Wednesday, November 26, 2008

One Visa for Iraq

Outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, several dozen Iraqi refugees are milling around. Some stand patiently on the sidewalk across the street, some look anxiously at the posted notices on a sign by the door. Others crowd around the door attempting to gain entrance past the Syrian policeman acting as a security guard. Most of the people waiting are attempting to upgrade their passports to the new “G” passport, the only passport now considered “valid” by many Western countries. As i move through the crowd to the door, the security man asks a question i don’t understand, but also gestures with his up turned hands- a gesture i know and recognize- roughly translated as “What? What do you want?’ or “What? What do you think you’re doing?” I tell him i would like to speak with someone regarding a visa to enter Iraq. Clearly he doesn’t know what i am asking anymore than i understand him- but after repeating myself several times he manages to understand one word- “visa”, and signals to someone inside, who joins him in the doorway. I repeat my request and i am gestured inside. The hall is crowded with many Iraqis sitting and talking among themselves, most holding papers, documents and passports in their hands. There are 2 long lines at the windows. The man who waved me inside points to a door behind the windows and says, “Go in”. I enter the little room where 2 men are responding to the people lined up at the windows.

One turns from the person he is speaking with and asks me, “What do you want?” I tell him i would like to get a visa to enter Iraq. His eyebrows arch in surprise.
“A visa to enter Iraq?” he repeats.
“Yes”, i say, “i would like to visit Baghdad.”
“But it is not possible”
“Why not?” i ask.
“Do you have an invitation?” Now it is my turn to be surprised.
“An invitation? From who? Do i need an invitation to receive a visa?”
“Yes, you need an invitation.”
“I’m not going to a party, i want to go to Baghdad”, i reply.
“It is very dangerous” he answers.
“But i just saw an Iraqi general on TV last night speaking about how safe it is to return. I would like to see for myself.”
“You can not get a visa. What you need to do is go to the American embassy and ask them to provide us with a letter saying it is OK for you to go to Iraq.”
“i need a letter from the Americans to enter your country?
“Yes”. He turns back to the window, where a very patient Iraqi man waits.

I walk outside into the brilliant noon day sun. A near perfect day. I walk about 30 yards down the street to where i can see the US embassy. I stop and stand in front of a grade school where kindergartners run around the concrete yard screaming at each other, having a grand old time. Across the street, the embassy looks like a fortress, an outpost in some Mad max future world. Walls 16 feet high, topped with pikes and razor wire. Concrete pillars line the sidewalk to deter cars and trucks. Fortified steel gates block the driveway. The building itself is a tan stucco building with razor wire curled around every balcony. The roof of the building also has razor wire all around it. Above it flies the American flag. “So this is what democracy looks like”, i say out loud to no one in particular.

A man with an instrument that looks like a metal detector is passing it under all the parked cars on my side of the street. I realize he is not looking for lost jewelry, but is scanning the undersides of the vehicles for bombs. For a moment i allow myself the image of a car bomb detonating outside the grade school, but my thoughts are interrupted by two men, one in plainclothes and the other with a flak jacket and Kalashnikov. The plainclothes man asks, “Hello, may I help you?”
I reply, “No, thanks.”
“Are you looking for something?”
“No, no, i am just looking at the embassy.” (Wrong answer.)
“Are you American?”
“Yes.” (Wrong answer again, but the truth.)
“Do you need something?”
“I need to go to the embassy, but i am not certain i’ll go today.”
“Ok, but you can’t stand here.”
I look up and down the street where several groups of men are standing. For all i know, they are all cops. I don’t argue, but ask, “Where can i stand?”
“Not here.”
“I don’t suppose i could get a picture of my embassy? You know, to share with the folks back home?” I look him in the eye, “America spreading freedom through the Middle East and all, you know?”
He shows no emotion, he simply says “No pictures are allowed.”
I decide to skip the trip inside the embassy, and turn to walk down the street. I hear the plainclothes cop laughing with his friend- i get the feeling they are not laughing with me.

One week later i find myself walking past the school as i cross the street and approach the American embassy. As I step on the sidewalk a guard stops me. He asks me what i want. I tell him i need to get a visa to enter Iraq. He points me at a speaker system by the door. A man looks out of a glass panel as i press the button and a buzzer sounds.
“I would like a visa to enter Iraq.” He responds but i can’t hear a thing, as the traffic on the street is heavy, and loud.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” He repeats himself as a large truck barrels past.
“Sorry, I can’t hear you, the traffic.”
“You need to go to the Iraqi embassy for a visa to enter Iraq”, he shouts.
“They told me to come here.” I hear a radio call come in to the man next to me- they guy at the window tells him something. He apparently can't hear him either. I watch as the man behind the window shouts into his radio angrily. The man beside me calmly directs me around to the back of the building. I walk up and around the block to a narrow tree lined street. There is a line of about 6 people in front of a closed door. The girl at the front of the line is crying softly and arguing with the security man. I walk up to the security man and ask to go in. I am directed to the back of the line.

After a half hour wait, i am at the front of the line where the young woman is still crying, her voice getting louder as the security man ignores her. I am signaled to open my backpack and the security man checks it quickly. He has me empty my pockets and hold may hands out to the sides, then he scans me with a wand. I gather my belongings and i’m ushered inside. I place my backpack, belt, cell phone, change etc… into the x-ray machine and walk through the metal detector. After collecting my things, i step up to the first empty window and tell the man i need a piece of paper from the embassy to give me permission to enter Iraq. He tells me he doesn’t have a piece of paper to give me permission, that no such paper exists. I merely need to apply at the Iraqi embassy for a visa and they either accept it or reject it. I tell him what i was told by the Iraqi embassy. He excuses himself, then returns shortly and repeats himself. No such paper exists. I ask if he would please check again as i really don’t want to have to return again. He confirms it- and gives me a policy printout that says in part that the US embassy does not interfere in visa matters.

I return to the Iraqi embassy that has a repeat of the week before- crowds of Iraqi refugees trying to update their papers and passports. I walk up to the policeman at the door and ask to fill out a visa application. “No visas here”, he says.
“No visas here.”
“I’d really like to confirm that with some one who actually works at the embassy”, i respond. He raise his hands in the gesture that’s says “What?” “Are you kidding me?” And “Tough luck, buddy!” all at once. I don’t move and repeat my request to speak to someone with the embassy. The line behind me is getting longer. A man who speaks English asks me what i want. I tell him i want to get a visa form from inside. He repeats my request to the security guard. “No visas here”, the guard replies as a man in a tie approaches him from inside the embassy. They speak and the man in the tie ushers me inside, past all the waiting Iraqis and through the door behind the windows. I enter and am ushered to chair by the same man i spoke with the prior week. “What do you like?” he asks.
“I would like a visa to go to Iraq. Last week you directed me to the American embassy to get a letter. There are no letters. I would like to get a visa.”
“It is very dangerous” he explains.
“I know it is very dangerous, i would like to be responsible for myself and get a visa.”
“Do you have an invitation?”
“Yes, i have been invited by a family to visit them in Baghdad.”
“You will need a written invitation. Then we will forward your request to Baghdad to get the proper approval. Then we will give you a visa.”
“How long will that take”?”
“Two months, maybe less.”
“Is there another way to do this? If i come back with an invitation are you going to tell me another procedure?”
“It might be quicker if you go to Washington D.C. and apply there, that usually doesn’t take 2 months.”
“So, i should fly to Washington D.C., go to the Iraqi embassy and apply for a visa and then return to the Middle East?”
“That would be the best”, he says, “That may only take 2 weeks.” I laugh and he smiles.
“All right, I understand. It’s not so easy for Iraqis to visit our country either.” He shakes my hand as i get up to go.