Madness and lethargy meet in Middle Eastern government buildings. How can so many people, moving so slowly, fuck things up so comprehensively?
I prepared hard for my visit to the customs bureau, where I had to extend my visa beyond the 15 days they give you at the border (good lord the border, strange times coming into Iraq on that bus). I was armed with a sponsorship letter from a local university, earned over endless teas, handshakes, smiles, nods and compliments. I'd be "teaching" a seminar on field recording techniques half-learned in Kenya. In return, a nameless secretary in a gray subterranean office in the gleaming new university gave me a stamped piece of paper with a fat signature that showed I was a human with a reason to exist in Kurdistan. But the content is irrelevant. It's the paper itself, the stamp and the signature, that gets you through bureaus.
Normally I work hard to blend in, keep quiet, respect the culture. But I went barging through that immigration office like a bull that just saw red white and blue. Door to door to door, popping into offices, a smiling buffoon with a passport you can't ignore. "hi! i'm an american! i need a stamp!"
I cut lines, pretended I knew not a word of Kurdish. And definitely not Farsi. In fact, each room was teaming with what, under different historical circumstances, would have been my countrymen. Red Iranian passports passed from hand to hand. Unwanted immigrants from a country with floods of bad blood. "Wait here," they were told. And they waited. While I slid through.
A stocky man in brown leather jacket and a hairline in uncomfortable proximity with his eyebrows asked me in English where I was from. "America," I said.
"I'm from Great Britain, but originally from Iran," he said. "I came here to get married. I couldn't go home."
The conversation ended, but I bumped into him from time to time as we navigated that tangled morass. Once I heard him growling under his breath to his new wife in Farsi. "They hate us here." He was angry, she was soothing him, but the brink was near. I saw that flash in so many faces.
But all I got was smiles. One final stamp, then, "Go see Mr. Raouf."
I searched for Mr. Raouf. I asked men in uniform and men with stars on their shoulders and men carrying brooms, "Where is Mr. Raouf?" No one knew.
Finally, waiting in something that vaguely resembled a line in an outdoor corridor, a security man approached me with deference, bearing news. "Mister?" he said. Then paused before continuing. "Mr. Raouf eat sandwich."
So I waited. Mr. Raouf finished his sandwich. I got my stamp, got my card, and was on my way. Authenticated. Papers processed. Official.
I passed the Iranian in the brown jacket on my way out. He was still waiting, fists clenched beside his wife. We didn't say goodbye.
Your world is defined by the papers you hold. And here, where so many countries meet and ancient hatreds fester and no one is who he says he is, papers are everything. Unlike the other Iranians, I had the papers to get in. And unlike the students I met when I gave my presentation today, frustrated young people stuck in Iraqi Kurdistan with a front row internet view of the rest of the world and the most undesireable passport known to man, I have the papers to get out (I hope). Grateful and saddened. And still no music.