Friday, May 21, 2010

Flashback Friday: Sweeping bureaucracy down the stairs

A page from Miriam's passport. Now you know how it's possible that her passport is almost full.
Syria is a country that thrives on bureaucracy. Anyone trying to actually go there is first introduced to this fact upon applying for a entrance visa. Back in 2004, when I had to do just that, the visa application form was a mess. There was hardly any space to answer the questions (what is your mother's name? father's name? have you ever visited Occupied Palestine?) and the instructions for submission and payment were almost impossible to track down. If you did finally manage to suss them out, they still didn't really make sense. Basically, if you couldn't handle the visa application form, there was NO WAY you would be able to handle the country itself.

I tell you all this as background information, because once you were successfully inside the country, the bureaucracy didn't stop there. If anything, it only intensified. There are probably half a dozen Flashback Friday stories I could tell based solely on the experiences we had acquiring forms and obtaining permission to go places and do things in Syria. But there was one experience that typified them all.

We were trying to get going on a trip to Jordan, but in order to leave the country, we first had to get permission from the Hejira w Jawazaat office - Immigration & Passports. This process was basically a wild goose chase inside the building, even extending a little onto the sidewalk in front of the building. You had to wait in line there, get a form here, have the form stamped by a dude on a different floor (after waiting in a different line), fill out another form, pay for some fancy postage-y stamps at a sketchy-looking stall on the sidewalk outside the building, and then trek all the way up to the fourth floor to have the head honcho approve the whole thing, at his leisure, of course.

And there was plenty of leisure to be had, believe you me. While waiting in line, it was easy to peek through to the back room and see that it was full of bunks, and usually equally full of dozing men in uniform, perhaps on break (or perhaps not, as was more likely the case). When your paperwork required one of the sleeping men, he'd get up with a big yawn and a sigh and grumble and stomp over so you knew just how much you'd disturbed him. Sometimes, even after all that show, he still wouldn't help you.

On that particular day, as we headed up to the fourth floor for the final step of the process, the entire office was in extraordinary commotion. Desks and chairs were being scooted around the floor and people were vacating entire areas of the building. Bizarrely, as we headed higher up the stairs, a stream of water started trickling down around our feet. It quickly gained in depth and intensity until we were in real danger of getting quite wet.

Fortunately we made it to the top floor and saw what was going on: it was cleaning day. Some poor lower-level officer had turned on a water tap straight onto the floor and was wielding an oversized squeegie mop. He swept and mopped the floor all at once by using the squeegie to direct the flow of water - and anything it happened to pick up - straight down the stairs.

In that torrent of increasingly filthy water were all manner of odds and ends. Paper clips, scraps of paper, cigarette butts, pens and pencils, even a decent-sized piece of wall moulding. All of it was sent down to the floor below whether or not it belonged there, whether or not it should have been taken care of well before making that trip. The guy cleaning the fourth floor knew that once he pushed it down to the third floor, it was no longer his problem. The third floor guy knew all he had to do was push it down to the second floor. And so on. Never mind that eventually, somebody would have to deal with all that crap, and it would be a much bigger problem once it was collecting in the stairways and clogging up all the water and junk behind it.

I'm sure you can figure out the analogy that immediately came to mind. Jeremy and I were like so much nasty floor water detritus to these people, pushed from one official to another until we were so out of context and so kicked around that someone just had to give in and deal with us, once and for all.

It made us laugh, really. They didn't want to deal with us any more than we wanted to deal with them. And they really were quite helpful and jovial through the whole process of trying not to do their jobs. One of them even kissed Jeremy on the cheek once (that's a more normal thing for Arab men to do - to each other, anyway - than it sounds) (but STILL) (and now Jeremy knows how beard stubble feels second-hand).

I guess that's the definition of bureaucracy. No one involved really wants to do it, but it has to be done, because somebody, somewhere, said so. Don't you think?


Suzanne Bubnash said...

A great post. Sometime, write about going to that secret building for a permit to visit a certain area of the country, where we weren't even allowed inside, but had to wait on the street w/ the shady looking dudes carrying automatic weapons. That was on the same day as the president's inauguration and I recall a heavy presence of automatic weapons on just about every street corner that day.

Liz Johnson said...

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. This sounds like it even beats out the welfare office. As a former government worker, I LOVE THIS POST!

Merkley Jiating said...

I didn't even know "bizarrely" was a word. Hmph, learn something new every day.

"And now Jeremy knows how beard stubble feels second-hand." Justice.


Related Posts with Thumbnails