You remember prepositions, right? Those location and direction words you are supposed to, at all costs, never let dangle? (e.g., “Yes, Mother, that is the mad ballah whose crib I was at” would be more correctly expressed as “Yes, Mother, that is the mad ballah at whose crib I was.”) In school I had to memorize an alphabetical list of forty-odd of them, though the list can get much longer if you’re willing to get archaic. (Abaft?) Almost all would work equally well to describe my experience with Saudi immigration. My journey about immigration. My journey along immigration. My journey amid immigration. My journey at immigration. A few won’t, however. The problem words are those that suggest a journey that begins on one side and finishes on the other. My journey across immigration? Hardly. My journey through immigration? Don’t be ridiculous.
My objective: An iqama, the residency card that shows you’re allowed to live here on a long-term basis and come and go freely, roughly equivalent to the American green card.
They don’t give these puppies away. To get the initial residential visa (good for 90 days), you have to complete a series of medical tests somewhat similar to what livestock might get before being shipped across a border. My U.S. doctor didn’t know what some of them were. I think the lab had to Google them. I was visualizing something like Jerry Seinfeld’s doctor and his medical reference book. In the end, all the boxes got checked and I was on my way. On the ground in Saudi Arabia, it became iqama time.
Ordinarily, getting an iqama is no big deal. A mildly annoying but routine process, not unlike registering a new car. If your car had medical components, that is. However, fate had something different in store for me.
Wrinkle 1: Guess what? New medical tests! Yes, a mix-tape subset of the same stuff I’d already done. Bloodwork and, er, samples. That’s not absurd at all. No, what’s absurd is that when I said I was unable to produce a certain…sample on the spot, so to speak, the tech said that was no problem, I could bring it back in the morning. “How?” I asked. “I’m not allowed to drive.” He seemed genuinely surprised by the question. Like it had never come up before. And at a loss to come up with an answer. Unsurprisingly, another evening was then tied up with a return trip.
Wrinkle 2: Ordinarily, a photo, fingerprint, and eye scan are done at the airport when you first enter the country, and they’re tied to your passport and entry number. However, driving in as I did, I entered the country at a pokey, low-priority, wild-frontier ground border. Out in the sticks like that, they didn’t take my picture or get the biometrics. So I had to get myself to an immigration office somewhere here in town where that information could be collected. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to wrangle with the airport or the main immigration offices downtown. There was a little satellite office at a nearby mall. Date night!
Wrinkle 3: After a fair bit of asking around at the mall, we found the passport office for women (pictures require that the face be uncovered, which can’t happen around men), and found it CLOSED, with the following helpful signage:
Wrinkle 4: We have reservations for an early-October vacation. Out of the country. On an airplane. I’d be unable to leave the country and return again without an iqama. We decided that rather than wait for the mall office to open and potentially be unable to help us for reasons as yet unimagined (and who knows what else the sign might be warning us about), we’d better head to the belly of the beast, the full-on immigration office, to make SURE we could get everything done.
Wrinkle 5: An large number of Saudi government ministries are crowded together into one quarter of town. Thousands of people work there. Thousands more need to do business there. And there are no parking lots. I’m not saying that in the way you’d say “I swear the mall has, like, no parking lots.” I’m saying that in the same way you’d say “The zoo has no dinosaurs.” If you’ve ever barked about government regulation, try living in a city without any, where nobody says “for every x number of square feet you must provide y number of parking spaces (and z number of bathrooms).” It’s survival of the fittest out there, folks. Lord of the Flies. On a separate trip to the same neighborhood (on a Saturday, so the lite version) I managed to snap off this picture:
(Please excuse the thumb. People are a mite touchy about pictures around here, so in crowded places where I’m the only western woman and sometimes the only woman I try to be quick about it.) To clarify, that’s not a parking lot. That’s an intersection, after a fashion, though there’s some freelance parking going on in the center. My immigration destination was about three blocks away. Three v-e-r-y slow-moving blocks.
Wrinkle 6: In a government building where foreigners need to do business, there is exactly one word of English: “Entrance.” After that, you’re on your own. You therefore need Saudis to help you get around. My husband’s company has a sort of preferred-provider relationship with a couple of immigration enablers, and the one in charge of getting my iqama probably would have gotten everything done just fine if it weren’t for my unorthodox entry situation combined with my pesky deadline. Figuring out where to get my picture taken was a new wrinkle for him. One government worker directed him outside and around to the back of the building. We toddled behind. There, we were told to go back inside and upstairs one flight. We toddled behind. That one said to go up another. We toddled. That one said to go back to the back of the building. More toddling. The worker there then finally confirmed we were in the right place. But don’t sit yet!
Wrinkle 7: Remember, I needed to have my picture taken in a room for women, by a camera meant for women. Thus, my Saudi Immigration sensei couldn’t come inside with me. (And of course, only men can do that job.) Inside, again, all signage was only in Arabic. Have you ever been to the DMV on, say, the last day of the month, at, say, 4:00 in the afternoon? Was it windowless because nobody’s supposed to be able to see you? Were there 100 women packed like canned black beans, wall to wall, in a space about the size of a bedroom, shoving their way toward the one woman seated behind a counter set up with four unoccupied workstations?
That’s not the actual scene, of course. Put papers in those hands. Now add a low ceiling, low light, and pack those bodies against walls on four sides. Then squeeze in some truly tiny women suffocating with their heads down at about my rib level. There you go. That’s it. It’s an experience everyone should have once. ONCE. Through the use of various reaches and squishes and pushes I managed to get to somebody who talked to my sensei outside on the phone, took me to the camera, then, on the razor’s edge of having everything done, said “No match” and handed me back my passport.
Wrinkle 8: Yes, the Einstein who got himself stationed at that low-priority, wild-frontier, middle-of-nowhere border station had written the wrong entry number on my visa. The one in the database assigned to my passport number did not match the handwritten one on my visa. No match. No more action on this until somebody changed the number, which I couldn’t do, and which the woman in the women’s office couldn’t do with the pen in her hand, because any change also has to have a stamp. I must say, a lot of countries have a lot of love for stamps. This is one of them. Back outside. At this point the sensei said don’t worry, he’d take care of it getting the number changed and get back to us. We were unconvinced.
Wrinkle 9: While trying really hard to get the sensei to stick with us and with this project, we ran into another sensei, who had helped Steve with his paperwork. This guy is actually kind of a power-player, with some very well placed tribal connections and an ability to get things done. He seemed to believe the first sensei was underperforming, and said he’d take care of it. Arabic arguing ensued. Go ahead: imagine for yourself the alpha-male tribal-rivalry striving that ensued, the bossing around, the push-backs, all taking place entirely (from our perspective) in body language and meaningless syllables. A lot of waiting around inside the main hall. A computer system shutdown. Noon prayer. When we left, Sensei 1 had my passport and Steve’s iqama, and Sensei 2 was going to meet us at the mall later in the afternoon so he could magically open that office and get my biometrics done. We were skeptical but without options.
Wrinkle 10: A term everyone understands in this part of the world is wasta. I saw a cartoon at a souvenir stand this morning that explains it quite well. Joe Camel is lounging on one elbow surveying his domain and the caption says “Wasta: It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” Early that afternoon we got a call from somebody at Steve’s office saying my iqama was there. Wait–do you mean my passport is there and I need to pick it up before going on to get my picture? No, the finished iqama. Finished. Done. Legal. I have no idea what happened. I’m confident wasta was involved. And a phone-photo of my passport picture surreptitiously emailed to an immigration worker. I’m not asking who or how. However this journey got finished for me, I’m grateful. I’m taking that precious iqama and going on vacation next week.
As a new kid, I get asked a lot how I like it here. It’s a tough question to answer. If I say “This place is crazy” it sounds as if I hate it. Plenty of people think the U.S. is crazy. Go for it. I do, too, often enough. If I say “I love it!” I sound ridiculous, as if I’m so stupidly diplomatic I’m going to straight lie when we both know how crazy it is. I need both answers: This place is crazy. And I love being here. A new friend expressed it exactly. She said she loves being in a place where tourists don’t come, knowing that not very many people get to see the things we see. She loves living in a way that’s completely different from the rest of the world. Agreed. But now that I’ve got that precious card, I’m going to use it, jet off, and go lie on a South Pacific beach for a couple of weeks. Because the opportunity to do that is also part of living here. I’ll be back with/among/alongside you in a couple of weeks!