Thursday, August 18, 2005
Bureaucracy on a Summer Day
Life demanded a visit to the Maadi Motor Vehicles department today. I didn't actually have to do anything there other than be present with my passport. Other people stood in lines and negotiated with the poor parboiled government employees cooking away in the tin-roofed bungalow fitted with windows for the passing of documents and cash. I fed the avians and drove into "civilisation" to meet the proper people at the gate of the Morour as it's known in Arabic. The Morour is an open courtyard with parking space for cars that must be inspected and some hard chairs in the shade along a wall for people like myself who are waiting for papers to be processed.
Naturally, the papers that I had to sign were in the hands of a young man who was making his way from Heliopolis on the other side of downtown Cairo (where you would see this lovely old building if you were on the overpass to the area near Al Azhar), so having rushed to get to Maadi on time, I had to wait. Normal. He finally showed up, I signed papers and sat down with a copy of William Dalrymple's book City of Djinns about his year in Delhi, India. I'd almost finished the book on the plane home so I figured that this would be a good chance to get to the end of it. I was right. For almost three hours I sat on my chair watching the windows of the offices, reading my book, and being entertained by the activity around me. Thursday is a short day at government offices so the rush was in the morning and gradually activity tapered off as the clocks struck noon and windows began closing.
One of the first people I encountered was a polite young man in a tie and shoes that looked as though they were being held together by black polish. He introduced himself and offered me a pen, which I took rather thoughtfully, not having any need for one at this time. When it became apparent that he was, in fact, selling pens I handed it back explaining that I wasn't in the market for ballpoints at this time. I thought at first that he was one of the ubiquitous "fixers", people who hang around government offices offering to help bewildered folk (especially foreign looking ones) with the bizarre necessities of paperwork in Egypt. I've used their services before and sometimes they are helpful...but then sometimes they are not. Not having any need of an impromptu "fixer" since I had mine in tow, I wasn't too welcoming. When my own gentleman showed up, he knew this young man who had obviously seen Mahmoud on a previous visit to the Morour. As a matter of fact, Mahmoud informed him that his pens were terrible and that he'd never buy one from him again. Oh well.
Once I was installed in a chair between an old man whose son was running back and forth to windows and another older woman who had what seemed to be an employee of some sort helping her with the bureaucracy, I could relax and enjoy the show... and it was a show. Another man in a white shirt, tie, and shoes in rather better repair stopped in front of us with some plastic bags and a brief case. Placing these objects on the table in front of us, he started in on his spiel. First he had a pair of small plastic boxes that could be affixed to a door or window so that when the door or window opened and the boxes were separated, an absolutely ear-splitting racket would emanate from the larger box. He informed us that these high tech security devices sold for at least 5 LE in the stores but that he was selling them for only 3.5 LE (roughly 50 cents US). Wonderful. I was ready to pay him 5 LE to shut the shrieking off. I can't imagine the chaos that would ensue in my house if such a device were to be put on the garden gate for example. Granted, yes I would definitely know if someone opened the gate, but with over a dozen dogs, I usually know anyway. Still, he did manage to sell a couple of them to people next to me.
Then he moved on to his other wonderful products. One of these was a pack of 5 highlighting pens in various colours "perfect for your children in school" and another was a pack of screwdriver tips that could be attached to a handle for any type of screw in the world. The pens were going for 1.5 LE and the screwdriver set for 3.5 LE. Happily for him, he sold a few of them as well. I watched this man work the crowd for the next couple of hours. He'd move from spot to spot as the people on the chairs changed, but his patter never really varied. At one point, the pen man showed up with his defective pens and a more expensive screwdriver set, which apparently Mahmoud had also bought the week before. I think that changing or renewing car licenses can involve expenses that no one really expects with these sidewalk salesmen meandering through the crowds.
Two plus hours is a long time on a summer day. At one point a circulating entrepreneur showed up with a cold Coke which was much appreciated when I'd turned my attention to Dalrymple's Indian narrative. Many of the scenes he described sounded remarkably similar to the things I see, although India appears to be much more crowded, hot and dusty than Egypt in the summer. Sitting under a jacaranda now sporting its twisted green seed pods in place of lavender blooms and commiserating with the motor vehicle employees who I'm sure were quite miserable under their tin roof, Delhi in the summer was a vivid picture. I have some very good friends from Cairo who are in India these days but in the hill country in Musoorie and Ameeta is always after me to visit. I would truly love to but somehow I don't see it in the budget. Another item to add to the "When I win the lottery..." list. I'm sure that the villages in India have these donkey drawn merry go rounds and swings like the ones that we see in the poorer sections of Cairo and in the villages on feast days. I've been assured that there are so many things that are similar between the Egyptian countryside and India from birds to cow manure patties for fuel. These are dried on the roofs here where they provide insulation while on top and can be used for fires when dry.
I was sorry to finish my book but the end of the book came just as the end of the paperwork did and I wasn't at all sorry to see the end of the Motor Vehicle Department. So it was back to Abu Sir where I discovered that we'd only had about four power cuts this morning, rather than day before yesterday's every-five-minute power cuts for most of the day. See? Some things improve over time.