Monday, 22 March 2010


I'm so excited! I am leaving in two days for Turkey with one of my Turkish roommates. There are several reasons for this trip:

1. My roommate asked me if I wanted to go with her to Istanbul for a few weeks.

2. Of course I want to!

3. My visa expired a few weeks ago, so I have to leave the country and come back in anyhow.

4. The tickets are less than two hundred dollars round trip.

Adding together my roommate's small amount of Arabic and my better Arabic but nearly nonexistent Turkish, this should be interesting. We gesture a lot when we talk and carry around dictionaries, but we do manage to say quite a bit.

She told me yesterday that we would get to Syria by bus in the middle of the night, and asked if I was willing to wander around Syria in the dark with her (or something like that, in a combination of Arabic, Turkish, facial expressions, and gestures). Would I be too tired, or in too much pain? I told her, no, it's fine, I'll just load up on coffee and chocolate and more sugar and painkillers, and I'll be okay. It'll be fun!

On the visa front...the official at my college in charge of visas has been telling me tomorrow, tomorrow, insha'Allah for a good month now, and I don't think my visa application has ever left his desk; he wasn't even aware it was in there, until he asked me for something I'd given him weeks ago. He told me yesterday that if I pay a special tax the police will extend my visitor's visa my another three months, but I'm not supposed to be studying on that. I suspect he will just pocket my sixteen dinar 'tax' (about twenty five bucks) and continue to do nothing, but it's worth a try. At least then I would have a visa to show the Syrian police, who are well known for refusing people entry, or dropping them off at the nearest border, whether it's the most convenient or not.

Sometimes I wonder if I worry too much, or not enough.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Visa trouble

Once again, I’m in this country illegally; my visa expired four days ago. This has happened twice before, despite my attempts to avoid it. Bureaucracy in the Middle East is rightfully famous for being labyrinthine and slow.

During one visa-less period, my roommate’s mother was told by her neighbour that the police would come to our building and arrest me, and bring shame upon the whole family. My roommate’s mother was extremely unhappy with me, and I worked for her and lived in the apartment two floors below her, so I was also very paranoid and worried that I would ruin the reputation of the family that had been so kind to me; reputation is everything here, and people talk.

When the time came to go to the police station and find out if the intelligence service had decided to renew my visa, I packed a carryon and got in a cab, fully expecting to be jailed and deported. I checked in at the women’s guard post, went in through the women’s entrance, and waited a long time in line at various windows, so worried and nervous and hot that I thought I would vomit right there in the middle of the police station. I was one of the few women there, and all the others were waiting in chairs while their husbands crowded in front of the windows trying to shove their wives’ passports at the officials. I eventually realized I would just have to be aggressive and push my way through the crowd of men, or I would be there all day. Much to my surprise, the police made no mention of my being in the country illegally for a week and a half, and didn’t ask to see any of my supposedly required documents. They stamped my passport with the new visa, and taxed me two dinar. I asked one of the female police officers, “Is that all? Can I go?” and she confirmed that yes, they were finished. I was so surprised, I walked out through the men’s entrance in a fog, startling a lot of men. Never having known any foreigners, our neighbour had no idea how the visa process worked.

This is the third or fourth time in six months I have had to get a new visa, and I decided that this time I would make sure everything was ready well in advance to avoid being here illegally again. A month before my visa was due to expire, I plunged into a maze of bureaucracy, trundling back and forth to different offices to get the documents I needed. The official at my college was constantly telling me I would have my visa soon – tomorrow, even, but he never did anything with my application. Every time I went to see him, he told me something different and required another document; everyone I talked to told me to go see someone else. A month passed, and I felt like I had been dropped into a Kafka story.

On the day my visa expired, the school finally issued the certificate I needed for a student visa, confirming that I was enrolled with them. I tracked down the person who had it, and gave the certificate to Ustath Abdullah, the school official, who said I would have a visa the next day. Four days later, still no visa.

I was told to go get new passport photos taken, because my Canadian ones weren’t quite right (why did it take a month for him to decide that?). I squeezed onto a public bus and rushed to the souq one hot afternoon after class, and found a studio that would have the photos ready in an hour. I had to walk by a police building near the souq, and the guard fiddling with his gun and staring at me from two feet away as I passed was unsettling.

I submitted my stack of papers and photos just before the school closed for the day. Ustath Abdullah finally confirmed that I had all the paperwork in order, and asked me why I was in such a hurry to renew my (very expired) visa. I told him I was afraid of the police and leaving for Turkey very soon, and both he and the head of the school burst out laughing. The Ustath told me, “there is nothing to be afraid of, you can go anywhere you like and the police will not do anything. We have many students here who do not have visas.” It seems they also have many students walking around without passports either, judging by the bundle in his desk. He wanted to keep my passport again, but I wouldn’t give it to him.

Hopefully, I will have a new visa in a week, but in the meantime I am still nervous. It is illegal to be here without a visa, but it is hard to know which laws will be enforced. Jordanians can go to jail if they are caught without their government ID cards, but as a Canadian I have a certain amount of privilege.

I am going to Turkey in a week and a half, insha’Allah, and the person I am going with (Rukiye) is concerned we will have problems crossing the Syrian and Turkish borders if I’m an illegal alien. Syria is notorious for not letting people in, and I have a ticket for a bus going through it. Insha’Allah, Ustath Abdullah will do his job for once (if I pressure him enough); everyone I have talked to constantly has problems with their visas, because of him.

I’m looking forward to spending a week and a half in Istanbul, insha’Allah. It will be nice to get out of the dorm, and not to be so darned hot all the time. Rukiye speaks Turkish, a little Arabic and no English, and I speak some Arabic and a little Turkish, but somehow we understand each other. This should be interesting.