It started innocently enough. Caity and I asked my parents to send us a care package and a week later my mom let us know that she had just shipped off two boxes. We were waiting in eager anticipation when I got a letter from the Egyptian Post Office informing me that a package had arrived but I needed to go out to the customs office at the airport to get it.
The letter also said that if I did not come fifteen days from when the package arrived, it would be either sent back or destroyed, which meant I had to go before Eid Al-Adha next week. I called the number on the letter around eight a.m. Wednesday morning and had a confused conversation with a man who, when I asked about a package there, told me “ma feesh (there are none)”. Utterly bewildered, I asked the secretary of our language school if she could call and although she called all day, she got not response. It seems that I would just have to go on Thursday, the last day before the long weekend.
I woke up early and caught a cab to the airport so that I could arrive at eight a.m., giving myself an hour in the post office and an hour to get back before my Arabic class at ten a.m. When I arrived at the office however, the guard outside asked me what I was doing. “All government offices open at nine,” he told me as if I should have known. I could not go back home so he directed me up to a large waiting room filled with old, cracked leather chairs with one wall covered in a mural of President Mubarak’s face created by pictures of Egyptian stamps.
I passed my time reading until nine, with some others joining me in the waiting room and employees slowly starting to filter in, chatting over tea and cigarettes. At nine, I asked whom I should be waiting for and was pointed toward an empty office. Along with two or three others, I stood across from the office, eagerly looking at every person who entered, hoping they were the promised employee.
At nine thirty, a man entered the office and we clustered around him, desperately shoving our papers in his direction. After some difficulty opening the room’s safe (which looked a century old) he brought out some disorganized stacks of paper and two worn old binders and started to process our papers. He sipped his tea and partially filled out the front of a sheet, asking for ninety Egyptian Pounds, perhaps for taxes or customs fees.
Form in hand I was told to talk with Waseem. I excitedly left the office thinking that I was close to achieving my goal and might only be 30-40 minutes late for my Arabic class. I was given the odd description that Waseem was the man in the office surrounded by women. Entering, I found that Waseem was a very, very large and frustrated man sitting at a desk with a female assistant standing at each elbow. I handed him my form and he looked it over, trying to read the customs slip filled out in English.
“You know that seeds are prohibited right?” he asked me looking quizzically at the item labeled “Grapefruit Seed Extract”. I tried vainly to explain that it was actually a natural liquid we use for washing vegetables and he cut me off saying, “we will see when we look at it.” Part way through my form he got up in an irritated huff, muttering something about aganib (foreigners) and went back to the first office to voice what sounded to be a frustrated complaint. Another employee, perhaps used to doing damage control for Waseem, quickly told me, “no, no, no, foreigners are great!”
Waseem returned and told me he would come and get me when he finished my form. I sat down, finally acknowledging that I had missed my first Arabic class but holding on to the hope that I would make the second one at twelve. The building was filling up now and two things struck me. First, the office seemed to run on a steady stream of tea, coffee and cigarettes, brought out by two men whose job it was to keep both the employees and the customers fully supplied, as if employees were paid in tea, coffee and cigarettes. Second, I had not seen one computer in the whole office. All of the work was done in hard copies and every desk was covered in massive binders and stacks of paper, with forms spilling out of drawers onto the floor. It appeared I was in for a long wait.
The large room beside the waiting room proved to be the customs office, where packages were hauled out, dumped on the ground, cut open, their contents examined and then resealed, all of it involving lots of forms, cigarettes and frustrated conversations. The entrance to the room was guarded by what looked like a metal detector that produced constant irritating beeps, all of which were ignored by the guard. Adding to the cacophony, every fifteen minutes a bench blocking the room’s entrance would be screechingly drawn aside to let a cart through. This apparently could not be done by lifting the bench, nor could they just put the bench aside. Many of those waiting just watched the chaos. I tried to relax, listening to lectures on Buddhism and getting into a zen state as I waited for Waseem.
After three hours, I was at my wits end. I could not focus to study, ran out of things to read and fell asleep when I tried to listen to lectures. In desperation, I decided to pray. I repeated over and over a short prayer known as the “Remover of difficulties”, detaching myself from all the smoke, noise and frustration of the office. After ten minutes, and feeling much better, I looked up and one of Waseem’s assistants handed me my paperwork!
I nearly collapsed in relief but guessing this was not over, asked where I had to go next. I was directed to an office where I paid yet anther fee of eighty-six pounds, taking the receipt and returning again to Waseem, who had become the center of my universe, as all things rotated around him. He then gave me a red form, which I had to take to another office down the hall.
The employees there were nice and asked me where I was from. When I said the States, they asked if we had a system like this in the US. By this time I had been waiting over four hours, missed both my Arabic classes and paid over 200 pounds as part of this process. I told them simply that it is a bit more organized in the US and the man nodded his understanding and asked me to pay twenty-three pounds.
This, however, was the last bit of paperwork I needed. I went back to Waseem and he told me to wait while he got my package. He returned twenty minutes later carrying one box and handed it to me. Elated, I took the package, leaving the office a full five hours after I had entered it that morning.