A few days ago, I remembered something just before falling asleep. I’m so glad I did because who knows what problems it would have caused in September when we try to travel to the states for a few weeks. I remembered that we needed to get our 10-week old baby girl, Layla, an Egyptian entry stamp in her passport. Without it, she may not leave the country. And seeing as our flight is at 3am, I don’t know what would have happened if her passport was blank.
When Layla was born here in Cairo a couple months ago, we followed the procedures that were clearly outlined on the US Embassy page about obtaining a US birth certificate and passport for her. It required three trips to the embassy, but not too much hassle. At the time, we also read that an American baby born in Cairo requires an entry stamp in her US passport in order to leave the country. We had a lot going on at the time we picked up her new passport, though, so we forgot about that little detail until the other night.
Today was the day I tried to take care of that detail, and it required a trip to the dreaded “mugamma” in downtown Cairo. This was my first time to experience the place where all foreigners must go to renew visas, apply for residency, etc. Apparently, it is also the place for Egyptians to go for marriage licenses and the like, so, a lot of paperwork goes through that place in a day. Previously Jayson has taken care of visas and such at the mugamma, but this is a very busy time at work for him, and it just wasn’t possible for him to take care of this errand.
So, this morning, I packed Emma and Hannah a breakfast and lunch and sent them both to preschool. Hannah is always looking for opportunities to stay with Emma at preschool, and today was the perfect time for that. I took Layla with me and boarded the metro for the quickest and cheapest ride downtown.
I’ve written about the metro before (click here) and once again, boarded the women’s car for the ride. Immediately, a woman rose from her seat for me to sit down, and as I was sitting down, she preceded to try to cover Layla with the thin blanket I had. I thanked her, but unwrapped Layla right away as the temperature here is in the 90s, and I felt that Layla was plenty warm. Later on in the trip, another woman asked me to reposition Layla as she felt like her head was not comfortable. Very kind and doting women watching out for my baby. It’s nice.
We arrived at Sadat square without a problem and took the exit that brings you up right in front of the massive building which is the mugamma. I went to the entrance where they had walk-through metal detectors which didn’t seem to be on, as well as bag screeners which I almost had to put my backpack on until I told the woman I didn’t have a camera. Apparently that was the only security concern. I went inside and up the stairs where Jayson had described is the Immigration and Visa section. I got to know the path up the stairs and around the winding hallway past about 50 windows very well as I walked it several times in the next few hours.
After walking almost to the end of the hallway, reading the signs above the 50 windows and trying to figure out which one applied to me, I finally talked to someone at window 12. She sent me downstairs to make copies of some papers first of all, then told me to fill out the application and take it to window 32. So, I went all the way back down the hallway, past the 50 windows and downstairs to the copy center for my copies. Then back up the steps, past 32 windows until I came to the one she told me about which said “refugee” processing. Wasn’t sure that’s what I needed, but the person in window 33 was helpful. Unfortunately, it seemed I needed another document. She told me to go to “Ism Abdeen” to get a computerized birth certificate for Layla. We had the written one we received shortly after her birth here, but apparently that wasn’t good enough. After asking the name of the place several times so I could tell a taxi driver where I needed to go, I took my envelope of passports and important documents, my backpack and little Layla down the stairs, outside and to the street to find a taxi.
The taxi driver was helpful, but not sure exactly where I needed to go. We decided to go to the police station in Abdeen and ask from there. We then realized that we needed to go to “qism Abdeen” whose name makes more sense. Arabic speakers may be familiar with the Egyptian habit of dropping the “Qaph” sound which in this case made it sound like a different word to my untrained ear. Anyway, we found the place and the driver told me it should just take me 5 minutes, that it is a simple procedure to get the computerized document.
I went inside and up two flights of steps to the one place in all of Cairo where you must go for a computerized birth certificate. It wasn’t too crowded, but the woman behind the window told me the computer wasn’t working currently and to sit and wait. In the meantime, though, I could walk to the post office, about two blocks away, to buy a 20 pound stamp (about $4) for my original copy. So, I went back down the flights of stairs, outside and followed her directions, stopping in one store to be sure I was going the right way, and after five minutes, arrived at the post office. This was the nicest building I was in all day … not too crowded, air-conditioned, and very clean. It was easy to purchase the stamp and head back to the other building.
When I arrived, I checked with the woman again who told me it still wasn’t working, but that I should keep waiting. By this time it was about 10am and close to Layla’s feeding time. She was sleeping peacefully on my shoulder and I wasn’t sure how much time I would have to sit and feed her there. It was a fairly comfortable spot and it could have been done, but I opted to wait a bit and feed her later. I was hoping to do all the running around necessary and then feed her while I waited for any processing they had to do at the mugamma.
In the meantime, I had a nice conversation with the woman sitting next to me who told me it was her third trip to this office in the last few days as each time the computers weren’t working and she needed a certificate for her son by tomorrow for college. She told me this was the only place that printed this document which was a problem since there was no recourse if the computers didn’t work. What I gathered from talking to her was that you need this document for many things: school registration, college entrance, or even registering for the army. But it seems like it’s a more recent requirement as previously all birth certificates were hand-written. I’m not sure how long the computerized ones have been around, but she recommended getting several copies to have them just in case.
After about 20 minutes, there was some movement in the room as somehow someone learned that computers were working again. A line quickly formed and I had just decided to start feeding Layla, so I figured I would do that, then the line would die down and I would get my papers and go. Instead, the initial woman I talked to behind the window, came out to me, got the handwritten certificate and took it behind the counter where she immediately printed me 5 copies. It was very kind and very quick, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the seemingly preferential treatment. Here I was getting my copies, while everyone else stood in line next to me. I’m not sure why she did that. Was it because I was the only foreigner in the room, or because I was carrying my 10-week old baby? Either way, I was grateful, postponed Layla’s feeding longer, and headed downstairs to catch a taxi back to the mugamma.
I went in the entrance, once again telling the security there that I had no camera in my backpack, and back upstairs, and past the first 32 windows. This time the place was considerably more crowded than earlier. All the seats lining the walls were filled, and people were standing everywhere. I wondered where I might sit to feed Layla when I got the opportunity. At window 32, the woman I had talked to previously, looked at my papers, did some arranging, and then directed me to an officer at a desk slightly behind me for a signature. This is where the “waiting in line” became a bit annoying—mainly because there weren’t really any lines. A crowd was gathered around the desk, each one pleading his case, and I was just standing there waiting for a signature. I didn’t speak up, but held my spot by the desk, trying to show I had a baby in my arms, and eventually I got noticed. He signed my paper and sent me to window 6.
An interesting thing I noticed in the mugamma was the “No Smoking” signs posted all over the walls. I saw them earlier, but had also smelled smoke, but wasn’t sure I had actually seen anyone smoking. When I was waiting in line for the officer to sign my paper, there was a “No Smoking” sign directly behind him, and a cigarette in his mouth. I realized that if I visited the mugamma the very next day, which was the first day of Ramadan, there would be no smoking in the whole place.
As I waited in the next several lines, I have to admit, I wanted preferential treatment once again. After all, I was holding a baby. However, my baby was very content even though it was getting more and more past her regular feeding time, she slept or sucked her thumb the whole time. At the same time, I had to remind myself, that everyone waiting here probably had a reason that they, too, should get preferential treatment. And besides, I had just been treated to a bump-up in line that probably saved me half an hour back at the other office. These were good things to remember as the pushing and line-jumping and general standing and waiting got long at times.
I arrived at window 6 and waited for a couple minutes wondering if this would be my last window to wait at, but when I got to the front, they told me I was supposed to be at a different window 6 down a different corridor. Ugh. So, I went to the other window 6 and eventually, it was my turn. The woman did some things and gave me some directions for what was next in rapid Arabic, and all I really understood was that I needed another signature from an officer, but not the same one as before. So, I went around the corner and found an officer sitting at a nice desk in an air-conditioned office speaking to another couple. After a couple minutes, I hesitatingly entered the office, and sure enough, this was the right place. He signed something and sent me to window 41.
When I got there, several people were in line and I wasn’t positive this was the right window. By that point, I really didn’t want to wait in any wrong lines, but after a couple minutes, I got to the front, the woman wrote some things on the paper and said “you’re finished” in English. I questioned her as no one had put anything in Layla’s passport yet and that’s what I came for, and apparently what she meant was that I was finished with this window and could go back to the window 6 I had recently come from.
So, back to window 6, but fortunately, an officer was standing in that area trying to expedite things. He gave my application to a young soldier who went to find out where I needed to go next. I ended up back near the “refugee” window where I had started out, and the woman behind the counter wrote some things in a couple different books and asked when we were traveling. Meanwhile, the six or seven ladies behind her, sitting at a table, noticed Layla and started talking about her. After a couple minutes, one of the ladies came out to where I was and took Layla from me, and walked away. I kind of asked where she was going, but I also knew. Layla was getting her turn behind the counter.
Kids attract a lot of attention in these countries, and I remember Emma being taken behind the counter at the telephone company in Tunisia multiple times. She would sometimes sit on the counter while one of the employees let her play with the phone or a pen. A couple times, she was taken behind a door and came out a few minutes later with a cookie or cake or something sweet. These ladies who worked at the telephone company watched my belly grow when I was pregnant with Hannah so after she was born and finally came out of the stroller, they took her back there to show her off as well. This is why I didn’t react too strongly when they came and took Layla from me. We’re kind of used to it.
So finally after about ten minutes at this window, the woman handed me Layla’s passport and told me to come back in one week to get the stamp. In the meantime, they have the application and a copy of the passport. I’m not sure what they are going to do in a week’s time, or why they couldn’t just put a stamp in the passport right there, but I am hoping that my trip to the mugamma next week is short and sweet. It was a lot of hassle, but not as dreadful as some have said. And when I thought about why I was there, it’s a small price to pay to be able to take our baby with us when we leave the country!