Over the past year I have directed a considerable amount of time, money, and emotional energy towards acquiring visas for travel in Pakistan. I have spent untold hours on the phone with dismissive bureaucrats, in the queue at the High Commission in London, and in anxious conversations about what happens to people found travelling in Pakistan with paperwork that is less than fully valid, but my efforts have paid off, enabling me to make three separate research trips to Pakistan. When most people hear this and recognize that I am American, they surmise that my struggles are related to the new wave of diplomatic bitterness that has emerged in the wake of recent events relating to drone strikes, Raymond Davis, and Osama bin Laden. To be sure, these headline issues are the backdrop of my story, but its heart is elsewhere.
Fast-forward to the front gate of the police station in Lahore. A man I met on the plane from Abu Dhabi knows a key person inside, and he offered to bring me here to help extend the Pakistani visa that the London High Commission issued me for the laughable duration of fifteen days. The guard at the gate tells us that the office doesn’t open for ten minutes. My friend finds this unacceptable and places a phone call. The guard lets us walk past. Minutes later we are drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with the high-ranking official who is supposedly going to extend my visa. My friend wears the loose-fitting shalwar kameez of Pakistan’s landed elite. The official wears a crisp suit and matching moustache. Power rubs on power. I leave the office with a scribbled note on a piece of blue paper that will, in theory, get me what I want from Lahore’s passport office, but when I make my way through that crowded building the next day I am told it can’t be done: a new policy says foreigners must go to Islamabad for visa extensions. My friend from the plane takes me into his home for the weekend, gives me a new set of clothes, buys me two bus tickets so that I can sit beside my backpack, and sends me on my way.
An Expired Visa
Rewind to the Ministry of Tourism in the northern city of Skardu during the previous summer. The Pakistani consulate in New York had informed my American colleague that he would have no problem extending his visa here. Now we learn that a new rule forbids it, and his visa will expire before we can do anything about it. We spend the next few weeks in a remote mountain valley and periodically use a satellite phone to check on the status of our attempt to obtain a letter granting special permission to leave the country with an expired visa. With only hours to spare before our planned departure, we receive the letter. It never leaves my friend’s pocket: as we walk through customs that evening, the officer on duty stamps my friend’s expired visa and waves us onward.
Flip to a rainy day in Islamabad. I am at the Ministry of the Interior, trying to obtain a letter to bring to the passport office. There is no queue, only elbows. I make my way to the desk and present my paperwork. The man sees that I have foolishly written the word ‘research’ in the box asking for my purposes, and he tells me it can’t be done. “Come back in a month,” he says. I follow my mother’s advice and say “please”. He looks at me a moment, nods his head, signs and stamps my form, hands it back to me, and turns to the person who is already pushing me aside.
The Close Call
Jump back to London, the Pakistan High Commission. I’ve been there so many times now I could walk from Knightsbridge with my eyes closed. A uniformed man has ushered me away from the visa desk downstairs and taken me outside because I’ve been making such a fuss. Who could blame me? I applied for a visa six weeks ago; I’m scheduled to leave in a few days, and still, no word. Just then, as he stands beside me on the sidewalk, the man’s phone rings. It’s a call from downstairs: my visa is ready. I grin at him and go back inside.
We can read this story any way we like. One version bemoans the diplomatic struggles, the clashing foreign policy interests, the bureaucratic inefficiencies. I choose a different view, one that still sees hope in the human beings through which politics must be enacted. I don’t think I am naïve about power and conflict: I recognize that the wiggle room between official policy and individual choice enables at least as much cruelty as it does kindness. Still, I am not sure which is more naïve: assuming that there is always space for negotiation, or defining our enemies by the flags they fly. Most days of the week, the latter option seems far more dangerous than simply saying “please”.