Sunday, December 02, 2007

Meandering the halls of the Mugamma

I need to upgrade my 30 day tourist visa to a temporary resident visa, so I make a visit to the Mugamma.

Many foreigners fear and dread this place, as the Cairo Practical Guide warns: “This daunting pre-evolutionary monstrosity on the south side of Midan Al-Tahrir strikes terror in the heart of any Kafka fan.” The place has a reputation as the mother of all bureaucracies.

Mugamma contains a long history. For example, the head of the Nile Transport Office, while under investigation on embezzlement charges, jumped out of an 11th- floor balcony to his death. On a lighter note--in 1983, after the manager died, his assistant took over the space, housing his entire family; he was not discovered until two months later, when he explained that his wife had been nagging him about their small and cramped room. In 1994, a similar case was uncovered: this time it was a civil servant, and he had been living in the office since the mid-1970s. (To read more, click here)

I arrive at 8:30am. Already, the place is filled with people. Vendors line the outside selling snacks and drinks. Some people loiter at the bottom of the stairs. They must be the guides who offer newbies advice and paid services in navigating the Mugamma.

Before I arrive, I receive two sets of conflicting directions:
First, SameH from Fajr advised me to take a left after the metal detector, then another left. However, the Cairo Practical Guide advises readers to go to the first floor, then take a right. Well it’s a circular building, so a left or a right will take you to the same set of windows, I later discovered.

Mugamma is like the DMV, but the workers are mostly women in hijabs, who speak Arabic. If you’re lucky, a few do speak some good English. There are no lines. Only crowds and whoever can elbow their way to the window without causing a fight. At moments like this, a return to the Virginia DMV seems pretty good: you walk in, take a number, sit down, and wait to be called.

I first go to window 12 for a form. It’s about twice as big as any government form that I’ve ever seen and in both English and Arabic, it asks for basic info: address, purpose of visa, etc. I leave Religion blank.

The lady, in her 40s, and in good English, directs me to window 42 to buy some stamps costing 61 LE and to make a copy of my passport and the visa page and come back.
At window 42, the lady also speaks some English and sells me some stamps, then directs me downstairs to get a copy of my passport.

Downstairs: a middle-aged gentleman in the hallway asks if I need copies of my passport page. He takes my passport and walks to a small broom closet with some copiers. After only a few seconds, he returns my passport and one copy. I give him 50 piastres (a dime) and tell him, “SareeH” or fast. He smiles. He then asks if I have a photo. I give him my color photo and he staples it neatly onto the page. I give him 50 piastres as baksheesh (tip). His name is Tareeq and he has worked in this broom closet for 30 years. Wow! Imagine that. I’ve switched jobs annually in my former life in the US. Often, I’ve gotten bored of a job just a month or two into it. I cannot possibly imagine working the same job – especially one in such a small space and dealing with the public – for such a long time. He must be a very patient man.

I return upstairs to window 12 and a different lady reviews my application. A younger lady to her right seems to be new and is learning on the job. The first lady is gently teaching her where to write on the visa applications. They tell me I now have to get my application signed. “Fain?” or Where?

“Right next to us” she points somewhere toward over there.
I leave the window and walk slowly, but don’t see anything relevant:
Non-Arab residency. Not me.
Refugee applicants. Not me. Alhamdullilah.
Arab residency.
Long term residency (3-5 years).
Long term work residency (3-5 years).

Hmmm….I walk back and forth. Then, a man who notices that I have the lost look directs me to a desk by the end of the hallway with two men in business suits, but no sign above them. I walk over and hand my papers to them. The man signs and returns it to me without even looking at me.
“shookrun” I say, or Thank you! No response.
“Shookrun” I repeat. Again, no response. He is busy talking to his friend.

When I return to window 12, the lady tells me that I really do not need the 50 LE stamp and gently removes it. She returns it to me and tells me to get a refund, which surprises me. She could easily have pocketed the money. Many Egyptians do. In my weekly visits to the supermarket, the clerks -- as a rule -- always shortchange customers for anything under half a pound (a dime). Most people are too busy and in a hurry to care. While I initially thought they simply did not have the “faka” or change, I’ve now realized that they do, but want to skim off the top. For example, yesterday I had lunch at Hardee’s, which is Carl’s Jr. in Cairo. For a lunch of 16.50I handed the girl a 20 pounder. She should have given me 3.5, but instead gave me 3.25, all in 0.25 increments of very old bills. She probably figured that it would take me a while to count them and by the time I realized the inaccurate amount, it would be too late or I wouldn’t care. She was right. If she does this 10 times daily, she’ll make 2.5 LE, enough to buy two falafels. That’s breakfast.

In my first visit to Egypt in April, I went to the post office to mail some postcards. I bought stamps for 12 LE. I gave the clerk 20 LE. Instead of handing me 8 LE, I got 3.5 in return. In other words, she kept 4.5 LE (about 90 cents) as her user fee. At the time, I didn’t complain, thinking, ”well—she needs it more than me and I’m a tourist here for only two weeks, so…” Now that I’m a resident, I try to be more vigilant with these matters. I’m sure sociologists would have a field day trying to explain this practice. I’ve heard it said that Egypt is such a poor country that people try to make ends meet in whatever way they can. If that means skimming from the top by shortchanging customers, then so be it.

I should return in two hours to Window 38 to pick up my visa. I receive no receipt for my application. Hmmm…

After I return to Merkaz Fajr to take my final exam, Moustafa hands me a copy of the Quran in English. I had asked SameH earlier in the week for one. The men promised me one before I finished my course. I tell them that I will read it and cherish the gift, always.

Return to Mugamma
At Window 38:
The lady simply recognizes me from my passport photo and hands it to me without confirming my identity. Five minutes after I enter the Mugamma, I am finished. I leave with an extended stay until April 2008. Alhamdullilah!

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