Friday, January 13, 2006

The Czech joke of the day is Queen Latifah at the Grand Hotel Pupp.

Roger Ebert says, "My wife and I were in Karlovy Vary four years ago for the film festival, and, like [Queen Latifah's character], we did a double-take when we discovered that the correct pronunciation of the hotel rhymes with 'poop.'"

Except it doesn't rhyme with poop, it is poop.

I met Roger Ebert on the visit to Karlovy Vary he describes. I liked him.
Meanwhile, in Poland, there's a political crisis! Oh no... Wait, you say, didn't they just have elections? Indeed they did! Seems the two main right-wing parties can't agree on what "right-wing" means! Guess they'll figure things out sooner or later...
One of the recreations of Mr Justice Hughes, trial judge of "handless headcase" Abu Hamza al-Masri, is bellringing. Again, I entreat a British reader to explain.

Daily blogging will now commence... It's a delayed New Year's resolution.

Order of business: There are two occasional commenters (out of what, four?) named Jeff. Gentlemen, choose your handles.

I heard last night that the mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borissov, has a thing for Munich. Apparently he thinks Sofia should be more like Munich. I don't know why -- maybe he has a cousin there or something.

So along those lines, the popular Mr Borissov closed the city's main commercial thoroughfare, Vitosha Boulevard, to wheeled traffic, making it a pedestrian-only shopping zone. Thing is, the shopkeepers are pretty pissed off, and frankly it would seem far more Munich-like if it didn't look so damn deserted during the day (and late at night, for that matter).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It looks like I have been banned from Syria. I figure I may as well wear it as a badge of pride.

Since I posted it once before and then took it down -- the reason why will become clear in due course -- you might already know that I recently had an article published in the Chicago Tribune.

Here's a bit:

Make no mistake: Syrians are in denial about their government's likely role in the Hariri assassination....

Even opposition figures, such as the former political prisoner Riad al-Turk, admit that Syria's weakened and fragmented opposition is in no place to topple the regime via Kiev- and Beirut-style mass demonstrations.

It would be wise to read the words of another former political prisoner: In his 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless," Vaclav Havel, then a dissident Czech playwright, wrote of the totalitarian regime in which "all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies."

When that crust is broken in a single place, "the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably."
OK, OK. I know what you’re thinking: Are you surprised they won't let you back into the country?

Warning: A long and almost gratuitously uneventful story follows.

Some time ago –- it was November, actually, such a long, long time ago, it seems -– I received a writing assignment from a magazine published for a major luxury hotel chain. (Imagine an in-flight magazine, but in a hotel.)

The assignment is not that important, but it’s worth nothing that the story would have made Syria look like a really, really great place to visit -– which it is, it really is. *Sigh.* It was a sweet gig, even more so because they were planning to fly me to Damascus and put me up in the hotel for a few days.

I last visited Syria in October, when I spent two weeks tooling around the country, kicking up dust at archaeological dig up north near the Turkish border, hanging out in Aleppo (ugh!) and Latakia and cavorting with student demonstrators in Damascus.

At the time of my October visit, it was relatively easy to get a visa to go Syria, at least if you live in Cairo. For the last several years, Cairo (where I live) has been known as the only place in the world where the Syrian embassy will grant you a visa if you live outside your home country. (Indeed, this contributed to my decision to move to Cairo; I certainly wasn’t going to go all the way back to the U.S. just to get a Syrian visa.) The only requirement was an Egyptian residence visa, easily obtainable by a visit to the dreaded Mugamma in downtown Cairo.

I even thought I'd discovered a better method: While in Damascus in October, I paid a visit to the Syrian Ministry of Information in order to obtain permission to visit the archaeological site. The woman who arranged my visit to the site had told me that all the permissions from the relevant authorities were in order before I arrived.

When I got to Damascus, I learned there had been a last-minute hitch, but that all I needed to do was pay a visit, in person, to the Ministry of Information to pick up the piece of paper I needed to visit the site. OK...

The Syrian Ministry of Information is housed in a restored 18th-century Damascene palace, with a tiled courtyard surrounded by a colonnade of soaring arches and carved stone columns embellished with inland mother-of-pearl; a fountain trickles and the scent of jasmine lingers beneath a cypress canopy. I’m joking, of course. The Syrian Ministry of Information is a soulless box in the modern part of Damascus, with dismal corridors lit by fluorescent lights and staffed by hapless bureaucrats. You know the ones.

I met two of these nice, hapless bureaucrats: Ahit Abu Zaid, assistant to Nizar Mahyoub, spokesman and head of the foreign press section at the Ministry of Information, and Ahit’s assistant, Basel.

Both were helpful enough on the surface. "We have approved your request to visit the site, Ahit Abu Zaid told me. "Now it will be forwarded it to the Department of Higher Education, where they will consider it."

Um, no... I’m just supposed to pick up this piece of paper from you and be on my way.

The details are not worth going into, but after many phone calls, I managed to at least get a piece of paper from the Ministry saying something about me visiting the site. And I went to the site and nobody even stopped me and demanded to see my papers or asked why I was poking around the Assyrian tell. So that's just a bit background knowledge about how Syrian bureaucracy works. Now for the fun stuff.

While I was waiting, I struck up an acquaintanceship with Ahit and Basel. I remarked to Basel that Damascus is a lovely city. Inexplicably, he told me I really should see the modern part of Damascus (not exactly the city's unique selling proposition as a tourist attraction).

Ahit gave me his mobile phone number in case there were problems at the site.

As they requested, I filled out a form to register myself as a foreign journalist. Basel told me next time I came to Syria, I could just notify them and they’d give me a press visa.

Cool, I thought. I’d gotten a tourist visa and that cost me a whopping $100. How should I notify them?

“Send a fax explaining the purpose of your visit, Basel said. “Or, you can send an e-mail and I’ll treat it the same as a fax.” There was something strange about the two e-mail addresses he gave me, actually: They both started with “www,” like hadn’t quite figured out the difference between an e-mail address and a URL. But whatever. He was being helpful.

I had a great time in Syria, and on the strength of my knowledge about Damascus I managed to sell a piece to the hotel magazine. It would require a second trip. So I sent Basel an e-mail officially requesting a press visa and explaining what I intended to write. (I tried the addresses with and without the “www.” No surprise, the former bounced back.)

Several weeks later, I still hadn’t heard back. I started to worry that they wouldn’t be able to process my application in time for the deadline. So I wrote to my editor and asked if I the magazine would pay for a tourist visa, which I knew could be done easily at the Syrian embassy in Cairo. For whatever reason I didn't feel like calling and dealing with the Ministry again. She said no problem, whatever’s fastest, just expense the $100 cost of the visa.

Well, turns out that in the intervening weeks, the Syrians had decided they weren’t really into this idea of letting foreigners visit the country -- especially Americans -- and had really tightened the rules for issuing visas. No more quick visas for tourists in Cairo: Orders from Damascus, the official at the embassy said. If I have a student visa, no problem, but in any case it will take 14 days now, instead of the next day.

This was turning into a problem. It was December by now, my trip was in less than a month and couldn't be delayed, and even if I could get this student visa, I was leaving the country for two weeks starting in less than 10 days, which meant that I would only have one day (January 4) when I’d be back in Cairo to get the visa and then fly to Damascus. I’d have to do something canny like buy a refundable ticket or reserve the ticket but not pay for it or have a friend buy it when I was out of the country after I somehow confirmed that the visa was ready (because I didn’t really feel like paying for the ticket if it wasn’t certain I’d get that visa).

I want to the Mugamma, where they told me I could get a student visa if I had a certificate from my school. I then got the school where I’d been attending Arabic classes to write a letter saying I was a student there. That seemed to work at the Mugamma: Pick up your passport tomorrow at 10 a.m., they said. I picked up my passport the next morning, and lo and behold, there’s no student visa -- just another version of the same tourist visa that was in my passport before. I raise a stink, I raise a really big stink. I shouted and stuff. Turns out my private school isn’t good enough to get a student visa; you have to be enrolled at a university. I demanded to know why they tell me this yesterday, showing them the two redundant visas they just gave me. I tried out every tactic I could summon forth from my meager tool chest of persuasive skills, all to no avail. Every so often one of the women behind the glass would take my passport and go talk to somebody else and I’d think, Aha!, they’re giving me the student visa I need to get the tourist visa to go to Syria to write the story by the deadline -- but the more of a stink I raised, the more problems seemed to materialize. It turns out the previous tourist visa I had was no good, because it was invalidated when I’d left the country to go to Syria the first time. Yes, I knew that, I said, which is why I’d already gone back to the Mugamma earlier to get a re-entry visa. But apparently I’d done things in the wrong order, as you have to get a new tourist residence visa, then get a re-entry visa which applies to the tourist residence visa. (Are you really still reading this paragraph?) And that new tourist residence visa that I just mistakenly received trying to get a student visa? Well, apparently that’s no good, because you have to get the re-entry visa after the tourist residence visa.

My complaint rose to officer at the head of the entire section. I begged and pleaded with to issue me a student visa, but he stood firm. Meanwhile, he insisted I buy a new re-entry visa.

“The person who gave you this re-entry visa made a mistake,” the officer said. “How can they give you a re-entry visa on the basis of an invalidated tourist residence visa? It's impossible!”

“But it wasn’t my mistake,” I said.

“No, I know it wasn’t your mistake, it was our mistake, but now you have to get a new re-entry visa.”

“And pay another 60 L.E. for it?” I asked.

“Maybe not 60,” he said. “I will find the person who issued you this re-entry visa and this person will be punished. And maybe they will pay for it.”

“Wait,” I said. “I have an idea. Can we find the person who made this mistake and see if they can make another mistake and issue me a student visa?”

“No, I am sorry.”

The fate of my return to Syria still hung precariously in the balance. (I just forked over the cash for the new visa, in case you're wondering.)

I called the Ministry of Information in Syria to try and explain the situation. I reached my old friend Ahit Abu Zaid on his mobile phone in Damascus. Send a fax, he said, and we can arrange the visa in 24 hours.

"Really?" I said.

"Really," he said.

I thought, Really?

I don’t have a fax machine, so I had my mom send a fax. Praise the Lord for mothers. The fax machine wasn’t working. She tried all night. Finally I called the office and told the guy there to check the fax machine. They must have reloaded the paper because it finally worked.

I tried calling Ahit to check that he'd received the fax. The signal was bad, so I sent him a text message. He texted back that he'd be back in the Ministry in the evening and he'd check.

For several days, I tried to reach Ahit again to confirm he’d received the fax. Finally I reached my old friend Basel at the Ministry's number.

"Send a fax explaining the purpose of your visit," Basel said. "Or, you can send an e-mail and I’ll treat it the same as a fax."

“I already sent both a fax and an e-mail to your personal address,” I said. I checked the address, and I’d indeed sent it to the correct address.

“Let me see,” said Basel. “I see that there are very many messages in my inbox. Can you send it again, please.”

I then explained my travel schedule and the fact that I would not be back at a fixed address in Cairo until Jan. 4, the day before my scheduled departure for Damascus. “I’m very worried,” I said.

“We can approve the visa in 24 hours and have it waiting for you at Damascus airport,” said Basel. “There is no need to worry.”

“Thank you, Basel,” I said. “I will send you the e-mail right now.” I figured I was making pretty good progress at this point.

I left for Italy on December 18. Before flying out, I had no time to contact either Ahit or Basel to see if they had received either the fax or the e-mail.

Then this article appeared. Bad timing, I know, but I was pretty psyched to be published in the Chicago Tribune, so I wasn’t about to tell them not to run the piece. Maybe nobody at the Ministry would notice if I didn't mention it...

Over the holidays, I briefly mentioned the Tribune piece on my blog, and thought better of it a day or two later, on the off chance that somebody at the Ministry decided to Google my name. So I took it down. (Of course they’d have found it regardless if they were really looking for it -- immediately, for instance, by Googling my name in Google News -- by why raise the risk level.)

I didn’t have much access to telephones while running around the southern Italian countryside during the Christmas and New Year’s period. I made several attempts to get through, calling using my credit card from pay phones. The charges were outrageous but there was no other option.

I finally got through to Ahit from a pay phone in Licata, Sicily. “Your visa will be ready, sir. We can have it waiting for you at the Damascus airport.”

Great news, I said. You rock. You’re my hero, Ahit.

I asked him to send me a confirmation fax, just so I had something to show the dudes checking the passports at the airport. He said he’s do it the next day. I then sent him an text message reminding him and asking him to notify me by phone, fax or e-mail if there was any problem whatsoever. I neither received the fax nor heard anything from him.

On the day I was scheduled to leave Cairo, I was uncertain about whether to go ahead and buy the ticket and fly to Damascus. The man said the visa would be there are the airport, but should I really believe him?

I sent an e-mail to the hotel asking about my reservation. My contact there, the assistant to the general manager, called me back while I was trying to buy the ticket, asking if she should book me in.

“Actually, there seems to be a problem with the ticket. Will you be checking your e-mail?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ll be waiting for your message,” she said.

I ended up buying the ticket with just minutes to spare before I had to get into a taxi to go to the airport. I ran back to the apartment, packed my bags and shot off an e-mail to the woman at the hotel.

I’m coming, I wrote -- and by the way, I have a strange request: There’s supposed to be a visa waiting for me at the airport but I don’t have any confirmation. Would you mind calling the Ministry of Information there in Damascus to make sure it’s there? Here’s the Ahit Abu Zaid’s mobile number.

About a mile out from the airport, I got a call from the nice lady at the hotel. She’d spoken to Ahit Abu Zaid. The Minister had not yet approved my visa. It wasn't waiting for me at the airport.

Thanks for letting me know, Ahit. I almost ended up sleeping on the floor at the airport, or worse, a Syrian jail cell.

Probably Ahit recognized my phone number on his mobile phone and was too embarrassed to tell me he’s failed to arrange it, so he didn't pick up. When the hotel lady called from Damascus, he answered immediately. He made some noises to her about me going to the Syrian embassy in Cairo and filling out some forms. At this point, finally, I decided to forget about it.

I’m told that’s the way they work: When they don’t want you to come to the country, they don’t actually reject the visa. They just sit on it and never approve it.

I’m disappointed not to have the satisfaction of knowing that I was barred from a totalitarian state for something I wrote. It could just be that I’m American, or it could even be bureaucratic incompetence. Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m in Sofia now. There’s snow on the ground and I wish I were in Damascus.