Tag Archives: expat life

How to Renew Your Tourist Visa at the Mogamma

After posting my rather tongue-in-cheek entry about my perilous journey to the Mogamma to renew my Egyptian tourist visa,  I noticed that a number of people came to my site wanting more information on how, exactly, to go about renewing your visa if you want to stay longer in Egypt. Here’s my step-by-step guide.

EDIT 1/3/2017–A reader who renewed her visa in December of 2016 provided an excellent update to this post–find it here!

What to Bring:

  1.  Yourself.
  2.  Your Passport.
  3.  A photocopy of your passport photo page.
  4. A photocopy of your passport visa page–if it’s not your first renewal, bring copies of your initial visa page and your most recent renewal.
  5.  A passport-sized photo of yourself.
  6.  A pen.
  7. Lots of patience.

I usually get the photocopies and passport photo done ahead of time at a local place, but if you forget, you can get them done when you get to the Mogamma. Photo and copy center is to the right, past the ridiculously crowded staircase.  You will probably need to use your elbows to maintain your place in line.

What to Do:

  1. Arrive at Mogamma, the earlier the better. The building opens at 9.  I highly recommend making sure there’s nothing major happening in Tahrir before you go.
  2. Go through security. If you’re carrying a camera, they’ll ask you to check it at the entrance.
  3. If you didn’t get  your photocopies and passport photo in advance, do so now.
  4. Go up the massive, crowded staircase on your right.
  5. Go down the linoleum lined hallway to the right at the top of the stairs.
  6. Look for the window for visa renewals–it’s near the end of the hallway.
  7. Get your paperwork and find a spot to fill it in.
  8. Find the window that sells stamps. The person who gave you your paperwork will tell you how much you need to buy in renewal-stamp currency.
  9. Give your completed paperwork, stamps, passport photo, passport and visa photocopies, and passport to the first window where you got your paperwork.
  10. Get the hell out of the building. (For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted all of the wait-in-line-in-an-overcrowded-unairconditioned-hallway steps, but you should be aware that they’re a big part of the endeavor).
  11. Spend the next 2 hours doing something relaxing, preferably a little ways away for mental space. You’ll need the time to recharge.
  12. Return to the Mogamma, go back through security, back up the stairs and down the hall.
  13. Join the massive throng of people waiting for their visas.
  14. When the people behind the counter hold up your paperwork with your photo attached, your visa is ready. Elbow your way to the window to pick up your passport.
  15. Make your escape.

Congratulations! You’ve just renewed your visa for another 3 months!

Note:

This information is accurate at the time of posting. Egypt’s visa laws and procedures have been fluctuating wildly since the revolution started, and every few months there’s a scare within the expat community that visas will no longer be renewed. Several people have reported in the last week that the Mogamma told them that they were on their last 3-month renewal and that they would not be able to renew again. Three months from now, that may or may not still be the case.  Check with your friends before you go to renew your visa, just to be on the safe side. Good luck!

 

To the Mogamma! Visa Renewals and a Visit to Tahrir

The past two days have involved a great and perilous adventure known as Renewing my Visa. Permission to Remain in the Country needed to be Obtained. While normally this activity is not problematic in Egypt, since foreigners usually bring needed money, the matter of recent  events has made engagements with the bureaucracy less predictable than normal. Rumors were circulating that visa renewals were getting more difficult, with one Egyptian newspaper claiming (in sensationalist manner) that foreigners should just stay away or go home. 

Nevertheless, I had no plans for leaving, and my visa was expired. Which meant that I had to brave the journey to Tahrir to visit the dreaded Mogamma–an enormous government office building that is the scourge of everyone who needs more than a 30-day standard tourist stay. A gift of the Soviet Union in 1952, the Mogamma remains a bastion of Soviet-Era efficiency and charm in the heart of Egypt.

Hence the  dread.

I arrived  shortly after the 9am opening time on Tuesday, accompanied by my housemates (one of whom also needed her visa renewed–misery requires solidadrity). Tahrir was relatively quiet, but closed to automobile traffic and Occupied by a number of makeshift tents. In January and July of this year, revolutionary activities actually blockaded the Mogamma building. Fortunately, the current protests aren’t denying access.

Photos of Tahrir are currently frowned upon. I tried to be discreet.

El Tahrir Square, with the Mogamma in the background

My efforts at discretion were probably unsuccessful.

Tents in front of the Mogamma in Tahrir

Inside the Mogamma, there was first the fairly painless line to get my passport and visa photocopied.  Then there was the first window, to get the paperwork for a re-entry visa, followed by a second window to get the visa extension paperwork. A third window sold me stamps to pay for my visa extension, which I brought back to the second window, which sent me back to the third window because my first set of stamps was insufficient, and back downstairs for another photocopy of my visa page. Back at the second window, I dropped off my passport, extension paperwork, pile of stamps, photocopies, and supplemental passport photo, and was instructed to come back in two hours to window number 38.

While this process was annoying, it was actually made better by the fact that there’s a fairly low volume of tourists right now.  Last time I renewed my visa, the process was comparable, but complicated at each window by nearly endless queues. At least this time around, the queues were short.

Two hours later, after lunch in the khan-el-khalili, we returned to the Mogamma and the fabled Window 38, where a woman held up stacks of papers with passport photos attached. When you recognize your photo/paperstack in the window, your visa is done. In my case, though, because I needed both the extension (now finished) and the re-entry (unable to be processed simultaneously), I had to take my newly-returned passport back to window number one, where I was told that it would be ready the following morning.

So. They didn’t fail to renew my visa, or order me out of the country, or otherwise tell me that I couldn’t stay. My foreign self is still welcome. But because bureaucracy is never done, my visa was not actually ready the following morning.

It was ready ten minutes past closing time, the following afternoon.

Contrasting Neighborhoods of Cairo

Today I went out in search of adventure, in the form of an unmapped wander through  two neighborhoods of Cairo. The city is a study in contrasts, and the juxtaposition of different areas sometimes feels like the juxtaposition of two totally different worlds. Though there are many indicators that show the difference between places, I’ve come to the conclusion that wealth in Cairo is measured in trees and pavement. These two factors alone will tell you everything you need to know.

The morning started in Zamalek, one of the richest neighborhoods of Cairo. Located on an island in the middle of the Nile, it hosts number of foreign embassies, meaning a lot of foreign diplomats and their retinues live here as well. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined, and evenly paved.  The buildings are all modern and mostly soulless. Very little trash is in the street. Boutique shops are full of expensive housewares, and multiple bookstores sell English-language books (hamdulilah!). I was able to take a yoga class today in this expat enclave, my first since arriving in Cairo, and it was wonderful to find something here that was so integral to my life back home.

This is what wealth looks like: broad, tree-lined streets paved with asphalt.

After yoga, I wandered until I felt peckish and found an upscale coffee shop, where my tea and carrot cake cost more than I usually spend on proper meals. Despite the exorbitant prices, the coffeeshop was packed with expats (and wealthy locals), presumably there for the atmosphere of a place that felt like the coffeeshops at home.

Wealth also looks like overpriced tea and carrot cake, plush chairs, and a spotlessly clean shop.

Walking around Zamalek, I heard almost no catcalls. No heckling of any kind. After two months of  near-constant commentary on every moment that I spent outside, it was almost surreal—like I had been transported into  a different universe from the one that I normally inhabited.  The island felt like just that—an island. A tiny, wealthy bubble of Euro-American sensibilities in the midst of the teeming chaos that is Cairo. It was nice, for a while, to have a small break from my normal reality. But after a few hours, it made me feel bored.

One of the things that I love about Cairo is the breath of the unexpected that pervades my experience here. I felt cut off, in Zamalek, from the real spirit of the city, so I decided to go back to the city’s roots. Back to Islamic Cairo, with its lively markets and minarets, with its history and soul. The streets are narrow, unpaved, and treeless. Space is a commodity here, and so is asphalt. Trees are too much of a luxury to grow.

This is what streets look like in Old Islamic Cairo. Narrower, unpaved, no trees.

Though the streets aren’t as nice here, the buildings are infinitely more interesting. I started out at Al-Azhar mosque, which was built in the tenth century and is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo.  It’s a glorious confection of white marble,  a wonderful break from the heat and the dust of outside.

The peaceful courtyard of Al-Azhar mosque

 

 

Details of the architectural confectionery

 

From there, I wandered in a fairly directionless manner, my main priority being to move in the opposite direction of the tourist market and its accompanying touts. I succeeded, moving through neighborhood markets selling produce, local clothing, and basic housewares, passing coffee shops where men sat with shisha pipes for hours at a time. These places were not designed to trap tourists, and so I walked unmolested and mostly un-commented upon until I reached the Mosque of Al-Mu’ayyad, a glorious structure with beautiful interior polychrome designs.

The interior of the Mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad

From there, I went to the neighboring Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of Medieval Cairo. Above the gate stand two minarets , and I braved the narrow, unlit spiral stairs  to watch the sunset.

Sunset over Cairo

Looking out over the city, glowing under the light of the setting sun, I felt a surge of affection for my adopted city. There’s so much history here, so much life, so many different influences that come together to make the city vibrant. For all their differences, Zamalek and Old Islamic Cairo both have their place, as do all the other disparate neighborhoods here. Despite its many challenges, I’m glad that I can call this city home.

 

The minarets of Cairo's skyline at twilight.

 

 

Eid Mubarak–A Very Expat Holiday in Cairo

Eid is one of the biggest holidays of the Muslim calendar. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, and the miracle of having the ram appear to be sacrificed instead. In the Islamic tradition, the sacrificial son was Ishmael, and the prophet Mohammed traces his lineage back to him, just as in the Christian tradition Jesus traces his lineage back to Issac. Eid is celebrated in most Muslim countries by a sacrifice of various animals, usually sheep, sometimes cows and cockerels as well. For the past several days, I’ve seen dazed-looking flocks of sheep lining the Cairo streets, and known that the date of the Great Sacrifice was coming soon.

As a longtime vegetarian, I admit that I looked forward to Eid with no small amount of trepidation.  My memories of Eid in Morocco consisted mainly of trying not to step in puddles of bloody rain in the streets of Rabat, and watching kids play catch with severed goat heads before tossing them onto makesihft bonfires on street corners. I’d been on a train that morning, so I’d missed everything to do with the slaughter and only saw a bit of the aftermath. I was torn, this time around, between the desire to experience an “authentic” Egyptian Eid and the desire to stay as far away from slaughtered animals as humanly possible.

Though I’d heard that there might be a parade in the morning, the guy who invited me to watch with him never got back to me. So I spent the night before Eid at home with my new flatmates and took their advice: the best way to spend Eid morning is to get so drunk the night before that you sleep through the sounds of the animals screaming. (Don’t worry, mom. I didn’t actually get that drunk).

I did sleep through the morning slaughter, but was awakened by the steady pounding sound of cow cadavers being hacked to pieces in the building directly opposite my window. I was relieved to discover, on looking outside, that while the activity was audible it was not visible, and there was no blood running down the road as I remembered from Maroc. The only visible signs of the slaughter from my vantage point were carts of bloody sheepskins driving down the street. A butcher-shop smell was in the air.

I went out for lunch with an Egyptian friend, who told me he didn’t like the  smell of blood or the taste of sheep meat either, and so didn’t really celebrate the Eid.   Like disaffected 20-somethings everywhere, he found spending too much time with his parents at home “boring,” and so we were two of many young adults in the restaurant-cafe, presumably all taking a break from awkward familial conversations at home. It reminded me of nothing so much as the inevitable, desperate cafe run with friends that accompanies almost any holiday visit home in the US, when you’re sick of being asked what you’re doing with your life. Young adults everywhere are the same.

In the evening, Lorna and Ellie invited a handful of friends for a small house party–their own take on the celebration of Eid.  It was very non-Muslim, in that there were large quantities of alcohol, and no real link to any Eid traditions. Just a few expat women and their spouses (some foreign, some Egyptian), with cocktails and conversation and bellydance tv.

All in all, it was the kind of holiday celebrated everywhere by people without their families nearby, or by people faced with huge cultural holidays that are not their own.  We find friends and gather, not out of any kind of tradition, but out of a need for companionship and solidarity. That when everyone around us is celebrating in  a way that we can’t join, at least we are not alone.

 

 

 

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

Gyms, Shopping, and Sushi–Settling In

These past few days I’ve gone out in the evenings, for the first time since coming to Cairo. I found a gym online and got lost trying to get there yesterday, ended up walking around Cairo’s shopping area after dark. Unlike in other cities, where walking around at night is dodgy, Cairo actually felt quite safe. Because of the desert climate, most people don’t go outside in the afternoon. The evening is when the streets become alive.

Searching for my gym (which I eventually found and took pilates and zumba classes), I found shops with seasonal sale signs in the windows, a nod to the middle-class consumer culture that was rising in Cairo before the revolution took place.  I bought gladiator sandals and a turquoise sundress, and walked around until I found a sushi cafe that proudly advertised its two locations as Cairo and Sao Paulo. More important than the cuisine, though, was that it was a place where I could sit for a few hours with a notebook by the window, without worrying about being heckled by the servers or the passers-by.

I realized, as I sat watching Cairo’s easy nightlife pass before me, that I’m beginning to settle here. I’m beginning to get to know the city, not as an Egyptian but as a new expat, and I’m beginning to learn my way around and feel comfortable. Though the city is massive, I’m carving out pockets of familiarity.  Slowly  but surely, I’m making Cairo into my home.