Reflections During a US Visa Grind – By Z. Riaz
This isn’t merely an account of the current conditions for visitors to the US Embassy in Islamabad. It is also a comment on the mindsets and values of Pakistanis and Americans. While the pen is that of a wretched visa applicant, the parchment is the history of power in recent memory its application, nature, variety, wielders, and victims.
To impart structure to something largely chaotic that lasts several hours, let’s begin by counting the number of times you have to wait in a queue during this Grind. Remarkably, this number is eight. Even more remarkably, six of these eight queues do not take into account your seniority in the preceding queue (more on the psychological effects of this later). In seven of the queues, you have to keep standing and in one of them there is no protection from the elements. While that tells you a bit about the process, there is far more.
Queuing for the bus ticket (8:00 AM)
You arrive at the parking area next to the Convention Centre by your own means and purchase an over-priced bus ticket to enter the Diplomatic Enclave ,three square kilometers of prime real estate in the north-eastern corner of Islamabad, hermetically sealed from the rest of Pakistan. There is a tin roof over the ticket windows [some embassies, like the US and UK, get their own windows while others are grouped under one ] but it’s still early morning and the hot tin roof does not shield you from the summer sun on your side. The US Embassy gives everybody an “interview time” of 8:30 AM. This isn’t even an approximation like your doctor’s appointment. The actual time you will be interviewed has no relation to the time written on your application (which you had submitted two months earlier at American Express). But you don’t know that. So you are anxious to get to the embassy by the designated time or perhaps you would lose your appointment for the day.
The person in the ticket window, like most Pakistanis, addresses you according to your perceived status. If this person thinks you are educated or rich or both, he or she might call you “Sir” and may not even check your application or passport or national identity card (NIC). Otherwise, he or she can be anything from rude to dismissive even if you do have all the documents. For example, you notice an older gentleman, simply dressed, wanting his son to accompany him to the US Embassy. Since the son isn’t an applicant for a US visa, the vendor refuses to sell him a ticket. Upon this the gentleman explains that his son has an appointment at the UK Consulate and the two would simply accompany each other in sequence. Evidently, this is permissible if the gentleman could produce the son’s passport and NIC. The gentleman pushes forward a bunch of documents already lying on the counter. The ticket vendor asks, “Are these yours?”The gentleman seems confused and nods. He clearly means that the documents are his and his son’s, but the ticket vendor has quickly assumed without looking at them that they do not include the son’s. He dismisses the case and tells the next person to step forward. The gentleman keeps insisting on something but it is a few minutes before the vendor understands him. The wisdom of having official documents checked by an unskilled temporary employee of a private contractor is beyond sense. It assigns authority and power where they do not belong and thus allows their misapplication and misuse. But such delays aside, this is perhaps the least painful of the queues as you get done in an average of 10 minutes.
Queuing for being frisked (8:10 AM)
Ticket in hand, you go through a security gate. The people in charge of the frisking and scanning do not inspire confidence. They are the typical under-paid, under-nourished, and under-trained temporary workers whose sweat is making millions for the “security”companies of this country. It’s mostly sham security that likely won’t catch any real threats but will successfully deprive you of your cell phone, hair pin, any other pointed object, and perhaps a modicum of your dignity. If you do have any of these items, you will be diverted to another queue where you must deposit such valuables and obtain a receipt. Aside from these minor drawbacks (what’s a little humiliation in the way of a coveted visa?), this too is a relatively painless queue that gets done in about 10 minutes.
Queuing for the bus (8:20 AM)
This is one of only two queues where you can keep your place from the previous queue, unless you were sent off to deposit something. There is a high tin roof here, but again no fans. Queues for the various foreign missions are separated by metal rails. As long as you are in a middle queue ,as the one for the US Embassy ,you get protection from the sun. A chain across the front of each pair of rails is meant to restrain people in their respective queues. Surrounded by the sour smell of aging sweat on metal repeatedly touched for years, you wait here for what can seem an eternity. There is ample time to wonder what Pakistanis have done to deserve all these metal restraints in their own country.
Buses come and go, but you don’t know which one is yours until the guard abruptly releases the chain at the front of your rails. More than fifty people can be in this queue and not all of them will fit in a bus. So those at the back get restless and try to push forward, not that they can cross anybody because everybody is very protective of their place, but in their anxiety to make it into the bus at hand they compress the queue and you can feel both physical and psychological pressure on your back. You must be ready to defend your place. Those who have infants or little children, or even those who have grey hair but are otherwise healthy, try to leverage their “handicaps to the max, banking desperately on the cultural and religious hold of such pleas. Some of their fellows accommodate them grudgingly but others do so happily, even reminding everyone that a visa is only for five years but paradise is forever. People are often polite to each other, and helpful, but the guards can be rude and dismissive based on perceived status. And the status of anyone going through this Grind couldn’t be very high, because the guards know that anybody who is anybody can have their car cleared for entry into the Enclave. The total wait here is about 30 minutes if you get in the first bus and about double that if not. It does not test your resolve, but if you are a self-respecting individual, it will make you ask yourself, “What is wrong with this world that human beings are subjected to this simply for wanting to travel? Who has divided up the world in this fashion and why? Who am I and why am I here?? It is only the beginning of questions that will dig far deeper into far darker corners of your world and your nationality.
Queuing for the shade (8:45 AM)
After a reasonably comfortable bus ride( most buses are air-conditioned), you drop out into the sun across the street from the bland concrete of the US Embassy building. It is a characterless building in a lifeless Enclave. During the bus ride, you go through several barriers where the vehicles have to draw a tight S on the road to get through. The barriers that alternatingly block the left and right halves of the road are not made of wood or pipes. Each unit is assembled by placing three angle-irons, about four feet long and eight inches wide, welded together in the middle to form a three-dimensional X. Each end of the X is sharpened into a pointed arrow of steel. Four or five of these units comprise a single barrier. If a vehicle, even a large vehicle, were to accidentally run into one of these, it would be instantly shred into pieces. You may have seen such murderous devices on footage of mayhem zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. What they are doing on the streets of Islamabad, the crown jewel of Pakistan’s cities, you cannot fathom. Not only do you wonder what Pakistanis have done to deserve this, but also what these “diplomats”have done to be so fearful. Along the road, grass overgrows through cracks in footpaths and other paved surfaces ,signs of years of disuse atrophy. The whole deserted scene ,and in particular the US building with its desolate, unfriendly look ,bears an eerie resemblance to public structures in the former Soviet republics. Solemn and hostile officials, mostly police and security guards, scurry about as if something is imminent. Civilians appear tense and humourless. You feel as if you are in a war zone, but try as you may you cannot find any combatants. That is until you realize that the whole setup is in fact for you. You, armed only with your documents and a desire to travel, you are the suspected combatant. In spite of the humourless environment, this should bring a smile to your face.
Even if you were the first person to get into the bus but the last one to get out, you will find yourself in the last spot in this queue. Losing fifty spots in a matter of minutes can be a telling psychological blow. To make matters worse, you can’t figure out why you are standing there under the sky. This queue is inexplicable because there is no cover here while across the street there is plenty of room in the maze of multi-coloured rails under a tin roof and fans. Nevertheless, you could spend about 30 minutes here in the sun ,or rain, if that’s your fortune.
And while you wait, you can watch some drama that the US Embassy has inadvertently arranged for your amusement. Anybody who knows somebody on the inside can bypass this queue. It is possible that even if you know only a security guard, you will be able to jump this queue and the next. So, as water drips down your face, whether it’s sweat or rain, you can see a bureaucrat’s family arriving in a Corolla with green plates. The guards fuss about them, addressing everybody as “Sir”and advising them to leave their bags in the car. The lady, middle-aged and plump with prosperity, sporting sunglasses swiveled chicly over the profuse blond streaks in her hair, is forlorn about leaving her handbag behind. Tragic. On a lighter note, the entire family and many others like them bypass you and many others like you straight into the building. With the myth of the system’s integrity debunked before their eyes, some people discover a renewed zest to exploit the culture, and many succeed. Some even discover new “handicaps to fit the situation or the guard’s personality. Tailor-made handicaps! Ounce by ounce, minute by minute, you feel as if people are letting go of their pride and dignity. This will get worse.
Queuing for entering the building (9:15 AM)
It’s a great relief entering this area because this is the second (and last) time in the entire process where your seniority in the previous queue is preserved and the first time you are under fans. Of course, you are thoroughly frisked before you’re allowed to partake in this American bounty and security cameras watch your every subsequent move. Any relief you might feel will disappear as soon as you realize that the queue snaking its way through the maze of rails is moving very slowly. Each segment of the snake requires an hour to clear and on average you will find yourself starting in the third segment.
The fans make it bearable but you have to keep standing and that can be tough. However, you do have a lot of people to observe and that will help kill time. You might see a few men all dressed up in coat and tie, as if Americans would trust them more or suspect them less in such attire. Some of these men are simply naÃ¯ve, but others are out to make a statement. For example, you notice a tall, bespectacled gentleman dressed in a navy-blue coat with khaki trousers and a striped tie. This isn’t a combination that a typical Pakistani trying to impress Americans would know much about, let alone pass off with any success. It is a combination of casual sophistication you can only pick up from exposure to a certain class in the West. This gentleman looks suave and above the heads of all around him he keeps his head perfectly straight and serious. He avoids other eyes by keeping his own focused in the distance and constantly replacing the distant object in his gaze with another one nearby. He wants to look the part and he is not unsuccessful. But does he realize that his full attire wouldn’t be visible through the interview window? And even if it were, the assumption that the consular officer would be sophisticated enough to pick up on his sartorial cues was an optimistic one. These officers do not descend from an English castle; they are ordinary Americans and as such have no taste in clothes. Perhaps cues less subtle would be more easily noticed and, at any rate, since when did men become the experts in this field of endeavour? Accordingly, you should be able to spot some ladies dressed in tight jeans and sleeveless tops hoping to strike a chord with their American masters: “Ah, one of us!”You might agree that the ladies’ revealing outfits stood a better chance of cutting some ice.
If you are lucky, you may even see a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and his family lining up between the “Blue”rails ,for folks seeking immigration to the land of opportunity. The “Red”rails are for those who seek merely temporary relief from the land of the pure ,or NIV (non-immigrant visa) applicants, as Americans in their love of acronyms call them. You wonder why such a prestigious sportsman would wish to immigrate to the United States where the only known cricket is an insect. He must feel that it is more desirable to be an ordinary citizen in the United States than to be a famous and respected person in Pakistan. Even though he may have arrived chauffeur-driven in a huge BMW X7, skipping the bus ride, he still has to go through the humiliation of the rest of the process. Yet, he must feel that this one-time or limited-time humiliation at the hands of Americans is better than living in Pakistan for the rest of his life or raising his children in this country. You might find this a trifle belittling, but then whoever said observing Pakistanis lining up at the US Embassy is an elevating experience. It simply helps kill time.
To take a break from these depressing observations, you might want to look at the beautiful Margallas in full view. On a clear day, this is a majestic sight. It is spoiled only by the electrified rings of sharp steel spiraling on top of the absurdly high wall of the compound, extending hundreds of feet towards the Hills. You may wonder again why the Americans are so afraid, and of what? After all that security ,they rid you of your car five kilometers away, where they also took your hair-pins, then frisked you and put you in a sanitized bus through sterile territory, and then frisked you again ,what are they afraid of now that they need this grotesque wall with its murderous spirals? What have they done to feel the need for such violent protection? Is this a reflection of the sophistication and meanness of the attacks carried out against them or the attacks they have carried out against others? Are they afraid that somebody will take as much trouble to harm them as they have taken to systematically harm others? Clearly, this is a wall meant to keep humans out at any cost, even that of killing them. Hence it is not merely a wall, it is a weapon ,a remarkably extreme and contradictory quality for a mere perimeter of what is essentially a mission for peace. You are reminded immediately of the Berlin Wall which the US proudly claims to have brought down. Americans labeled it evil because they claimed it was meant to keep people in. Yet, you wonder whether the distinction is merely a matter of opinion or even altogether spurious. The Soviets and the East Germans, who erected and maintained the Berlin Wall, had always insisted that its purpose was to keep out Western corruption, not to lock anyone in. At any rate, are such anti-personnel walls somehow ethical if they keep people out but unethical if they keep them in? What exactly is “out and what is in? Even though you have more than 120 minutes in this queue, it isn’t sufficient time to answer these questions. All you can establish after a good look at the electrified spirals of steel is that the US Embassy is the ugliest, coldest, most unfriendly structure in Islamabad. It looks like a jail. Freedom, equality, and human dignity appear to have no meaning for the people inside or outside it.
Queuing for the interview room (11:30 AM)
This is where you first enter the ugly building after going through yet another metal scanner. And this time they even take your car keys away. So Big Brother checks you out three times in all before you can get inside. More security cameras greet you here and no liquids, including water, are allowed. It is understandable that, over the years and all across the world, Americans have added such layers of “security”to their facilities as their enemies have grown in might (from the Soviet Union to a rag-tag bunch of disorganized zealots). More amusingly, across the world, including the United States itself, the motions of this security are often carried out by temporary employees of private contractors. In spite of its acute business sense, the American government seems to forget that people do business for profit. What kind of security can you buy from a Pakistani contractor employing a largely temporary local work force with typical salaries under $100 a month and no benefits? Is such a contractor going to invest in training? If you add to this mix the general dislike of America in the hearts of most Pakistanis, particularly those with little income and even less education, you can see the real depth of this security. If you add further the humiliation that these security guards witness their fellow Pakistanis suffering day-in and day-out, and their own part in it, you have the chemistry of discontent, guilt, motive, and opportunity in a timed device marked: When?
During this security check, a person behind the huge machinery in this tight space asks you whether you would like to be interviewed in English or Urdu. He enters your response into a computer along with some information from your passport and application. This gives you the first impression in the entire process that you have somehow been “logged in.”It is a huge psychological relief. You feel as if you no longer have to jostle to keep your place in a queue or worry about what will happen next. You are shown into an area where, for the first time, there are seats. There is cover here, and fans, but no air-conditioning. You can hear other people’s names being called for interview, and since your own name and choice of language have been entered in a computer, you assume that yours will be called in turn. You sit down in a chair, relieved, and find that there is even some reading material here. How thoughtful. The state of your mind is completely different from what it was a few minutes earlier. You feel relaxed, now that you are “in the system”and don’t have to worry about your place in a queue. No matter how long it takes, at least you can sit down, have a read, and even get a drink or a snack from the “tuck shop.”This is a completely false sense of relief that won’t last long and could cost you infinitely longer.
In spite of that danger, the available reading material is worth taking a look at. Try the posters on the walls first. They depict photographs and names of men America is looking for ,the so-called “Most Wanted list. If you saw such a list a few years ago, you will be surprised to find that it has become longer and the rewards for the capture of the suspects bigger. Interestingly however, you would notice as of 4 June 2007, the highest reward for the biggest names is still at the $25 million mark set years ago. This is either because the US government thinks that top informants live in an inflation-free zone or it no longer hopes to catch the leaders. Perhaps it has figured out that those who wouldn’t turn someone over for $25 million wouldn’t do it for $100 million either. For most Americans who hear news of fellow Americans killing each other every day for less than $100, that must have been a rude awakening. Upset by this rejection of the mighty dollar by the destitute accomplices of homeless fugitives, the Americans added the invaluable incentive of US citizenship for entire families of informants. Now that’s a good one: Move all the characterless squealers to America, a fine way to import some real thugs. Do they actually expect such citizens to be loyal to their new country, one they have hated all their lives? Again, in spite of its acute business sense, the American government seems to forget that the prime mover for the vast majority of immigrants is money, not love. Witness all the Pakistani immigrants in England or Australia. They may have been there for generations, and yet they come out in droves to support Pakistan in a cricket match against their adopted country. The citizenship ploy also throws some light on your own predicament in this Grind. Clearly, the Americans know what it means for desperate people to be able to go to America, and that is why they have made the process as humiliating as possible. “No matter what we dish out, these people will keep coming.”Or perhaps this was a miscalculation. Perhaps the ploy failed because the informants found out about the Visa Grind in Islamabad and decided that staying put in their cave was a better deal. Anyway, the top awards aside, others have risen considerably. Today, informing on each of a whole bunch of bearded buffoons is worth more than being a Nobel Laureate. This should spawn a new career choice, and you should not be surprised if your son says he wants to be an informant when he grows up. Nor should you be surprised if Harvard, the finest American source of “reason in the service of empire,”offers a major in “Informantics”by the time your son does come around.
What is surprising, however, is that while America keeps on tempting with ambrosia, and keeps on layering its security traps all over the world, it is still not catching the highest entries on those posters nor reducing the number of entries. Evidently, America’s enemies keep on growing and keep on successfully defying its tactics. You wonder why America can’t see the obvious: that its tactics of prejudice, mistreatment, discrimination, frisking people over and over, and the rest are not working. How much intelligence does one need to see that? Whatever the amount, the geniuses in Washington clearly do not possess it. Or perhaps they do, but are blinded by their own arrogance and absolute power. They have the power to mistreat people, whether in Islamabad or in Guantanomo, and so they do ,routinely, wantonly, brazenly ,to punish people for sharing skin colour, religion, or nationality with America’s perceived enemies.
The rest of the reading material is even more amusing. You have access to tens of copies of the two latest issues of Khabar-o-nazar. You haven’t heard of it? Please don’t let that deter you from benefiting from its incalculable educational value. It is a masterpiece of fiction. It all begins with the “Letters to the Editor.”The June 2007 issue has nine of them. The editors are in the practice of giving these letters cute titles like, “Beautiful magazine”or “Very informative”or “Profound thanks”(for sending me the magazine) or “Very glad”or even “Lucky”(to receive a copy of the masterpiece). Nine letters, all by very happy or very lucky Pakistanis. If your memory goes back that far, you might recall that the last time you read letters from such happy and lucky locals was in a Soviet magazine of the early-eighties published from Kabul.
You will find the articles in Khabar-o-Nazar equally complimentary, written by equally happy and lucky Pakistanis. One of the articles is titled America’s strength lies in its strong faith to work as a nation. The introduction to the writer says, “â€¦ Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, Sindh. He went on the Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) on the subject of â€˜University Administration’ from February 26 to March 9, 2007).”The Urdu section of the magazine translates the title of this article as “Amriki taaqat ka raazâ€¦.”Clearly, the small-town professor is over the moon at being given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get gifts for his friends and family from America. His gratitude is all over his writing, but you will find him looking even more grateful and obedient in the photographs. He and other international recipients of this US bounty can be seen exchanging servile smiles for condescending ones with their hosts. Naturally, they all returned to their respective countries and happily wrote the drooling dross for the local US Embassy magazine. Had Hitler invited this bunch to visit his laboratories, they would have given an equally flattering account of his eugenics. You may get an urge to remind the Americans, since they have no love of history, that throughout the ages such “visitor programs”for minions have been among the favourite instruments of oppressors who wished to be seen as fair. The Soviets were the masters of this craft.
You might read other articles like We Appreciate the U.S. Generosity or School Girls from Dadar Visit U.S. Embassy or you might decide that enough is enough. Whatever the amount you read, after Khabar-o-Nazar you would think that Pakistan and America are one big happy and lucky family. They have no issues because they understand each other so well: Americans are generous, Pakistanis are grateful, they are together on security, and there are no two opinions about it. Why then, you ask yourself, are the Americans making you go through this Grind and suspecting you of grisly intentions every step of the way? The answer may be that uniformity of opinion is not the mark of a happy family; it is the mark of tyranny. The free exchange of opinions is what makes a happy family. What imparts Khabar-o-Nazar its nature and flavour, and detracts from its message, is its a priori conviction that there cannot be an alternative view on anything said therein. This is the nature and flavour of propaganda. So this, you wonder, is what America has come to: unashamed, unadulterated, unmasked propaganda. And here you were thinking for years that the Americans had some tact ,perhaps not the subtlety or craft of the English, but at least some guile. No, this is just blatant, crass propaganda that appeals to none but the most undeveloped mind. Its audience ,or should you call them target ,are the uninitiated, unsuspecting students and teachers of unsung institutions in unremarkable places. Khabar-o-Nazar is the American counter-offensive against the madrassa and it employs precisely the same technique: brainwashing the feeble-minded.
You will soon discover that the fascinating reading material has derailed you from your quest. While you were sitting there thinking that you had been “logged”into the “system,”no such thing had happened. You weren’t supposed to sit and read or reflect. You were supposed to push forward through the area, this time with no queue defined, to get closer to the air-conditioned “interview room”at the far end of the hall. Since the seats in this area are scattered all over, it is not possible to be precise about queue seniority. You know that Pakistanis would take advantage of any such opportunity to improve their position. Hence the only method is to be constantly on the lookout for a seat closer to the interview room than yours. When you see someone move forward, you must run, push, and shove, whatever-it-takes to get to the vacated seat. You are then supposed to repeat the process four or five times until you get into the row of seats in front of the door to the interview room. Each time the door opens, the guard only lets in the people in the front row of seats. The competition for this row is therefore fierce and only the very determined and at least somewhat uncivilized can succeed. You can only admire how the designers of this process have inserted this ingenious stage, after four hours in the Grind already, to humiliate people and rip their pride off their skins. Reminding you of hyenas sharing a kill, the applicants gnaw and growl trying to occupy the front row. Unsuccessful, they turn to the guards yet again to invoke “handicaps”and exploit the culture. But small children, old age, sickness and the lot just aren’t sufficient excuses any more. The pride that you had seen evaporating ounce by ounce outside, now disappears in tons. So you might see an otherwise dignified and reserved man whispering to a guard, begging, to let only his wife and infant through, not himself, because she is several months on. The guards show little or no mercy, sometimes even losing temper.
The irony of this situation should lay itself flat in front of you as a Pakistani. In all likelihood, the man begging the guard would scarcely treat him as a human being if the two met outside the Enclave. Not only that, the guard himself would be overtly polite and fawning because he could be looking for a tip or perhaps even a job. The irony isn’t merely in the role-reversal, because that would revert quickly to the usual outside the Enclave, but also in the impressive effect of American money and power. Inside the US Embassy, a poor Pakistani guard has more authority and status than a minister, a rich businessman, or a former cricket captain. Perhaps this is a good lesson that serves Pakistanis right, since most of them are obsessed with status and money. But the lesson is only at a subconscious level and altogether too ephemeral to achieve consciousness and hence unlikely to effect a behavioral change in either party.
If you do not dabble in the reading material, you will get through this stage in about 60 minutes. If you do, you could be the last person to be interviewed that day, about 4 PM.
Queuing for finger-printing (12:30 PM)
Inside the interview room you get air-conditioning for the first time, and more cameras. Right at the door, yet another layer of inexplicable security divests you of your half-consumed water bottle. Since you weren’t allowed to bring any plastic or other containers in the building, you could only have purchased your water from the “tuck shop”in front of the interview room. Yet, you must leave this bottle out when you go in. Clearly, Americans expect their enemies to be very creative and high-tech, capable of developing weapons from water in a few minutes with their bare hands. If indeed this is where technology has arrived, no one is safe from anyone anymore. You must mistrust everybody and dig yourself into a hole two miles under the surface of the earth. The word that comes into your mind upon having your water bottle confiscated is neither freedom nor equality. It isn’t even security or safety. It is paranoia. So this is what America springs in people’s minds today.
The interview room is about thirty by fifty feet. As you enter through the door, the wall in front of you has windows marked 1 through 8. The wall on your right has windows 9 through 12 ,they’ll get to 101 in due course. The other two walls are plain. All the windows have very think glass and are fixed, with no moving panels. A narrow slit at the base of the glass allows for exchange of documents and inadvertently lets voices slip across as well. However, you are supposed to speak to the consular officer through a handset placed in a cradle to the right of each window. Just like in an American jail. So the resemblance to a jail did not end with the steel spirals. Once again, you are not sure who is inside and who is outside. The consular officers sit securely on the other side of the glass, perfectly safe from your bare hands and your documents in case you decide to flail them around. If you somehow succeeded in smuggling your plastic water bottle in, and get frustrated by the tedious questions during the interview, don’t try to break the glass with it. You won’t succeed. You won’t even succeed if you tried ramming your car into this window. Your Pakistan-assembled car will be in pieces. This is serious American glass, probably bullet-proof or even bazooka-proof. How a bullet or a bazooka would find its way into this bunker, miles deep in this ugly fortress in a wasteland, to warrant such glass is beyond irony. You can’t help but wonder if the Soviets ever took paranoia or humourlessness to this level. By the way, ever since the Americans lost their sense of humour a few years ago, you are not supposed to make jokes about their “security”any more. It is only a matter of time that the prominent message from US airports will be displayed at the Embassy as well: “Making jokes about security is a federal offenseâ€¦”or some such Newspeak. So you can have sarcastic thoughts such as the ones expressed in this paragraph but you must not express them. And you can only have such thoughts until the Department of Homeland Bigotry adds Thought Police to its impressive array of tedious tormenters.
There is seating for about a hundred people in the middle of the room ,a bit congested, but given what you have suffered you will accept it. However, you may not sit yet. You have to stand in a queue to submit your documents and get finger printed like a criminal, all ten digits. It’s funny how the American on the other side of the window tells you to place your digits on the glass of the scanner. He says nothing, just shows you with his own hands how to close your fingers and then put both hands together on the scanner. His eyes direct you to the scanner while both his hands are committed to the sample position. He then does the same with both of his thumbs, holding them together, and motioning you with his eyes to place them like that on the scanner. You have probably seen monkeys being trained like that, so this is your chance to understand how they feel. In spite of the humiliation, the 60 minutes will pass, you will submit your passport and application in Window No. 12, get finger-printed, and finally sit down to wait for the interview.
Queuing for the interview (1:30 PM)
You are so tired by this time that you want to suspend all observation, all thought, all breathing for a while and just move to another world. But there is no rest for those who do wicked things like applying for a US visa. Names are being called all the time and you can overhear people from several of the windows. If you thought Pakistanis had been completely stripped bare of their dignity already, you will reconsider. You might hear a pathologist, with 30 years of practice, meekly entreating with the visa officer in front of his simple wife, always smiling but never understanding anything, and his anxious twenty-something son.
“I am pathologist,”you hear him saying in barely intelligible English. “I am foreign trained. I go everywhere, London, USA, Germany
You could also get to hear the tall gentleman in coat and tie answering pathetic questions in all earnestness.
“Why do you wish to immigrate to the United States?
“I want a better future for my children.
“Which institution did you attend in the United States?
“Harvard Business School.
“What is your monthly take-home salary?
“Six hundred and fifty thousand rupees per month.
You wonder if you heard that right. Is he serious? Do people make that kind of money in Pakistan? And yet they want to run away from this country? Even with that income, he thinks his children’s future is not good enough here? He takes home that much? How much does he leave in the office? Perhaps you should pay a visit to his office at night. That should be good enough for your children’s future.
You might even catch a glimpse of the bureaucrat’s family passing the handset from member to member in a rush as if the slightest delay could trigger a rejection from the consular officer. You can hear them trying to give the impression that they are different from ordinary Pakistanis, and yet willing to be rid of their dignity faster than they were to be rid of their handbag outside. The lady, her streaks somewhat less prominent without the sunlight, appears even more nervous now that her blond cue “I am modern”doesn’t seem to be working. You gather that her name is Sahiba because the officer across the window keeps calling her that. The lady herself is a little confused, as if she wants to say that her name is not Sahiba. But she is too afraid to say anything. It’s a few minutes before both you and she realize that the officer is using Sahiba as a form of address and not as a name. You find that hilarious. You wonder if, upon your own turn for interview, you should tell them that Sahiba is not colloquial; that it is seldom if ever used in Urdu except as a suffix to a name; and that whoever trained these officers was misguided. But there is no point. These people are trained in Washington D.C., in everything from Urdu to mistrust. The State Department knows best. That is why, for the past few years, they have all been told to say assalam-o-alaikum upon beginning the interrogation of a Muslim. This is not only true of consular officers in Islamabad but also of immigration officials at all ports of entry in the United States. Just like Sahiba, this is a misguided effort by the geniuses who run the US government. The idea is to show respect and recognition and thereby to “disarm”a Muslim, to make him or her feel at home. In reality, it has the opposite effect. In many cases, the accent gets in the way and you don’t even understand what the official has said. When you do, the unexpectedness of the greeting, coupled with the strangeness of the environment and the coldness of the tone, immediately puts you on your guard. You simply don’t expect to be addressed in this fashion. It’s like having a stranger come up to you and address you by name. “How did he know my name?”you wonder. In this case, your immediate reaction is, “How do they know I am a Muslim? Now that they know, do they suspect me of something?â€
You cannot help but ask yourself why are Americans so suspicious of Pakistanis now? Why do they act so superior? It can’t be just because of the State Department training. If you look closely at their society, you may find that suspicion and mistrust run far deeper in American veins. In some ways, many ordinary Americans are raised in prejudice. Under the thin veneer of tolerance and plurality, America is still a deeply racist society where every group mistrusts every other group at some level. Eighty percent of America today claims at least some European descent and hence any other group is a minority. Whereas the Europeans are not necessarily united (Italians are abused as “wops”and the French as “frogs”while there are other slurs for others), they cannot be readily identified into smaller groups on the basis of appearance. Prejudice in America is also based on language, religion, and other cultural traits, but appearance is by far the widest and deepest foundation. While the European-American bias against African-Americans is well documented and widely known, being prejudiced is not a monopoly of Europeans alone. Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and others now form large minorities that have complicated the bigotry scene. All these groups can be sometimes deeply prejudiced against each other. Being the oldest and the largest group, European-Americans are most keen on being seen as “tolerant”and so they are the most subtle in their expression of prejudice. In contrast, Americans of Asian origin are often blunt in their hate. For example, Pakistanis or Indians in America use the word “black”or “kala”in such derogatory tones that it sounds more abusive than any abuse. Koreans, Chinese, and other Asians have their own such slurs. African-Americans often return the compliment by bashing these groups when they can. Many of them, being the poorest on average, don’t like Asians because they feel that unskilled labour from this continent is responsible for their employment woes. Yet, when it comes to minority rights, the leaders of all these groups get together against their common nemesis: the European-Americans.
Ethnicity, however, is not the only foundation for prejudice in America. Political, religious, or sexual persuasion is another popular base, and this works in ways far more subtle. Politically, most Americans call themselves either liberal or conservative. The distinction is somewhat bogus because the spectrum of mainstream political views in the US is perhaps the narrowest among developed countries. On a number line from -10 to +10 where the ends represent the extremes of left- and right-wing political views in the world respectively, the US Democrats (liberal) would probably register at +5 and Republicans (conservative) at +7. Views left of the Democrats are labeled and dismissed as communist in America and those to the right of the Republicans are associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, Democrats and Republicans love splitting hairs on television and making a grand show of it, particularly before elections. Liberals associate themselves with causes like social security, environment, peace, gun control, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, etc. Conservatives on the other hand identify with lower taxes, less government, less welfare, family values, religiousness, aggressive promotion of American values oversees, etc. A certain variety of liberalism in America is associated with the “hippie”era of the sixties and seventies. While the extreme rejection of mainstream mores embodied in that movement has now become unpopular, some features like hip-length hair, body piercing, ethnic jewelry, unshaven body hair, long and loose skirts, no makeup, etc. are extant. A few liberals today take a fair amount of pain to reproduce such an “unstudied”look. This identity is also popular in the gay community whose rights are on the liberal agenda. Apart from such genuine causes for which the liberals do stand up, theirs is a superficial identity and does not come with the steadfast resistance to the belligerence and injustices of US foreign policy that the “hippies”exhibited from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. While the liberals of today do not stand up against their government, they do speak out now and then. You will find many among them who will be sympathetic to your thoughts and plight during this Grind. But you cannot expect even a shadow of that from the conservatives. A majority of them would love to bash your head in, but unable to do so because of the law, they would settle for verbal abuse. Some of them would even tell you they don’t understand why their government doesn’t “nuke”every country whose name ends in stan so that people like you can get what they deserve. This is an opinion that is widely, openly, and proudly held by millions of conservative Americans today. Most of them, particularly the uneducated ones, wear their prejudices on their sleeves and are not hard to figure out.
The “liberals”present a more subtle challenge. You might be led falsely into thinking that they are on your side. But that is true only insofar as America’s foreign follies embarrass them and they do not wish to be thought of as conservative. They do not consider any of America’s activities as unjust, much less so totalitarian or criminal. They consider them simply as mistakes that spoil America’s image. How these “mistakes”affect or ruin others is secondary. Accordingly, Vietnam was a mistake, so was Abu Gharaib, and so is the mistreatment of visa applicants in Islamabad ,a mistake, not an injustice. They will not mistrust or hate you because you are dark-skinned. That, to them, is bigotry, practiced only by a few extremist Republicans in America today and not by any liberal Democrat. Instead, they will be suspicious of you because you are a Pakistani. That is not bigotry because they know from television and “experience”that, for example, women have no rights in Pakistan. Pakistani men are chauvinists who practice polygamy, beat their wives, cover them up in large pieces of cloth, etc. What could be more distasteful to a liberal than the violation of women’s rights? The violation of gay rights, perhaps, which too they “know”Pakistanis do not respect. Liberals will hold things against you that you never even knew you possessed.
It is in this background that you can begin to understand the consular officers and the rest of the American crew at the embassy in Islamabad. Their society and upbringing have as much to do with their attitude towards you as the fear and hate their government has only recently instilled in them. When a long-haired lady in a loose dress with no makeup and ethnic jewelry greets you in Urdu from behind the interview window, you are up against a different set of prejudices than you are with an African-American lady in a tight top and pearls. The former may not talk to you much at all and instead tell you to put your wife on the phone whom she would then address with great condescending concern as if she needs sympathy just for being married to a chauvinist like you. The latter, on the other hand, will speak to you as if this, at last, is her opportunity to get even with the Asians who insulted her because of her skin colour. She probably wouldn’t even talk to your wife because it is beneath her to talk to Asians unnecessarily. A reverse combination of such baggage is also possible. Your consular officer might be a liberal African-American or a conservative European-American. Add to this the additional complexity of psychology ,like an obese person from a society where beauty is worshipped ,and it might turn out to be a particularly difficult interview for you. For such a person, this would not only be an opportunity to get even with chauvinists, Asians, or dark-skinned Muslims, but also with all those slim people who teased him all his life. In this case, you had better put your seat belt on. The barrage of unexpected haughtiness might just knock you over.
There is one last element that completes the reasons for the US staff to feel so superior in a “third-world”country. These people are nothing like the cream of the crop in America. They are picked up by the US government from non-descript colleges or universities through campaigns extolling the virtues of serving their country. Like propaganda, such campaigns appeal only to the feeble minded. A lot of these people thus come from modest backgrounds, mostly minority or what Americans call “white trash.”The preponderance of obese people at the Embassy is corroborative evidence. The educated middle-class in America is now very much diet-conscious and inculcates healthy eating habits in children, steering them away from junk food. Lower income groups cannot afford the pricey new high-nutrition, low-fat diet and are therefore left with the low-cost, high-risk stuff of MacDonald’s and KFC. Obesity is thus a bigger problem in low-income America, a large part of which is made up by the minorities and white trash. Obese or not, for most of these people, a job at an American mission overseas is far more prestigious than anything their peers or parents could ever dream of. Many of them have seen America at its worst throughout their lives: broken families, street crime, racism, inner-city poverty, etc. They spend their lives completely immersed in their own tough existence. They know nothing of the world or its problems except through accidental glimpses of CNN or CNBC while surfing the talk shows. Other than the prejudices so acquired, they can’t imagine a reason someone would want to live in America ,”Why would anybody wanna come live in my hell?”When they are posted to Pakistan or Algeria or whatever, and witness the long queues of ill-treated visa seekers, all their inferiority complexes accumulated through life are instantly turned into conceit. When they return home, they say to their friends and families, “Now I know the value of being an American citizen. Now I know I live in the greatest country in the world. Now I knowâ€¦.”It is a new ground for prejudice and for dismissing the rest of the world as irrelevant.
When these people are taught assalam-o-alaikum or sahiba, they accept it unquestioningly and feel tremendous pride in belonging to such a great country and yet stooping to speak in the language of lesser subjects. The unmistakable condescension in the tone of humourless American officials, speaking non-colloquial Urdu with a heavy accent, might remind you again of the Soviets in the seventies and eighties. How quick they were to learn local languages, while the Americans went about in English. If that is your recollection, it would be the seventh time through the course of this Grind that you would have been reminded of the Soviet ways of doing things. This is not a coincidence. The United States today has a lot in common with the Soviet Union of that period. It isn’t merely waning power. When power is exerted in a certain fashion, when it takes on a certain form, you can be sure that it is not only in decline but also using desperate totalitarian measures to stem that decline. This is when you might realize, to your dismay, what America has become: Totalitarian. This may seem like a harsh judgment, but not if you look at America’s foreign policy rather than its domestic setup. You might wonder then how and why it happened. Why did America trade its “American Centre”of the 1970s ,the one on Kashmir Road, without any walls or security, in the heart of the bustling Rawalpindi Saddar ,for the ugly high-walled suburban compounds of today? How did it relinquish its real power ,the power of ordinary Pakistanis walking into the American Centre and voluntarily immersing themselves in American culture ,for the vacuous power of brainwashing through propaganda? You might conclude that, as with all empires in history, at the heart of this fall is arrogance.
One of the sources of America’s unbridled arrogance is the naÃ¯ve belief that America could never be oppressive like Caesars’ Rome or Hitler’s Germany because it is a democracy and that the will of the people can never be wrong. Why is this naÃ¯ve? First, because Rome too was the most democratic society of its day and not only Germans but even Austrians voted to be ruled by the Third Reich. The representative democracy of our day, and America is not even the best example of it, may seem as primitive in the days of direct democracy a few hundred years hence as Rome’s democracy seems today. Democracy has not evolved into its “finished”form, if ever there were such a thing, in 2007 any more than it had in 0007. But that did not prevent Rome from calling itself civilized, or everyone else barbaric, just as it did not prevent the Nazis nor does it prevent America. What is even more naÃ¯ve about this arrogant belief is the concept of “people in the phrase “will of the people.”Perhaps the will of the people could not be wrong if all the people whose fate is at stake in a certain decision could participate in its making. Hence, the American people aren’t often wrong in choosing governments for themselves. But the will of these 300 million is likely to be almost always wrong when they are deciding the fate of the other six billion of the planet. That is why America’s domestic policies have arguably led to relative freedom and equality for its citizens while its foreign and environmental polices have led to devastating oppression around the globe. America’s naÃ¯ve belief that being a democracy makes it immune from the pitfalls of dictatorship is the greatest delusion in the history of mass psychology. America may be a flawed democracy to itself, but to much of the world it is a perfectly oppressive dictatorship. It is the rule of the few, by the few, for the few ,300 million people mercilessly exploiting the environment, resources, and liberties that ought to be shared equally among six billion. For example, the “American way of life”yields 45% of the world’s pollution from 5% of its population. Are Americans really willing to share this way of life with the rest of the world? If so, the planet would be destroyed in a matter of minutes. This is one of the many reasons America can’t afford equality among nations. Hence, the democracy, while it works at home, albeit imperfectly, yields a country that in the population of nations is as totalitarian as any in history. It is therefore very much prone to the pitfalls of totalitarianism.
Why Americans can’t see the simplest analogies in history is baffling. The British tried to “reform”the madrassa system in their own image because they assumed it at the heart of the popular resistance against British rule in India. Any petty attacks carried out against British interests in India were labeled terrorism or some such thing in the same way America labels the resistance against its own interests in the world. The response to these petty attacks was overwhelming power and annihilation. More or less the same happened to the “barbarians”who resisted the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, French, Spanish, or Germans. Nazi propaganda routinely called the French resistance and its tactics exactly that: barbaric. There is no qualitative difference between the subjects in this analogy. The only quantitative difference is, for example, that the British considered their own Empire alone as their legitimate sphere of influence and interest whereas the Americans regard the whole world as such. The very essence of Empire is a self-righteous conviction in the legitimacy of one’s own claims, interests, and actions manifested in a threatening military presence throughout the region considered one’s own. From Europe to East Asia, and from the oceans to the desert, there isn’t a corner of this planet today that is free of the threat of American military wrath if its interests were challenged. If indeed America’s empire were qualitatively different from those of its predecessors, as Americans would have you believe, why does America need an over-protected ugly fortress for its Embassy as did the empires of old? Why does America have to publish propaganda magazines in Islamabad like the Soviets did in Kabul, or drop propaganda leaflets in Iraq like the Nazis did in France? Why do American words mimic those of villains rather than heroes? Who says, “You are either with me or against me? ,Benhur or Masala? Why couldn’t the values of democracy be disseminated without the threat and use of military power? It isn’t because some people, as Americans say, hate freedom but rather because America would hate to see them free. Imagine, for example, a world in which all Arab countries were democracies. Does anyone believe for a second that representative governments in these countries, charged with a mandate of enlightened self-interest, would continue to produce oil at a rate at which their reserves are likely to deplete in a few decades? And if they didn’t produce at such a rate, what would that do to the price of oil and the “American way of life?”The values of democracy are never disseminated by the methods of totalitarianism. America has no interest in spreading democracy, only in total control. Hence its power today, vacuous and devoid of moral authority, is no different from Soviet, Nazi, or Roman power. It is the power of a totalitarian.
With or without these reflections, you will get your visa if you are deemed “eligible because there is no ThinkPol yet. But if you return to this compound in five or ten years, and are still having such thoughts, you could be arrested.
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