Blog, Essays

A day in hell (in a public office)

While activists are fighting a big reform battle in the streets of Sana’a, I am fighting for my husband’s right to obtain residency in the public offices of Yemen. I moved back to my beloved country of birth about four months ago with a foreign husband.

It has taken me three months to try and notarize our wedding contract in order for him to be able to get his residency here. Although we were already married abroad, we needed to get “permission” to get married from the Ministry of Interior, and a lot of bureaucratic paper work.

Family members were quick to inform me that this process is too complicated, and that I needed a “fixer” to help me get all the papers done. I naively said, no thanks, we’ll do it our selves. After all, we at least have to try. In three months, we got signatures from the Ministry of Interior and from three bureaucratic institutions: national security, political security, and criminal investigation; all certifying their approval for marriage. Now we needed to pick up these papers from the immigration office.

On Monday January 24, 2011, my husband and I headed to the national security desk, room 68, at the immigration office. Entering that room, I saw a grumpy man in his late thirties and five people waiting. We sat on the chair until he looked our way.

My husband: “We are here to pick up a paper for our marriage approval”.

National security man: “Where are you from?”

Husband: “France”

Man: “Are you Muslim?”

Husband: “Yes.”

Man: “What are the five pillars of Islam?”

My husband: “Shahada, fasting, zakat, Hajj.. and,” one slipped his mind.

Me: “We got married abroad, and we already got the approval here, we just need to pick up the paper.”

Him: “Oh since you are already married, it’s a very complicated situation.”

Me: “What situation? There’s nothing complicated at all, we already got the minister’s signature, we are here only to pick up one paper that was sent here.”

At this point, he turned to everyone in the room, and said: “Get out, I would like to speak to them in private.” Then the interrogation started. “Which branch of the family are you from, where are you working? Is it an international organization? etc..” He continued to ask me details about my job.

Man: “Do you write reports at work?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Man: “Do you write reports about your work?”

Me: “Umm of course I do.”

Man: “What do they consist of?”

Me: “Umm it depends. Reports about activities we do with the orphans. Houses we visited, events we plan, budgets, that sort of thing. But what does this have to do with my husband’s residency?”

Man: “Um…..well we are national security.. we need to know.”

Me: “Ummm okkk!”

Man: “Well don’t worry, I’ll help you. Just go to room 94 and fill out two forms then come back here.”

We went to room 94, filled out the forms and returned. Then he asked us for more documents.

Me: “Why do we need to fill out all these documents? We are only here to pick up a paper.”

Man: “No one told you to marry a foreigner!” Then he said: “If I call you and ask you for something, will you help?

Me: “Huh, what kind of help?”

Him in an annoyed tone: “You are a smart girl, you know what I’m talking about!”

Me: “No I don’t know.”

Him: “You know what I mean, I need hag alaytam.. (loosly translated as what you give orphans).

Me: “What???!”

At this point he got really impatient and very irritated and asked the two men sitting in the office to leave. He looked at my husband and asked him to leave as well and said: “I need to speak to her alone.”

Me: “But he is my husband. He should stay.”

Man: “No, I need to speak to you alone.”

My husband: “Why does she need to be here alone? Aib “

The man’s face turned red and he started shouting: “You can’t tell me what is aib in my own country. What is aib about this huh?! I can send you back to your country right now for being an extremist.”

My husband: “I just do not understand why you are insisting for me to leave my wife here alone!”

To calm the situation, I swallowed my pride, interjected and actually APOLOGIZED to the man. I thought it was over, but then the man flipped through the papers, turned to me again and said:

Man: “Why didn’t you write your mobile number.”

Me: “I wrote my house and work number. I think that’s enough.”

Man: “No I need your mobile number now.”

Me: “Fine, here it is.”

Him: “If I said Yemeni national security needs your help, would you help?”

Me: “It depends on what you need.”

Him: “Orphans reports.”

Me: “That’s confidential, but I will ask my boss.”

Him: “No, without asking him. I need the reports?”

Me: “No I can’t do that.”

Him: “Even for national security?”

Me: “Yes even.”

Him: “Do you really not understand what I am talking about?”

Me: “No I don’t.”

Him: “Aren’t you Yemeni?”

Me: “Yes I am!”

Him: “Ok well, never mind, I am just kidding. I am testing your nationalism to see whether you are ready to help national security or not. Now don’t go back to your job and tell them I asked for reports, they will laugh at you.” He gave us the paper and said mabrook. Mabrook? Mabrook for what? For making me want to cry and shout.

After we left, it hit me that “reports” were a code word for “money.” Anger against this ultimate abuse of power consumed me. Although this is just one personal account, it is representative of a dangerous epidemic. His last question “Aren’t you Yemeni?” illustrates my point. Bribes are not just appreciated, they became necessary. Yemenis deal with this on a daily basis, but we should not accept it as part of our society and we should refuse to let the culture of fear rule us. We cannot complain about corruption if we are not doing anything to combat it. The least we can do is expose those who abuse power.

I am a law-abiding citizen, and I am a little worried because my husband’s residency process is not complete yet. However, if anyone should be fearful it should be the corrupt public servants who do not serve the public but serve their own interests.

*Also published in the Yemen Times, 10-02-2011

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