June 28, 2004

No Visa

We did not get our visas for Libya.

My contact at the Libyan embassy told me as much over the phone Friday. They needed a few more weeks. So the fact that they didn’t pull it together in the last minute was expected.

That was about all I expected. I had never been inside an embassy before, let alone the embassy for an erstwhile enemy police state. I would have been surprised if goats were hanging from the ceiling, but not by much else.

The Libyan embassy is in Suite 1000 of a modern glass office tower. So I found the right building, went inside the elevator, and pushed 10. The doors opened up to a darkened hallway and a small waiting area next to a well-lit room shielded with bullet-proof glass and a little window for passing documents through. On the wall in big flaming back-lit letters, first in English, then in Arabic: People’s Bureau of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya. This must be the place.

Two women worked behind the desk. The older one wore a blue head covering, and a younger 30-something woman did not.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Michael Totten. My wife and I applied for tourist visas and I need to pick up our passports.” The woman with the head covering recognized my name. She was Rena, my phone contact.

She knew why I was there and what I needed, to my relief. I had a whole backup contingency plan in case, for whatever crazy reason, the embassy wouldn’t hand over our passports. (Trust me. You would worry about this, too, if you spent the past four months submerged in Libyan bureaucracy.)

She sat me down in the little waiting room. Another woman with a thick Arabic accent (and, a bit to my surprise, blue eyes and red hair) served me coffee in a little cup on a dainty china saucer. She insisted on putting the cream in my coffee for me, then she insisted on stirring the coffee for me, too. After the cream turned the coffee color to caramel she asked "Is that good enough for you?" She seemed to me one of the world’s sweetest people. Over her left shoulder was a framed photo of a fist-pumping Moammar Ghaddafi.

While I waited, a 50-something man in a power suit strutted out of the elevator and barged through the security door like he owned the place. He must be the boss, I thought. Then another man did the same thing, followed by several others. None of them smiled at me, but one did say “Good morning.” One was a dead-ringer for Saddam Hussein, moustache and all.

A young black man about my age stepped out of the elevator and walked up to the reception window. He spoke in Arabic and – hey – I even understood some of it.

“As-salaam ahlaykum. Ureed blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, lau samaht.” Which means (translation obviously mine): “Peace be upon you. I’d like blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, please.”

So, okay. My knowledge of Arabic isn’t comprehensive just yet. I have no idea what the man wanted. But a month ago I wouldn’t have understood even that much. All of it would have been blah blah blah. When I’m just starting to learn a new language, it’s satisfying when I can understand even a fragment. It gives me confidence I can eventually pick up the rest of it.

Rena came out and handed me our two passports. There were no visas stamped inside, but there was 160 dollars in cash – our application fees. They could have kept the money and I would not have complained.

I don’t blame the folks in the embasssy for not getting this finished on time. They can’t issue visas without a green light from Tripoli. They did what they could within the confines of the leviathan.

I can’t say I got a good vibe from the Libyan men in the embassy. I was furniture to them, and so were the women. But the Libyan women were wonderful and they left me with a good feeling. We're determined to reapply for visas the minute we get back from Tunisia. We’ll get them next time, Inshallah.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 28, 2004 8:58 AM
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