February 6, 2002
No Visa for Me Today
[West Bank, Palestine]
Today I spent the day trying
to get the elusive one-year Israeli visa. My attempts were unsuccessful.
I did get to see three different "Ministries of Interior"
in Jerusalem though. I arrived at Jerusalem at 6:30am and left
at 4:00pm, but without the visa. I first went to the Ministry
of Interior marked on my Jerusalem map. But no one knew where
the place was. The taxi drivers had no idea, but they dropped
me off in the general area. I asked policemen and guards. I asked
people walking the streets. No one knew of the building -- which
was clearly marked on my map. Turns out that the map was a bit
in error. I did eventually find the place, but it was not where
I was supposed to go.
The gentleman guard there
gave me the address where I was supposed to go for visa work.
I asked him to write the address, so I could pass it to a taxi
driver. This guy was nice, but I am always a bit skeptical when
I cannot read the note that I am passing to my taxi driver. Sometimes
I image it to say "take this guy around the city three times
and then drop him off one block north." Anyway, since I didn't
have other options, I found a taxi. With a properly written Hebrew
address note in hand, the driver quickly found the second location.
There were about a dozen
people waiting outside the building when I arrived. I asked the
group if I was supposed to pick up a number. No. Just wait for
the building to open. So I waited about fifteen seconds and the
building opened. Bags were searched, metal detectors passed, just
normal things for public areas. We entered a big room and people
sat as close as they could get to a door in the far wall. I crowded
in close too, actually having little idea what was the standard
operating procedure. People filtered in over the course of the
next hour. I knew I would have to play the waiting game, so I
brought some entertainment with me -- my N.K.-provided Palm Pilot
and a good novel about the London underground that I got for Christmas.
I also brought a notepad in case a good (but brief) thought happened
to pass my mind.
I opened the novel and
began. Three minutes later, I put the novel down and opted for
solataire on my Palm Pilot. I played half a game and quit. I was
too anxious about the process. I couldn't concentrate on the game.
Perhaps there was some impatience too. I waited for some great
thoughts to pass through my head, but my notepad remained blank.
One thing I have learned
about operations in foreign countries is that it's sometimes best
to follow what everyone else is doing. Someone up front usually
has an idea about what's going on. There was a big guy who was
very attentive to the door knob. A click was heard behind the
door and the big guy jumped. The entire room flooded toward the
door. There was a crowd that formed in literally two seconds.
If you hesitated, you completely lost your place. I heard someone
gasp. The door-click caught me by surprise, so I lost about ten
places in line. Fortunately I had agility and youth (compared
with some) on my side, so I managed to sidestep a couple would
be tacklers. It could have been worse. A few of the more savvy
line busters were sort of loitering near the door pretending to
read notices when they made their big move. Next time I'll know
We were allowed out of
the room in small numbers. I just followed my small group. We
orderly walked up the stairs to the third floor (how would anyone
know this?) There we took a number and were directed to other
rooms. I was number 716 in my room. I considered this very good.
There were about fifty chairs and a row of cubicles in front.
A big number board displaying 702 was above the cubicles. A tiny
sign said to go to room 205 when your number was displayed. I
sat down and opened my novel again.
But I could not read.
I put the novel down. The big number board became my total focus.
The world around me disappeared. It was just me and the numberboard.
Number 702 blinked. What if they suddenly jump to number 716?
If I didn't pay attention, I might lose my place in line here
too. After a long pause number 703 blinked. After an equally long
pause number 704 lit up. It didn't matter. My eyes were glued
to the board. An hour later we were at 715. My eyes were tired.
The anticipation was incredible. Beads of sweat lined my brow.
My bag was clutched to my chest. I was totally prepared. I waited
and waited. Every muscle ached from tension. 716! I jumped from
I had seen others disappear
behind a wall when their number was displayed. So I walked behind
the wall and saw a long hallway with about a dozen rooms on either
side. So where was room 205? There was 206 and 208. 207 was nearby.
205 turned out to be down a narrow corridor, but I found it. A
lady sat behind the desk and a gentleman sat in front of her.
The gentleman was number 720. Did four people pass through there
before I found the room?
When I sat, the lady collected
all my forms. Everything was in order and I was given another
number, 16. I returned to the room. This time a second number
board was lit. It told us the current number and cubicle assignment.
It was on number 3. I figured I could relax now. I knew it took
quite a while to process each numbered person. I opened my novel.
After reading a few pages I glanced at the number board. It was
on number 17! What the heck is going on? Did I just miss my second
interview? Then the board dropped to 6. Then up to 20. It appeared
to be totally random.
So I put my book back
and just stared at the number board again. I turned in my chair
to look at the people behind me. Forty zombie-eyed visa seekers
were staring at the board. No one moved. No one blinked. We were
all entranced by the big board. I wondered if subliminal messages
were being slipped between the numbers. I cannot say for sure,
but I know that I sure have a craving for (robot-like voice) "Moshe's
Deli on Jaffa Road."
After playing the random
numbers game for an hour, my number was up. I strolled to the
booth and sat, confident in knowing that a full one-year visa
would soon be in my hands. But the lady looked at me and pushed
all my forms back to me. "We will not process your forms.
You live on Nablus Road." You must go to our Ministry Office
in East Jerusalem. &#^#%@$!! (thought but not audible.) How
the heck did I end up at the wrong place a second time? Turns
out that going to the East Jerusalem office is a new policy. Thanks.
Here's where things start
to get tricky. I asked the lady to write the address on a slip
of paper, so I would have something to give to a taxi driver.
She did, and I left. I made my way back down to the street and
flagged down a taxi. I climbed in and showed the paper to the
man. "OUT!" he angrily yelled. I caught a second taxi
and showed him the paper through the window. He just drove off.
Now I'm really wondering what that lady wrote on the paper. I
thought that perhaps she had written an insult, to poke a little
fun at me. A third driver stopped and read the note. He said,
"I cannot drive to East Jerusalem." He drove off too.
So I adopted a different strategy. I stopped a fourth taxi, and
I climbed into the back. I explained what I was going to do. "I
am going to hand you a piece of paper. It has an address on it.
Do not be angry. I realize you will not take me there. TAKE ME
AS CLOSE AS YOU CAN." "I do not know where this is --
then why do you want to go there? Arabs live there," he informed
me. After a few phone calls to my boss for directions, the driver
took me fairly close and I walked the rest of the way.
When I arrived, it was
obvious that I was waaaaaay too late. I would not be processed
today. There were about 200 Palestinians crowded around the turnstyle
entrance to the ministry office. One guy looked at me. "What
are you doing here?," he asked. "Are you Palestinian?
You should be at the ministry on Jaffa road." I explained
that I live in East Jerusalem and they sent me here. He let out
a howl of laughter, "then you are damned!" That made
me laugh too. So I headed for Moshe's Deli.