Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Egypt's own Circumlocution Office

I've been reading Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit for the past couple of weeks. If you've ever read it - or seen the fantastic BBC miniseries adaptation - you may remember a little thing called the Circumlocution Office. Dickens created it as a stand-in for all sorts of ridiculous government bureaucracy. Mr. Clennam walks in there and starts talking about how he wants to obtain information and accomplish a task and all the employees get upset because "you can't just say, 'I want to know,' you know!" There are forms to fill out and different people to give them to and a certain amount of time has to pass before anything can get done.

Well, Egypt has a real-life Circumlocution Office. It's called the Mujamma, and it's a massive, 16-story building stuffed to the gills with bureaucracy. If you need to get something done that is even remotely related to the government, you have to go there. You can't do it online. You can't send someone in your place. You have to go there yourself.

Our turn to experience the Mujamma came just the other day when we had to get our visas renewed. We showed up here:

and a guard told us to head for the first floor (second floor, American style). (Forgive the blurry photos from here on out because they were taken with our video camera, and taken clandestinely.) We walked down a long hallway

and I got really concerned that we might be in for a wait when I saw the impromptu snack stand set up outside the immigration office. Never a good sign.

The circumlocution immigration office was packed with two things: service windows, and people. We pushed our way through the people and went to window number 50-something. They sent us to window number 4 or 5, I can't remember. They sent us to window number 7. And we commenced waiting.

We got some forms, and the girls got some snacks, and this guy yelled at a fellow visa supplicant and dear goodness how do they keep track of anything in that mess??

We went downstairs to get our pictures taken and some copies made, in a tiny re-purposed hallway that did not move the substantial pedestrian traffic very well.

The photographer told me to button up my shirt a little more (I don't think they quite get undershirts here).

Then we let the girls run around while we waited for the pictures.

Along with all these people.

Then we headed back upstairs.

Down the hall again, into the room full of windows again.

We handed in our forms and pictures and copies and THEN they told us that since we were tardy in renewing our visas anyway, we could just do it at the airport when we left the country. This information would have been helpful about one hour and a few trips up and down the stairs ago. So dangit, we renewed our visas anyway to make it worthwhile.

Not so fast! First we had to go to window number 1.

But not that window number 1, a different window number 1.

We paid a fine and then we were on our way.

Except without our passports. We still have to go back to pick those up. Shudder.

I've heard that people have committed suicide at the Mujamma by jumping out the windows or down the stairwells. Maybe that's why they put the immigration office right there on the first floor, so it's not such an accessible option amid all the paperwork frustration (kind of like the fences on the bridges at Cornell). I think we got off pretty easy, all things considered. We made it out of the Circumlocution Office having actually accomplished something. I think we can call that a success.


Amanda said...

Useless government bureaucracy always reminds me of this.

Susanne said...

I hope you can find your passports when you go back! How awful. Your picture is cute though. LOL that you had to button a few buttons especially since I know you are so modest anyway. I'm sure you didn't have major cleavage showing! :-)

Bridget said...

That was a hilarious video, and yes, I seriously did not have a low neckline at all. I just had a shirt on under my shirt so I guess he thought that shouldn't be showing.

Susanne said...

Bridget, that reminds me. You know I talk to my Syrian friend via Skype while he's in Germany, right? Since it finally started getting warmer and Germans don't much believe in A/C, he has been suffering some days with the heat. So I recently told him I was perfectly fine with his wearing a t-shirt in front of me. Normally it's a white t-shirt PLUS another shirt. But he said that would feel weird to him. I guess they think of t-shirts as too revealing. I find all the cultural differences interesting that's why I really love your posts as you share such neat tidbits. Thanks for that!

Liz Johnson said...

I love bureaucracy... mostly from the "it's so absurd it's hilarious" standpoint. And having worked at the welfare office... oh yes. I'm surprised we weren't all forced to silly walk around the office on top of everything else.

Yeah... what are the chances you get your passports back?! Is that a given, or is there a gamble involved there?

Bridget said...

We'll get them back for sure, unless they lost them in that huge pile of documents in the one picture. Yeesh.

Spencer said...

Great post. The only thing missing is a link to "al-Irhaab wa-l-kabaab." (I couldn't find the clip from the beginning of the movie in which they are shuffling around the Mugamma'.)

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Dickens was brilliant in his commentary on bureaucracy. Besides the Circumlocution Office [the name itself is perfect], one of my favorites is his thread following the lawsuit Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House. At the end the case was dismissed because the lawyers had used up all the money in the estate arguing the case over about 75 years, as I recall.


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