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. 

Review: Mafouz’s The Palace Walk

One among many reviews originally posted to livejournal.

Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1
Nagib Mafouz

The Palace Walk is wonderful novel.  In the translation published by the Everyman Library it is funny, biting and tragic with precise descriptions and deeply thought out characters. Though I haven’t read much of the great western popular novelists of the 19th century (meaning, Balzac, Dickens, etc) I get the impression that Mafouz was heavily influenced by them. This book is descriptive of setting and the psychological motives of the characters in a way that is totally out of fashion in today’s fiction. I ate up the long thought passages of the law student son in love with a neighbor he has barely seen, or the minute descriptions of the mother’s daily rituals. The characters slowly open to us through daily experience and then, without warning, a tragedy or celebration occurs. The pacing and writing make for a book that hits that sweet spot between well written and highly readable. Unlike so many serious modern authors, reading Mafouz is not work, but it isn’t candy like some of the other trash I have been reading lately.


People’s reactions to Mafouz while I lived in Cairo were interesting. First, they are surprised I have even heard of him. Then, they talk about the movies. In my experience, odds are they haven’t read him. While there, I heard Mafouz described as a national hero, and as anti-Islam. I have heard that he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, that he is the greatest Arabic novelist of all time and that he is boring. I can’t really speak to whether or not he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, I imagine he does, but I do think he is one of the best novelists I have read.


The Zamalek Boardwalk

Another post originally written for livejournal during my stay in Cairo.

This is the boardwalk a couple of blocks from my house on the island of Zamalek. On one end stands the Iraqi embassy, on the other, the hip nightclub Sequoia. It’s a small little site – only about two blocks long.

On weekend nights, it is filled with Cairo’s young, couples and groups of young men too young or too poor to frequent the nightclubs on the water. They sit together looking out at the Nile and the giant new hotel / office complex being built across the water.

There are those who don’t like that couples come here to cuddle and look out the Nile. They’ve been known to pour oil on the banister to make the site unpleasant. But the kids keep coming. And there are people who are there to cater to them. The other night, on my way Sequoia, I saw a guy with a sterno can heating water for tea that he would sell up and down the boardwalk.

The kind of motivation that leads someone to set up a sterno can to sell tea to teenagers is either a sign of the grinding poverty that many in Cairo face, or a sign of the hustler attitude prevalent in Cairo – or both. Either way, I totally admire the guy who does it.

Islamic Cairo I

Note: another old post from a long-dean LJ account I had while I lived in Cairo

Friday was my first excursion into Islamic Cairo, the part of town built after the “opening of Cairo” as my coworker and guide, K told me. We were more interested in taking our time and enjoying the day then we were in making sure we saw everything (I’ll be here for a month after all) so we only went into half a dozen mosques of the dozens that dot the area. Excuse me if you find this post horribly pedantic, but I am writing as much as a tool to help me remember all this as for any other reason. Anyway, here are some highlights:

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

This is Cairo oldest working mosque. People still come to pray here everyday. Built by Ibn Tulun, who was sent to Cairo by the Abbasid caliph. It was built around 876 AD. It’s really stunning, almost entirely open to the elements with a place to wash before prayers in the center of the praying area.

Here’s K by the washing area.

Like everything in old Cairo, you gotta pay extra to get to the good bit, which is the minaret. Over a thousand years old, and they still let you climb it. Here’s a view.

Old Cairo is a strange place, it reminded me in some ways of the walled portion of Jerusalem. Except with cars, and less machine guns. It’s still in constant use, with people living and working there who have nothing to do with the tourism industry. There’s also an odd tension between restoration and use going on. Some of the less famous mosques, almost as old as Inb Tulun, are falling apart. We went into one that had a giant hole in the wall. There’s just not enough money to keep it all going, especially when it is being used so much. Also, some of which is restored looks a little… fake as well. As K said, sometimes the restorers get a little overzealous. I didn’t get any good pictures of this, but I’ll try on my next trip.

By the time we got to Mosque of Sultan Hassan, it was getting near closing time, and they weren’t real keen on me taking pictures inside, but here’s little ‘ol me in front of really fucking big Mosque of Sultan Hassan
 Hassan was a Mamluk, the slaves who turned into the rulers of Egypt in the mid 14th century. The complex inside is huge, with a giant minaret, a hospital, and a crypt room where Hassan was to be buried. Unfortunately, he got assassinated, and his body was never discovered, so the guy isn’t actually buried in there.

Next to the Hassan Mosque is the Mosque of A Rifai, where King Faoruk, and members of his family are buried. It’s a much more recent than the Hassan Mosque, dating from the early twentieth century* Five pounds and the soldier guarding the tomb gave me my very own call to prayer. Not that I asked for it, but whatever.

After this we went to Al Ashar park for dinner, which is literally built on an old garbage dump. It’s nice, I guess. If you like L.A. When I think about Dubai, this is what I think it looks like.

*That’s historic Cairo, I guess, a hundred years old is no big deal.

The Cabbie Photo

This is among a large number of posts I’ve moved from a now defunct livejournal account. It was written in the summer of 2007 when I lived in Egypt.

I have been thinking about this photo in a hundred different ways. What does it say for someone like me to take a picture of the guy driving my cab, with a camera that cost more than he probably made in a month… maybe even many months, maybe even a year.

He knew I was taking the picture, but the relationship between us was clearly not fair. I had paid him for the ride, and I had asked him for permission, but still, I was the customer, and he was server.

When I was in the cab, I knew I was going to write about the ride, about our conversation, about his cough, and it felt strange not to show him. I guess I thought if I included a photo, then he would be more real, and not as much of a bit player in my Cairo adventure. But of course, he is still a bit player. Now he just has a face.

And thinking about this post got me thinking about vacation snapshots – mine and everyone else’s. They’re always all trees and monuments. If people are in them, it is the person’s friends and families. The people who live where we travel tend not to make the photos. I think this is because of a lot of reasons. We are more interested in ourselves and our own experience is the obvious one, but there’s many more…

We don’t want to put anyone out, or make anyone perform for us.

Holding the camera is powerful. You’re putting your privilege right in someone’s face.

But holding the camera also makes you vulnerable. You’re putting your status as a outsider right there in someone’s face as well, and not only are you an outside (which in my case is obvious from the suit, and the American accent) but you are also identifying yourself as someone with expensive equipment that can easily be taken.

Even writing like this, and thinking like this is a privilege few people have. Odds are good my cabbie was illiterate. Most poor citizens of Cairo are. Am I just adding fucked-up-ness on top of fucked-up-ness by spending all this time navel gazing about it? I don’t know.

I wonder whether or not I should have taken this photo. One moment I think I should take more, of all the cabbies that drive me. Then I think that’s just another silly idea for rich kids with digital cameras. I don’t know, really, what to do.