A lesson in tenacity
Getting into Syria is fairly easy. After a couple of trips to the Syrian Embassy in London’s Belgrave Square, three days’ wait and a fifty pound note, a page in my passport had stuck to it a 6-month, multi-entry visa. Crossing the border from Turkey was a breeze.
Staying here though, requires a little more tenacity.
After a month of being in the country (even with a “six-month” visa), one is required to report to the Office of Immigration. I reported to the office on Sharia Filasteen, where after locating the right floor, I was faced with a mass of people, all fighting towards the same window. The sign above it read, Visa Extensions. Bingo.
Everything that this whole office performs seems to be performed from this one window. Whether the staff pick straws each morning to see who will man it, I don’t know, but the guy working there that day constantly had a cigarette hanging from his lips; he must have got through a couple of packets a day. His colleagues seemed to be leisurely stamping other passports, in between sips of shai.
One must first obtain the visa-extension form, which costs 100 S£. Of course, this is obtained from the same window as the aforementioned scrum. After waving a 100 S£ note above the heads of the people all pushing to recuperate their passports, I obtained my form. Next question, what to do with it?
Ushered out back onto the street below, I was told I needed some stamps. Presumably not to post it somewhere. Several shops next to the office had the appearance of suitable candidates, all touting photocopiers in the entrance. I waved my form from shop-to-shop, until I fell on the right one. He told me I needed to fill-out another form, which he produced from a stack, as well as three photos & duplicates and triplicates of everything. Bureaucracy at its best, and hence the abundance of photocopiers.
After having carefully written-out my address in my newly acquired Arabic-script, I exchanged another bank-note for my plethora of paperwork, and ascended the stairs to the smoke filled office once more.
Once you have successfully made your way to the window, the battle is not over. Firstly, you must convince the official to take your passport, and not that of the three people with whom you share the front of the “queue”. Secondly, elbows must be employed to ward-off the arms of people who don’t even know what the front of the queue looks like. Passports & paperwork pock-marked with staples that have been added, removed, re-added and re-arranged constantly pass through your peripheral vision.
The third hurdle was the question that followed: “Where is your habitation contract?” — what habitation contract? I thought…
My documents were put aside, another’s were taken, and I was reduced to being just another obstacle for the Iraqis, Indonesians and other temporary residents who sought their carte de séjour.
I managed to collar a different worker who told me that without a proof of address, there was nothing they could do.
I left, feeling very dejected. I doubt the family with whom I was staying could provide such a document. Declaring me as a lodger would mean my rent would suddenly become taxable.
A kilometre into my walk home I stumbled across another building bearing the sign “Passport & Immigration Office”. I thought I’d try my luck. I walked into an office which entertained a ratio of staff-to-clients of about 15:1 — things were looking up.
My details were entered into a computer by a young man in uniform, he passed me to his colleague who scribbles something on my back of the form, before referring me to “The General, room 4”. Visions of the office on the Turkish-Syrian border after my Kassab escapade filled my mind. I’d heard of people being interviewed regarding their stay in Syria, and whether they’d been to Disneyland — the term used locally to avoid saying “Israel” in public: a visit there means no entry to the Syrian Arab Republic.
I crossed the corridor to his office where behind a desk sat a highly decorated, portly man, sipping shay and talking with other officers, all under the watchful eye of the President’s portrait. He signed my form and sent me back to the first office, barely without looking at me. No questions, no interview, and more importantly, no demand of a proof of address.
Back in the first office, my details were recorded in a large, leather-bound, Dickensian ledger, my passport was stamped and I was sent back to the General. He signed the page of my passport, hammering another stamp over his signature, and said “Masalama”, Good-bye.
And with that, I had leave to stay for another month.
The moral of the story: if you plan on being in Syria for longer than a month, avoid the office on sharia Filasteen like the plague, and head straight for the office in Al-Merjeh, on sharia al-Furat near Martyrs’ Square.