Monday, December 15, 2008

Ira goes to the embassy

I went to the US embassy in Cario today for the second time in my life. At the time of my first visit there in 1996, it was the largest US embassy in the world. Today it is the second largest (after Baghdad).

In 1996, I went there thanks to the worst airline in the world. Tarom Romanian Air refused to allow me to board my departing flight because it included an “illegal” layover in Bucharest. (On my initial flight I had already expended my “legal” layover.) I have no idea how an airline can issue a ticket with an illegal layover, although the discount shop I used in New York bore some of the responsibility (and later reimbursed me some money). So my flight was scheduled to leave in the middle of the night. I called an embassy hotline when I was refused boarding. The situation could not be resolved and I was told to come to the embassy first thing the following morning. I did as I was told and arrived before the embassy opened at 8am and there was a huge line (a couple hundred people as I recall) of mostly black folks, presumably African, waiting. One of the security guards noticed me in the crowd, asked me if I was a US citizen, and brought me to the front of the line. Very uncomfortable though I did not ask any questions, let alone complain. Once inside, the arrangements for my return flight remarkably had already been made. I would need to stay around a couple more days because Tarom only had two flights out per week. They offered to loan me money (or somehow help me get some) since there were not any ATMs in Cairo then. I didn’t need any, but was impressed by the power of my passport. I did have to go to the Tarom office, where I had to pick up the ticket from the same guy who I had been arguing with at the Cairo Airport at about 2am that morning.

This morning, I went back to the US embassy because I need to get pages added to my passport. The lines were shorter, though still segregated. After being told to turn off my cellphone, I was able to enter. I had to check my phone and ipod at the security office. I walked through a metal detector, was wanded. My bag was sent through an xray machine, which buzzed to indicate a bomb. Seriously. I was able to see the screen which displayed a message indicating that this was a test, but that my bag should be searched by hand. After making sure my eyeglasses case really contained eyeglasses, I was allowed to go ahead.

The embassy’s architecture probably deserves an entire blog to itself (and preferably by an architect). I think it would only be a slight overstatement to say that anything you wanted to know about US foreign policy can be seen in the architecture of this embassy, which was built in 1994 for the US’s then-largest diplomatic mission. (A few years ago I saw a coffee table-style photo book on US embassies around the world.) It is, of course, entirely walled in and closed to the outside. The surrounding streets are, as is common, blocked off. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible for someone on the outside to see anything on the other side of the walls. Once you enter, there is a small unwelcoming paved area—nothing green, uninviting, nobody there. To the left, there is an outdoor stairwell where people can descend to a belowground tent-covered outdoor waiting area. I think this area is for non-citizen services. Those like me with US passports enter the building on the right. This building does not have many windows facing outdoors, but the lobby is four stories high with office windows that look indoors. Instead of looking outside from your office, you look at your own lobby. There are no balconies or anything, so all of the entrances are hidden from view. No natural light either.

After entering the building, for US citizen services, you need to go downstairs to the basement. I took a number and was seen right away. I filled out a form and was told to come back tomorrow. I explained that I was teaching in Kattameya and would not be able to come tomorrow and they said I could come back after 1pm, which I did and voilĂ . I have a fatter passport.

The wait gave me the chance to spend some time downtown, part of which I spent reading a new Egyptian novel, Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago. One scene I read has an Egyptian couple living in Illinois. The evil opportunistic husband is trying to convince his wife that they should have a child. Part of his argument is that the child will have US citizenship, and that, “People pay tens of thousands of dollars for an American passport…” I thought, yes, the value of a US passport. After a lunch of koushary, I went back to the embassy to pick mine up.


Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

I read something recently--who knows where (actually it might have been in The Forever War)--about how embassies used to be these beautiful global representations of the US (architecturally speaking) but now because of security measures they all look like prisons, obviously sending an entirely different message about the US.

irad said...

Intriguing--they always embodied a message, so maybe as the message changes the architecture changes. Now I really want to check out that book. I don't know much about any US embassies other than those in Kinshasa and Cairo. The building here was built in 1994.

Many diplomatic missions have cultural centers--public centers with lots of programming. The US does not seem to do that. (The former US cultural center in Cairo was burnt down in 1961 by people protesting the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.)