The Mogamma Odyssey

Mummy of MogammaDay one in Egypt; one for the books. So much happened and at different ends of the crazy spectrum. Where else can you be exfoliated, temporarily blinded, rescued by a mirage, greeted by a ghost, and conned by a wanna-be doctor to the tune of appetizer, main, and sweet. ..times two.

My entry through the border into Egypt had, in hindsight, seemed like the most normal of events. No drama, no bribery, no unnecessary body searches. The whole process completed without care or friendliness but with a result both efficient and satisfactory.

In Sands of the Sinai I wrote this paragraph and now it was time to pay. “The border guards fit perfectly into this environment.  They were gruff, unfriendly, and even though I suspected untrustworthy I had nothing at the time to base that on.  They were efficient though and let’s face it, that’s all we really want from a guard at the entrance to any country that is not our own”.

As day two in Egypt began and the sun came streaming over the rubble mountain outside my window, I opened my passport. There, among many other visa stamps was my entry permit to Egypt. I could immediately see a slow toothy grin emerge through sweaty stubble and spread itself over the faces of each border guard. 

In bold blue letters “ENTRY VISA – DAYS 3”.

I was legally bound to exit the country tomorrow. I had just arrived. I hadn’t even had my first breakfast yet. The closest I had come to anything even resembling local cuisine was the gyro sandwich I had tossed out the car window the night before.

My only hope to continue my journey through Egypt was, well, I had two choices really. One was to just blow off the visa issue and face the consequences upon exit. The second was to face the Mogamma Building and its infamous reputation as being the worlds greatest bureaucratic nightmare.

Having mental flashes of spending weeks in an Egyptian holding cell was not appealing so I opted for number two and prepared myself.

The Mogamma Building is a monolith that casts a dark and foreboding shadow over Cairo’s central plaza. It is grey and solid concrete. The steps leading to the double door entry are reminiscent of medieval times.  You know, when the marauders try to breach the barricade and are held at bay.

Only this time I was the one fighting the good fight; semi-confident that I would not be thwarted in my efforts and that the days end would find me happy, clutching a 30 day visa. The 3 day entry permit nothing but a bad memory.

 The darkness of the Mogamma enveloped me like the Death Star.

Egypt - Mogamma Building

On any given day the Mogamma Building houses in excess of 18,000 workers. Most of whom show little interest in being there and even less for helping you solve a problem.

From the moment you enter, any semblance of personal space you may have possessed on the outside is gone. You are now one of throngs. A mad-house of chaos, noise, heat, sweat, bad breath, strong smells, and pent-up frustration.

I needed to find the Visa Department but no-one knew where that was. The only visible sign was to the information desk. That was unattended and offered up no other information other than the fact that no-one was in attendance.

I asked as many people as I could who looked like they might know; in full knowledge that the answers would vary dramatically.  “Straight ahead then left, third door on right”, “Go back this way, up stairs, second door on left”.  You get the point. My strategy was to amass this information and extract the answers in order of most common.

I eventually arrived on the sixth floor.

By comparison this area was blissfully peaceful; it lulled me into a false sense of calm. After sitting on a small wooden bench for two hours I was seen by Danny DeVito’s character from Romancing the Stone. Right down to the beige suite, white sweat stained shirt, and a balding mans comb-over. I could tell this was going to be a breeze.

He advised me of the obvious. I would have to leave the country by tomorrow at midnight.

“Yes, but I would like to extend my visa to 30 days in order to travel through your country” I said as I tried to beam with confidence.

“No, you have a 3 day visa. You must leave the country by tomorrow” was Danny’s reply.

I asked is there some way to extend the visa. He said no. I asked if he was sure. He said yes. I asked if money could possibly help smooth out my problem. He nodded in confirmation and smiled. It was the same smile I had imaged earlier when thinking of the border guards.

At this point you would think that with the exchange of money it would be a simple process of visa extension and I would be on my way to enjoy pyramids, oasis’, the Nile both blue and black, and whatever else I would happen across in this fabled land.

No.

You see there is never just one bureaucrat involved in a bureaucratic process. Rarely is there just one department. Here I am in a massive over-populated building full of both with everyone eager to pass the problem, me, onto someone else.

Shunted from office to office. By the end of the day I felt almost molested and very dirty. I had been lied to, jostled, spat on, yelled at, ignored, and ridiculed.

It was not my finest hour.

What was worse still was the news that even though the process was underway I would have to return tomorrow. I assumed that to mean I have to run the red-tape gauntlet in its entirety once again only this time I at least had an edge; I knew which office and on what floor to start. I felt defeated but it was only a battle; the war was still mine to win.

Day two began as expected. It is amazing how quickly a person can adjust. I must have seemed more accustomed to the cacophony, more at home in this environment, more at peace with my dilemma. People didn’t shun me but instead, offered tea.

The tea-wallas were combing the building and the golden liquid flowed everywhere. In clear glasses half full of white sugar.  People broke from their “duties” and sought out  the company of friends. The Egyptian version of the water-cooler at work.

I approached the window walled office. The place of my dejection. The six-foot by six-foot chamber that held either the key to unlocking my Egyptian adventure or the notice of my eviction from the land of pharaohs.

Juggling as best I could the scolding hot glass of tea…have you ever put hot tea in a glass, it’s not the smartest idea…I was greeted with smiles from Danny who, with puffed up chest, was proud to offer me a 30 day visa extension in his homeland.

I left the Mogamma elated, excited, and exhausted; marveling at the fact that this kind of chaos can ever produce a desired result. But it does. Time and time again.

For more on this journey click on Sands of the SinaiThe Con Man of Cairo , The Big Baksheesh , and Felucca on the Nile.

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53 thoughts on “The Mogamma Odyssey

  1. Wow, good job you..! This would put off almost everybody but you didn’t give up! I admire the persistence 🙂 I hope you had a great time in Egypt, and also encountered nice local charms and not only scams..:)

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    1. I had a great time in Egypt and encountered many local charms. It is the quirky experiences that made for the best stories however….well, nearly always.

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  2. Your experiences in Egypt have made for great storytelling! Perhaps it was your willingness to adjust/adapt so quickly that could be visibly seen and appreciated by the locals, putting a stop to being shunned and offered tea!

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  3. You story is completely surreal and Kafka-esque. I have to say I am not surprised. Egypt is notorious for its bureaucracy. It’s very much like an immovable force, and Egyptians themselves complain about it up and down. We actually decided to create a travel blog/fair-tourism NGO, called Egyptian Sidekick which we hope will engage youth and create dialogue about some of the ridiculous things that go on in Egypt. Expect us to share this piece in the near future!

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    1. Ooh, the trip ended up being such a great time and I got so many incredible stories out of it. Was kind of a whirlwind of distress that ended up forcing me to find the silver lining 🙂

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  4. Only people who travel know what it takes. Others, like me, are happy to receive a little mummy from their cousin who has been to Egypt and keep it on their desks.
    “Chaos can produce a desired result.” Such a brilliant take away from the narrative.

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  5. Even though you had to come back a 2nd day to the Mogamma Building I’m glad you were able to get the 30 day visa. I’ve read stories where some people aren’t as lucky.

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  6. That was a risk, to spend the two days of your existing visa, hoping in the end it would pay off with a longer visa. Clearly worth it though. Nothing like a little bureaucratic greasing of the palms!

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  7. What an adventure! I agree with Jacquie… it never ceases to amaze me the power money can have in these types of scenarios… I spent three weeks in Egypt my senior year in college. It was for our “J” term (for January) The professor who led our trip had lived there 3 years while writing his thesis. It was an amazing trip… I started most of my mornings with a girls friend at a little café having “Ahwa Mazbut” the traditional coffee… We quickly got over the surprised and often disapproving looks since women don’t usually hang out at those places. I also loved bargaining in the markets… I learned enough arabic to get by and negotiate some good deals 🙂

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  8. I can’t believe how smooth you are interacting with the government Officials; I have a melt down going through security at LAX. I love the stories of your travels it;s like reading the beginning of a mystery thriller. My question is why would you want to stay 30 days?

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    1. Egypt had me enthralled and the problems at the start just made me more determined to see it. It is a big country and there was a lot to see. As for the officials you have little choice but to be calm; at least if you want to be successful in your efforts.

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  9. This could easily be the basis of a Kafkaesque novel. Call it the Mogamma Nightmare in which you have to return to the building every day and go through the same waiting and rejection only to be told to come back tomorrow. Glad your story played out differently.

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  10. OOOh God , the time was not that good but finally you got the visa for stay. When you have written , “I have not enjoyed my first breakfast”, I was wondering that after that wonderful treatment by con man , you still want to have breakfast in Egypt. If I would have been in such situation I must have flee from there.
    I love the way you write about good and bad experiences and the selection of words in amazing. Between I have enjoyed tea in glass many times 🙂

    When I ask my friends here about their experience of Egypt , they do not want to go there as they say its dirty and polluted. Lets see when I can have my own experience there.

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    1. It’s the unpleasant that give the story-line texture and provide some of the most vivid memories. Probably because emotions are running a little higher than normal.

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  11. Your descriptions are vivid. I feel like I had the Mogamma Building experience. After the initial situation, I’m glad the result was positive. Losing two days to travel time on a three-day visa would have disagreed with me as well.

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  12. Now I can say again, so glad we visited Egypt when we did. Money always sweetened things everywhere there, from Cairo to Aswan. It’s awful what you had to go through but the outcome sounds like what you wanted Tim!

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  13. When did this story take place? Have had to deal with visa bureaucracy many times but usually with their governments behind me. In Egypt you can definitely bribe them. Don’t know how to do it but it’s done on a daily basis.

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  14. So now that you have a 30 day visa I am sure you will share your continued escapades. What is the old saying, Money talks, b….. walks. I guess both of them worked. Can’t say that you don’t have the most interesting adventures.

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  15. Maddening when you want to get on with your visit but have to endure all of that. But let me say this about that…I’m on day 3 now of trying to set my father up with autopayment for his BofA Visa card. Yep, bureaucracies are pretty universal in nature; be them physical or virtual.

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  16. Funny how much power money has…well, not so funny really. But sounds like it wasn’t the money, it was the process. Something about bureaucrats and bureaucracies that is positively universal! But at least you got to stay! So I’m hoping the rest of trip made you forget about the beginning…just a little. Looking forward to reading about it:)

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