Upon Renewing My Identity Card

Dear Seif,

It has been two years since our last visit to Egypt. During that visit, president Morsi was deposed and an interim president took his place. This trip, nothing as dramatic happened. There is one incident that took place that I want to write about, however, and I’ll tell you why at the end of this post.

Renewing an identity card might sound like a pretty straightforward matter. In Egypt, it involves site seeing, claustrophobia, chaos, and a double dose of reality. In trying to find the right location that processes a fast-track application, I was sent to Abdeen. There, I got to check out the beautiful Abdeen Palace before I was informed that I was at the wrong office. I was then directed to go to the Fifth Settlement where nostalgia visited as I passed by the neighborhood where we used to live. Once I arrived, I was told by a very angry man that I was in the wrong place and that I needed to go to Kattameya. During the looooooong drive, I got the opportunity to witness the scenic view of the houses built on top of a hill, and the mosque that seemed to teeter on the edge of a cliff. This time, there was an angry woman to receive me, brushing off my application saying that I needed to go to Medinet Nasr. I was wondering what part of “fast-track application” had gone wrong. When the woman behind the glass window at the Medinet Nasr office accepted my application, I wanted to hoola-hoop through the circular window and kiss her forehead.

You’d think that receiving my renewed ID card would be the easiest bit. It wasn’t. The tour of Cairo was a more pleasant experience.

Failed attempt at receiving ID card #1: The government employee responsible for distributing the renewed ID cards left at 1:00 p.m. Why does he leave before the rest of the employees? No logical explanation.

Failed attempt at receiving ID card #2: My ID card had arrived at the office, but was then returned to Abbasia because they had made a mistake. When will the ID card make its way to Medinet Nasr again? The answer was a shrug.

After failed attempt #2, I decided to go with my dad’s driver to sign an authorization form so that he could pick up my ID as I was to travel to Canada the next day. On my way to Medinet Nasr, I heard on the radio that 21 senior citizens had died from the heatwave. When I saw a line of what seemed to be around 70 people waiting to get inside the building, I started to panic for them and for myself.

The driver told me to follow him to another entrance. We were stopped by a police officer who commanded us to join the line outside. The driver pointed at me and said assertively, “She’s from Canada. She can’t stand outside in the sun for a long time.” I felt like the biggest wimp of the year. Somehow, the police officer thought it was a plausible excuse and allowed us to enter indoors.

Inside was a jumble of people packed in a very small space. Around 50 men and women were all shouting over each other. A police officer pushed people away from the door that led to what seemed to be paradise. I couldn’t hear what the police man was saying, nor what everyone was shouting about. I was ready to go back outside and wait in what seemed to be a calmer line that was slowly melting under the sun. The driver told me that he would check to see if my ID had arrived before going through the process of writing an authorization form. He wove his way into the masses.

There was a semblance of a women’s line – the one that was squashed against a wall – so I stood in line while waiting to see what the driver was going to do. I could only see the top of his head; it bobbed violently from side to side as he was pushed around. By some miracle, he had reached the closed door. I looked at the women’s line and observed how different I appeared from everybody else. I was definitely the least conservative. By their accent, I could tell that they were from rural areas. I asked the woman in front of me why the place was packed more than usual. She informed me that today was the last day for people to get their children’s birth certificates. I discovered later that with the birth certificates, they would be eligible to apply for additional food subsidy that included rice, flour, cooking oil, and other basic staples.

Given the uncharacteristic hot weather in a confined space, and the uncertainty of whether or not people would get their birth certificate before the government workers left, things started to heat up literally and figuratively. The men started to push and shove each other as some of them tried to cut the line. The police officer asked for reinforcements to help move people away from the door and create a men’s line. The officers started pushing people into a line and yelled that nobody would go through the door until it was formed.

I watched as an old man with no teeth was shoved by the men around him. He was pushed all the way to the back of the line that was formed until he found himself outdoors in the sun. I would have done anything to trade places with that poor man; but being in the women’s line, it was not possible.

Soon afterwards, I saw a middle-aged man start to shout in exasperation. I couldn’t hear what he was saying because people were still yelling – as if yelling was going to transport them through that closed door via sound waves. The man started to sob vehemently. It’s not a common sight to see a man crying in public in Egypt. He then dropped to the ground. Several police officers started to pour bottles of water on the man and supported him to a standing position. No chair was offered.

The door finally opened and people started to push each other towards it. The women behind me were compressed against my body. I feared that a stampede might happen. The officer beside the door began to lose it again. He wanted to clear the way for the people from behind the door to come out. No one budged. Around ten people filed out doing what looked like the breast stroke to push their way through the throng. I was squished against the wall and felt stifled as I could smell thick sweat and damp fabric.

I could see the driver motion for me from behind the door. He had made it inside! I could tell by his motions and facial expressions that my ID card was available. Many of the women eyed me ferociously as I moved ahead of them in line. Several shouted at me, “Where do you think you’re going?!?” I told them that I was in line to receive my ID card, not my birth certificate. Inside, they were two separate windows so in essence, I was not cutting their line. The two women who were behind me in line followed me as if I was an ambulance cutting through traffic. They told the other women that they were with me.

As soon as I reached the door, the door was slammed shut again, and the driver’s face disappeared behind it. The woman at the front of the line shouted, “I’ve been here since 7:00 in the morning! No one is going through that door before me!” I have to admit that she sounded very scary… Rayya w Sekeena style scary. She had every right to be angry, seeing someone from the back of the line suddenly appear beside her; someone who looked entitled. I planned on letting her pass before me because it was absolutely her right. I felt terrible for everyone I had passed.

The person to my left was the man who had fainted. He started to wail again. Suddenly, the door opened and more people filed out while people pushed to get in. The woman beside me suddenly shoved me away from the door with amazing force. She shouted that no one would go in before her. I backed up from the woman and motioned for her to pass. For some reason, she didn’t pass even though she was right in front of the empty doorway. She continued to trap me against the side of the door with her arm and leg for a few more seconds before making her way inside. I went in after her, followed by the wailing man.

Inside, the driver escorted me to an empty window. He explained to me that although my ID card had arrived, he was not allowed to receive it for me, despite having the receipt slip and my old ID card. I had to be there in person. Once the man behind the window saw me, he handed me my new ID card in seconds.

The door opened as I grabbed on to the driver’s shoulder and squeezed my way through. Once in the car, I felt a sense of euphoria – as if I had survived a perilous situation. Then I fell into a depression. I saw the people still stuck outside, shielding themselves from the sun with a newspaper or a bag. I thought about how this rare situation I was exposed to was someone’s 24/7. People who were shuttled from one office to the next, spending what little they had on public transportation, to be led on a wild goose chase.

But sluggish bureaucracy is not new in Egypt. What I did find to be new, however, is how people treat one another. The sentence that I kept hearing from many was, “People have changed for the worse after the revolution.” I remember the wave of inspiration when Egyptians organized traffic and guarded their neighborhood when the police went AWOL; how they cleaned the streets and beautified them with artwork; how people living abroad decided to return to Egypt in order to invest in their country. But that burst of beauty seems to be like a mirage now.

People seem to have become more aggressive and less patient. It is clear in how people drive. I thought that perhaps I was seeing driving through the lens of someone who has spent a few years in Canada. But everyone I asked from my family and friends have attested that driving has gotten far worse. The “me first” attitude has significantly increased. My driver’s license has expired and I don’t plan on ever renewing it again. My driving days are over in Egypt.

Going back to the experience of renewing my ID card, I am still jolted at how the old man was treated. I reflected on a time, not too long ago, when the elderly and women were treated with kindness and respect by the majority. During that time, it would have been unheard of to see a man push a woman out of the way to take her place; or to see an old man being shoved to the back instead of being escorted to the front of the line; or to see a man sobbing and being treated with apathy.

There are many advancements in the infrastructure as new streets and bridges have sprouted. We now have a second branch to the Suez Canal which is aimed to boost our economy. What I hope and pray for is what still has yet to change: reaching those who are in dire need. Renewing my ID card has given me just a drop of a dose from the murky sea of life that these desperate people live in, day in and day out. I hope that one day in the near future, they get to benefit from the changes taking place in the country; that their voices and needs are heard and prioritized; and that something goes their way so that they can feel hope once more. What an Egypt that would be!


Your hopeful mother, Rania

Published in: on August 14, 2015 at 10:42 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every single sentence of yet another beautiful powerful, vivid letter to Seif. spine-tingling, moving and thrilling. So much of your good character is unintentionally revealed in your letter. Humour never fails to be present in every paragraph. I imagined myself in the line with you , so descriptive creative crystal clear, funny and accurate. Your usage of similies that are both funny fitting comfortably well. Not an easy situation to write about. Beautiful loved it . Thank you Rania ..

    • Thank you very much! I hope that the next blog posts transport you to a more upbeat and happy event 🙂 Love you!

  2. I was very interested to read your experience, but so saddened. I have not been back to Egypt since 1994, but the Egyptian people I remember when I lived there were kind, easy-going, respectful, and, for the most part, patient inspite of the amount of rigmarole and corruption necessary to navigate in order to get a driver’s license, for example. My memories of Cairo and the people I lived beside during those years are very dear to me. So sorry that the pressures of recent years are fraying the fabric of civil society in this negative way.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write a message. We have faced so many changes packed in the last few years. However what remains as the status quo is how the underprivileged are neglected or pushed down the priority list. This lack of hope that they inevitably feel has unfortunately created either apathy or bubbling frustration. I hope that one day, soon, they get the attention and care they deserve. We need to start from the bottom up.

      On a separate note, I am a fan of yours. Reading Mr. Kramer’s blog has given me the honor of “meeting” you and following the ups and downs that your family has faced. Wishing you all the best and hope that you get to visit Egypt one day and find it even more beautiful than the time you left it.

  3. Another great blog Rania. Sad as you say, to seethe way the poor and underprivileged are treated. You must but all your blogs into a book for Seif go have when he’s older. X

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