In the middle of downtown Cairo is a huge and imposing gray building known as the Mugamma. If you search for it on Google most of the sites that pop up are other people’s blog entries about trying to get visas renewed or do any other bureaucratic task that involves a government office here in Egypt. The link leads to a Washington Post article from 1995 about how the Mugamma was supposed to be abandoned for new offices in 1996. Clearly that plan went awry because the Mugamma is still going strong.
The Mugamma, which means roughly “all together” or “gathered,” holds all the government offices where both citizens and foreigners go to get paperwork signed and stamped. It has been called Kafkaesque and described as having Soviet-style architecture, both of which are true. It looks like it should have “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” painted above the door.
I went to the Mugamma on Tuesday to get my visa extended. My roommates had both been there to do this a few weeks earlier, Eva having a horror story about a lost passport that took four hours to find and Lucy having breezed in and out with no problems. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was trepidatious so I set my alarm early.
This was completely ineffective because I then turned it off and didn’t wake up again for another hour. I decided to adopt an attitude of zenlike calm and instead of rushing off with no breakfast at 8:45, which I knew could only result in me passing out in the middle of the Mugamma and getting fined for sleeping on the floor or something, I made myself some oatmeal. I then calmly made sure all my papers were together and, forcing myself to walk slowly, went downstairs and got a taxi.
As the taxi approachedTahrir Square and the Mugamma loomed into view, I could feel my heart sinking. The Mugamma has this effect on a lot of people, I gather.
I went through a metal detector and my bag got x-rayed, whereupon I was told cameras aren’t allowed in the building and I had to check it at a little desk. This made me very nervous, but I didn’t really have a choice.
Inside the dark and cavernous lobby, I was glad that I already knew I had to go upstairs because there weren’t any signs. Up I went, through another metal detector and bag x-ray, then got pointed down the appropriate hallway by a guard.
The hallway is lined by offices on the left and windows on the right open out onto a large air shaft. The air shaft is full of garbage at the bottom, settled on some sort of platform. A man in a gallabeyia stood on the platform making a futile effort to control the rubbish while bits of garbage and papers drifted gently around him in the air, for all the world giving the impression that office workers were throwing bits of disused paper out their windows instead of using trash cans.
As I wandered down the narrow hallway and made a left into the area where passport and visa workers sat behind marble counters it was crowded but not packed. Having recieved expert guidance from my roommates I shot down to the far end of the hall to the window for visiting tourists and got my form. I took it to the marble counter on the side of the hall to fill in. The whole Mugamma is made of marble – white for the offices and work halls, dark pink for the stairways and narrow hallways.
I got sent to another window way up the other side of the hall to collect the official stamps for my application. I interuppted two office workers at their breakfast of fuul sandwiches and pickles to get the stamps, which look like postage stamps.
As I returned to the first window I was sweating. You could feel how nervous and frustrated people were, filling out forms, running from window to window, sitting in terminal hold on the benches on one side of the hall, waiting for their passports back. The stamps started to stick to my thumb.
When I got back to the window where my passport was currently being held, two women in full black abayas covering everything but their eyes were in front of me. We smiled at each other politely (and before you ask: I could see their eyes smiling.) They turned out to be British. When they got to the front of the line the woman behind the counter looked at them like they had just plopped some dead weasels on the clean white marble instead of their passports, then told them they needed to go to Nasr City to get their papers. The women protested that they’d been sent downtown by Nasr City. The woman behind the counter was unyielding and turned them away.
My heart went out to them as I overheard them wondering to each other if they should try to find someone to complain and fix the situation, and where they might look for such a person. But I was bursting to get rid of the stamps before they stuck permanently to my fingers so I said nothing.
The woman behind the counter affixed the stamps to my visa application, looked up and said, “after two hours come back for your passport, window thirty-eight.”
I had a hard time believing that’s all there was to it, but I made my way out of the convoluted building and wondered what to do next.
I ended up at the Pottery Cafe downtown sipping some tea and reading a book purchased at the AUC bookstore – a Terry Pratchett novel, nothing studious. Thank goodness.
At the end of two hours I made my way back through the underground passage that connects the various corners of Tahrir Square as well as leading to the metro. The subterranean walkways remind me of the underground complex between Grand Central, Times Square and Port Authority, but without any buskers.
I had to leave my camera again and this time got a not-so-subtle suggestion that I should give the camera check people a tip. Later when it was time for me to pick it up again one of the guys asked me several times for a tip in American dollars. I don’t carry those around of course, so they had to make do with a couple Egyptian pounds, a polite smile, and my restraint in not asking why on earth there were three of them when I could only see one camera back there.
I made it past Camera Central and proceeded upstairs. In my absence the frenetic energy had upped a notch or two, incorporating more people all rushing around faster.
When I got to window thirty-eight, there were two people, probably a married couple, having problems with their form. They were actually standing sort of in between window 38 and window 39, and the women behind the counter were conferring with each other and not waiting on anybody.
There was one guy ahead of me behind the married couple also trying to pick up a passport. The lady behind the desk finally stopped conferring with her colleague and picked up a stack of passports in front of her. She went through each one checking the pictures. Finally they came to his and off he went. The couple had been shunted off to the next window and were gesticulating at the people behind the counter. A small Asian man was now trying to edge in around me when I came to the front, leaning to the left, then shuffling over to the right, then finally giving up and going to a different window altogether.
I stood in front of the window 38 counter and asked if my passport was ready yet. The woman didn’t look up at me once throughout our entire transaction, just picked up the pile of passports and shuffled through them all again. At a certain point she stopped and started looking in a different pile. I asked if I should come back later and she ignored me. Then she pulled mine out of the stack, showing me the new stamp and dropping it on the desk. Without a further word she went back to rummaging in the passports.
“Khalas?” (Finished?) I asked, not sure if I needed to do anything more to get myself validated. She half-nodded and carried on shuffling.
I looked at the new stamp. They’d given me a six-month extension when I’d only asked to stay until December, which was pretty cool. But the new stamp is relatively drab compared to the visa I arrived on. It looks like the fake-ID version of a visa stamp because there are so few security details: not very much in the wavy line department, no shiny seals, no two-tone drawings of the rising sun. It looks a little like a child’s drawing of a visa stamp. Raggedy bits of paper hang off the edge. But apparently it’s my ticket to stay, so I hustled myself back out of the Mugamma feeling triumphant.