled clearly in both Arabic and English, listing the services for “Non-Arabic Immigrants,” “Arabic Immigrants,” “Non-Arabic Asylum-Seekers,” “Arabic Asylum-Seekers,” “Non-Arabic Residential Applicants,” “Arabic Residential Applicants,” “Non-Arabic Work-Visa Applicants,” “Arabic Work-Visa Applicants” – on and on and on.

But where were the hordes of desperate Sudanese refugees being sent mercilessly from window to window? The Somalis? The Palestinians? Where were the lines of Western tourists such as myself languishing for hours in the non-air-conditioned halls just to get their passports stamped? The children sleeping in chairs as their parents tried only to register a change in their school district? The waste was there, sure: Cops and security officials of every stripe lounged aimlessly in the Mugama’s halls, napping, smoking, hissing lasciviously at me as I passed – but big deal, they do that all over the city. The grime, the gloom, the grim inertia of any bloated government building was obvious in the dingy walls, dilapidated furniture and blank stares that greeted me through the plexiglass – but where was the misery, the cruelty, the chaos? WHERE? I was starting to get very nervous.

Finally I found my assigned window.

“Lassimat? Salem?”

“Yes, hello, you need visa stamp?” said the man behind the counter.

“Aiwa,” I told him. I beamed, waiting to be told I’d gone to the wrong place entirely, or to be instructed to sit and wait for an hour.

He smiled back and handed me a form and a pen, and told me to fill it out.

That was it? No questions? No re- or mis-direction? No nothing? As I took my form and crouched in the corner of the hall to fill it out, I reflected that a visit to one’s local commune in Belgium to process extended-stay papers invariably involves hours of waiting, often only to be sent home and told to come back again the next week. So where was Egypt’s renowned rigamarole?

To my further dismay, the form was only one page, and the most intrusive question on it was a simple inquiry about my religion. Not what I had in mind. Deflated, I carried the form back to the man. It seemed all wrong, all of it. 

And then, the kicker: After scanning my form and my passport, the man looked up at me and, with an apologetic smile, told me I hadn’t needed to come in at all.

“But – but I’m staying till the ninth of July, and I got here on the first of June!” I protested. “That’s more than a month – I must be validated!”

“No, no, I’m so sorry,” he told me. “They should have told you at your consulate – you have a free fifteen-day extension from the first month – there is no penalty if you’re extending for less than that time.”

“But – no – they’ll fine me at the airport, won’t they?” I asked, veritably begging now for something, anything that would require me to be shuffled through the notorious system. “I must be processed!”

“I’m so sorry that your time was wasted,” he told me.

Sorry? SORRY?! The outrage – an Egyptian bureaucrat, I had been told, apologizes to no one!

But no. He couldn’t have been more contrite. I was as crestfallen as if someone had told me that the Pyramids were closed.

“And I’ll be allowed to leave the country? They won’t fine me at the airport?”

“No no – just go to your plane on the ninth, no problem.”

“Mufeesh mushkila?” I sighed.

“Mufeesh mushkila, yes, very good!”

“But – oh! I’m going to Luxor tomorrow!” I cried triumphantly – I wasn’t ready to give up. “And then to the Sinai! Don’t I need something, a stamp or a sticker maybe, for that?”

“No, not at all,” he laughed.

“Please – can’t I just get a stamp anyway?” I made one last desperate attempt, pushing my form and passport back through the window. “Just in case?”

“Really, miss, you need nothing – you’re fine, free to stay till your plane leaves and then free to go.”

The whole episode took less than 15 minutes, not counting the Cairene traffic I negotiated there and back.

“Okay then, kowaiyes,” I muttered, defeated. “Shukran.”

“Enjoy the rest of your time in Egypt, and travel safely.”

“Yeah. Shukran. Maasalem.”

“Have a good day, miss – and again, we are so sorry for the hassle.”

But what hassle, sir? Everyone else gets a hassle – of this, I still have no doubt – so where was mine?

The Mugama’s Evil Empire exists, I’m sure of it – I have read and heard of too many abominations there for it not to be so. Today was a fluke, it had to be – Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m., something had gone horribly awry, and somehow I had been cheated out of the Mugama Ordeal that was rightfully mine.

Cairo, how could you?

The day did improve. I met up with Rana in the evening for shisha and hibiscus juice, and we were joined by her Alexandrian friend Dina, who is three weeks into her first set of beginners’ English courses. Though Dina declined to be immortalized on camera, she and I had good fun exchanging pidgin-Arabic-English, and Rana of course was thrilled with her omnipotent role of translator.

Later I went to dinner with some of the kids from my language course and our beloved Modern Standard teacher, to celebrate the end of the program. I had the chicken mushroom salad, we all got to ask our teacher nosy questions about her private life, and good times were had by all.

Soon I will set off on my nine-hour bus ride to Luxor – I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to post again, but I will as soon as possible.

As for the Mugama, well. I’ll get over the let-down soon enough, I’m sure – many adventures await me in Luxor and the Sinai Peninsula, after all.

But someday, Mugama, I’ll be back – “insha’allah” more permanently than now and with much more complicated documents to file. I’ll see your ugly side yet, and rest assured that I – like so many others before me – will tell the sordid tale.

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4 Responses to “Day 26: Disappointment At The Visa Office”

  1. lulu Says:

    Clever, amusing post…so sorry you were ‘disappointed.’…heh…now let’s just hope the guy’s info was RIGHT. Loved the pic — must say, it looks like a very nice bunch of people and you’re positively radiant. May Luxor prove as fun and fascinating as Cairo’s been…can’t wait to hear. xox

  2. El Matamoros Says:

    It probably goes without saying, but, man, would I LOVE to have a shufti at “Terror And the Kebab”, which looks very much like it involved some Egyptian versions of Peter Sellers and Abbott and Costello and strikes me as an altogether cruelly neglected meisterstuk.

    And your surreally gentle treatment at the dread Mugama apparatchikatorium reminds me of the experience of a pal of mine, David Phipps — “Despite the horror stories he had heard about the rudeness and general incivility involved in entering the fabled United States, Phipps, to his considerable amazement and delight, sailed through it all as though on some sort of giant benevolent banana peel.” (p. 45, “Pushkin Shove” by P.N. Gwynne).

  3. Simon Says:

    Great blog, plenty of fun to read. Glad you’re having such a great time in what is (in my mind) a wonderful country.

    Just one quick nosy question : you refer to a visit to the commune in Belgium. This made me curious (as I am in Belgium) and I started to look around for more clues as to “who is Annie”. Can you give us a bit more info as to your background ?

  4. Day 39: Last Day (With Asides About Food) « Annie’s Cairo Weblog Says:

    […] that was that. No problems getting out, no questions about my visa, nothing. I was almost disappointed. My flight took off at 4 a.m. as scheduled, and in the few […]

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