Tuesday, June 30, 2009

General of the Stamp

When I was in Cairo in January 2009, my desire to make a lighting visit to Israel required me to enter the Mogamma, the very heart of darkness for taking care of visa procedures in the Arab world. The very name is intimidating: Mogamma. And the stories told of what awaits the intrepid visitor inside the walls of the brutish concrete behemoth are even more daunting. Imagine drowning in a bureaucratic swarm of stamps, sweat and boiling tea, with waves of poorly payed government clerks robbing the visitor of his final dignity.

Perhaps I was lucky. Or perhaps the terrible Wizard of Oz was always simply an old man hiding behind a curtain. Because my foray into the Mogamma to extend my Egyptian visa was so seamless, that for a time I was convinced that bureaucratic Egypt is a sheep in lion’s clothing.

Fast forward to Monday June 8. My fifteen day Syrian visa was about to expire and so I was forced to enter the Syrian heart of darkness to extend my stay. This time around there was no brooding Stalinist relic. But the chaotic innards at the Syrian Immigration Ministry rivaled anything cooked up at the Mogamma. The office was only near to bursting the morning of my visit. And I had a friend by my side that made sure we had all the necessary paperwork in hand.

Nevertheless we still had to bump and grind through a flood of Iraqi refugees to get to the first official. After looking at our papers, he informed us we needed to go outside and get a stamp. So we slipped out with no idea where to find this stamp. Lo and behold, an old man in street clothes immediately tugged on my shoulder, waved a pile of stamps before my eyes, and sold me one while explaining that he is the ministry’s official stamp provider. Eh, right.

Back into the grind, stamp in hand. Again I push my way up to the desk. Now the officer looks and is satisfied. But instead of extending my visa, he scribbles something in Arabic and hands it to me with a nod toward an office down the hall.

So I am back in the hallway, waving the note and shouting for advice to every mustached official in view. A hand points to a non-descript office. But when I barge in, the furnishings are almost luxe. Sitting at the desk is a two-star general. Above his lip curls an impressive mustache. And in his hand he bears an even more impressive stamp. The general takes my note, the mustache signals its approval and slam goes the stamp. Then the general of the stamp signs my passport with a flourish. And with a twitch from his mustache, signals that I am done and free to explore his dear Syria for fifteen more days.

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