Monday, June 7, 2010

Immigration (insert ominous music)

I have to take a quick break from the small victories entries to write about my experience at the Immigration office today. I've arrived at the point where any experience, no matter how bad, can be viewed as "another story for my blog." Scary. But there you have it. So this morning, I agreed to accompany a friend to the immigration office before work to provide moral support while she requested a visa for a family member. The family member had been in Kuwait, but his visa expired, so he had to exit the country and then re-enter with a new visa. The tricky part is that he had to be officially exited before she could request the new visa. To complicate matters, he was only granted a 24 hour transit visa to the other destination, meaning he had to stay in the airport for the day, and then return to Kuwait. All of this hinged on his actually getting the visa to re-enter Kuwait. If that didn't happen, he'd be stuck in transit (sort of like Tom Hanks in The Terminal).

So, about 15 minutes after he went through passport control in Kuwait this morning (he was still in the Kuwait airport, on his way to spend the day in another country in the region), we approached the immigration building. As we walked in, my friend apologized for the mess we were about to encounter. We stepped over a chain-link fence lying on the ground, and pushed open the door to the first building.

As we walked in, we were confronted by a jostling group of men, all seemingly waiting in line...or rather, lines. There was no real order, just dozens of men, several counters, and plenty of staring eyes. We stood there for a moment, trying to decide how to proceed. My friend had been there before, so she knew what had to be done. Luckily, she had the brilliant idea of looking for a ladies desk. And there, shining like a beacon of hope, was a little blue sign in the far corner that said, "Ladies." One of the few perks of living in a male dominant society- they have the foresight to offer shorter lines for women only. Although I can say with near certainty that the guys manning those counters are pretty bored all day long. We did spot one other woman, but apparently this is a man's business (like so many other things in Kuwait). So, the white american chick started saying "excuse me, excuse me" and the men parted like the red sea. Again, one of the perks of living in a society where it is haram (forbidden) to touch a woman...the men will go out of their way to clear a big enough path so that you don't risk bumping into them.

We made our way to the counter and my friend submitted the necessary documents. The exchange was in Arabic, so I didn't understand much. He pointed to the opposite side of the room, and my friend informed me that we had to get a copy made of one of her documents. Another path created to the other side of the room, another mass of men jostling to have copies made (lines? waiting for your turn? unheard of). I tend to be one of the taller, and definitely the whitest, in any group of people around here, so my friend handed me the paper and I made eye contact with the copy man. He immediately reached over the men to grab our paper. A minute later, we had the copy in hand. Then, it was time to go to another counter to pay some money. I quickly realized that this man- the money man- was different from the others. He sported the full beard (the religious/conservative beard) and absolutely refused to look at my friend and I. When I say absolutely refused, I mean absolutely refused. We repeatedly tried to get his attention, but he averted his eyes every time. Finally, he reached out his hand, grabbed the money, handed us the proof of payment, and did all that without ever once looking in our direction. I don't know which affects me more- the dozens of pairs of staring eyes anytime a woman walks into a room, or the men who think that woman are so ___ (dangerous? tempting? invisible?) that they can't even look at us.

In any case, we had the documents. It was now time to head over to another building. We picked up a number, and sat down to wait. They actually moved surprisingly quickly, and the numbers quickly went by. While we were sitting there, we saw two of the men working there walk up to greet each other. They then leaned in, and kiss kiss kissed on the mouth! You know, sort of like the european cheek kisses, except they were mouth to mouth! A bit shocked, I turned to my friend and said, "did they just kiss kiss kiss on the mouth?" She just nodded silently. She was just as shocked as me. But I guess this is just a twist on the normal kiss greeting...although it was definitely the first time I had seen it done this way. In any case, they called our number and my friend submitted the documents. They told her the visa would be ready tomorrow. We knew for a fact that they can do it on-the-spot, and my poor friend's family member was stuck sitting in transit in a relatively tiny airport! So we asked if it could be done today. They indicated that we should proceed to another cluster of counters to ask. My friend asked the women (apparently men work on one side at a set of counters, and women at the other side processing the visas). They finally said yes, but it would take a few hours. My friend returned to the building later in the day, and was able to get the visa. I guess this does count as another small victory! And of course...another "interesting experience" for the blog!


uncle yale said...

Hi Amy, great post, you really got to write a book. Dad

Anonymous said...

its not about women being dangerous/invisible/tempting. averting the gaze is actually part of islamic culture to preserve modesty and respect. and not ALL fully bearded men act that way (you've been in Kuwait this long, you should know by now). In fact most men bearded or not do not act this way. you're doing exactly what edward said criticized in his whole argument about orientalism - painting an exoctic mystic picture of the orient aka Kuwait with a western bias. and even if men weren't to look at women because they're "tempting or dangerous" why cant you accept the culture for what it is? does everything in this world have to mirror western/american culture? you have your ways we have ours. it's surprising that you spend so much time just questioning everything about Kuwait and Kuwaiti/Arab/Islamic culture instead of attempting to understand it. it's kind of sad. and you know, in terms of how women in Kuwait are portrayed through your blogs (particularly the one of women being inspirations because of the fact that they have to live with a daily battle against the 'black veil' - the blog about you entering a chicken/shawarma restaurant full of men and then ended up waiting in your car) you have them as prisoners in a world of men, again equated with Kuwait in these blogs. So I suppose the millions of women who have the 'freedom' to wear mini-skirts, high heels and make up aren't prisoners either? The cosmetics industry if anything epitomizes how women are constrained in a 'male-dominated' world and it's done ironically through notions of liberation and freedom. A women in a tight revealing dress, high heels, and a face full of make-up isn't free just as much as you've characterized the women behind the veils in Kuwait. In fact, you could even say they're less free, because a women in, America let's say, who goes out to a nightclub for example, in a mini-skirt, or a women who goes to work in heels, is doing so because that's what's expected of them as women. The less a woman wears in America, the better and that's obvious in malls, movies, work places, nightclubs, and all sorts of situations. This is because a woman does so to appeal or at the very least satisfy the conditions set upon her in the male-dominant society she lives in (again in America). At least women in Hijabs and veils, even IF they were to be viewed as prisoners, are prisoners who've retained their modesty (and just to reiterate I'm not characterizing them as prisoners). Furthermore, since I've ranted on and gone off track, men in Islam are expected to cover up too, except they're required to do so differently, naturally, because men and women ARE different (not unequal but different). A man for example, who is at the beach would have to make sure he's covered at the very least from the navel down to his knees. That is one small example of how modesty is preserved with men. There is so much more to this religion and culture and the only way you'd find that out is by putting your bias aside and letting yourself SEE. It's actually kind of sad that all the people who read this blog on the other side of the world, who use your blog as a mirror into Kuwait and the Arab/Islamic world really aren't getting the real story.