The Collection; Or Me, Navigating a Bureaucracy In a Language I Do Not Understand

This post and many more around here, was originally posted on livejournal in 2007. Reposted here largely for my own amusement.

Yesterday, I had to renew my visa. Holy shit was it a mess.

There is really no way I am going to be able to explain how nuts the whole experience was, how confused I was, how chaotic the scene. You really had to be there. Luckily for me, the office I work for sent someone down there with me. Without him, I would have been like the group of Japanese tourists I saw there, terrified, and immobile on a bench.

The building you go to have you visa renewed is called the “Mogamma”, which apparently translates as “collection”. It’s the heart of the Egyptian bureaucracy. A giant piece of Stalinist architecture that makes you feel small and weak from the moment you get near it. People here talk about it like people in the States talk about the DMV, as this slightly humorous, but totally painful venture in government employee hell. But trust me; the Mogama is way, way worse than the DMV.

Imagine you are me. You are in a building like the DMV.  But it’s three times as packed, there is no air conditioning, and its a hundred degrees outside. Unlike most of the poor foreign saps here, you’ve got a guide. But he doesn’t speak English, and is kind of scared of you because your boss seems to have put the fear of God into him that he had to return with a renewed visa or heads were gonna roll. You can’t read most of the signs. And the few signs you can read don’t make any sense. There are lines you’re supposed to wait in, but really no one is waiting in any of the lines – people are just jockeying for a spot and shouting.

Oh and there’s dudes everywhere selling tea and nonalcoholic beer.

While I stood there like a dumb American, Ali (the guy from my office) heckled Dude #1, who told us to wait for Dude #2 who directed us to Dude #3 who stamped my passport with something and told us to come back in an hour to see Dude #1. An hour later we went back to Dude #1 but the guy wasn’t there. Ali, I think, thought he was going to lose his job and have to move back to Luxor or something, because he had an amazing take no prisoners attitude and started badgering other people asking where Dude #1 was. Before I know it, we’re marching down some hallway and busting into a break room with a trail of twenty people behind us. There is Dude #1, having his lunch.

Everyone is shouting for Dude #1 to do this or that for them. Dude was none too pleased to have his break interrupted by a hoard of pissed off people, but he signed my visa application, and we moved on to Dude # 2.

Can I stop here for a second and express the obvious? There is no reason this has to be this way. None. I refuse to believe that this is about Egypt being a poor country. I got a visa in Cuba… fucking CUBA! A real live socialist country! It was easier than this.


Interactions with Dude #2 involved a whole bunch of shouting in Arabic, plus some pushing of my visa back and forth between Ali and the guy. Then Ali took my passport and gave it to the dude, who, I kid you not, stuffed my visa application into it and threw it into a giant laundry sized basket with a couple hundred other passports. Just a big old pile of passports with lose papers sticking out of them. Then he says to us, “Come back tomorrow”.  Ali turns to me and says “Tomorrow, nine a.m., no problem.”

Yeah, right.

I figured – that’s it. No way is that thing ever coming out of that fucking building. Tomorrow, I’ll go back, they won’t be able to find my passport and I’ll just got straight to the US embassy and get a new one. But this morning, Ali and I returned and with only another twenty minutes of shouting and movement from one Dude to another, AND presto, they produce my passport from another giant basket of passports and done deal, I get to stay in Egypt.

That shit sucked though.

Postscript — The Mogamma was blockaded during the Tahrir square uprising, but to my knowledge, it is still the center and symbol of of Egyptian redtape. 

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