Saturday, March 6, 2010

Byzantine bureaucracy and Kafkaesque capers

I remember the time a few years ago when I was in Istanbul and needed to go to the central police station near Aksaray to get a residence permit:

I arrived there at around 7am with my local helper from school, in order to be near the front of the queue. The station opened operations at 8am, but already there were a number of people there. Applicants has to wait in the reception area until it opened, handing their passport to the officer on duty. Then, when the time came (by which time there were over a hundred people in the reception area), we were called through the turnstile one by one, as though heading for the execution block. Once through the turnstile we exited the reception and walked through the large courtyard that seperated it from the modern main building, a large office block some storeys high. Entering the building, we turned to walk up a flight of stairs to join another queue, which wriggled its way upwards to the next floor. Some minutes later, we arrived at the top of the stairs, being given a ticket from a man in the doorway we were to head through. The ticket gave us a booth number, and the number in line. Walking through the doorway, we were confronted by a long corridor to our left and right that comprised a glass screen. A number of booths (maybe eight or nine) punctuated this long screen. The corridor was less than two metres wide, and the hundred or more applicants were fitted into this space. Working our way through this scrum of humanity, we found our booth. The interesting part was next; although we all had tickets and numbers, as there was no automated system, everyone was asking everyone else what their number was so they knew who should go before who. The result was clusters of people patiently waiting their turn, each one straining to hear what the number of the person being served was. And this was happening in a space about two metres by five (the rough distance between one booth and the next). As there were on average between ten and twenty people waiting by each booth in a ten metres squared area, you can imagine that the atmosphere was funereal. It took between ten and twenty minutes for each person's documents to be processed at the booth, so you can do the math. This waiting game took more than three hours. Oh, and I forgot to mention; beyond the glass screen where the booths were housed there was a long office full of police officers sat, reclined or otherwise, chatting and exchanging jokes, occasionally an orderly coming around with tea, and perhaps a police officer's child gamely skipping through the office playing with the stationery.
After waiting for three hours (our turn had not yet arrived) , the booth staff took a lunch break for an hour. We went for lunch in the police station's canteen, and came back at one o'clock. After another twenty minutes our turn arrived, and our documents were handed over at the booth. But there was more. After spending three hours in Death's Waiting Room (plus lunch break), we then went down the stairs to another booth, stood in another queue (this one mercifully taking only twenty minutes) to receive some slip of paper. This then meant returning to the Waiting Room Of Death and to yet another booth further down the glass corridor. Initially, the booth was empty, but eventually someone came to take the slip of paper, or whatever it was, and then we walked into another room for a discussion with some official-looking person. My helper did all the talking, but after a few exchanges, the official was seemingly satisfied. Thus we were excused, and the application process ended.
I had to return to the same police station some weeks later to receive my permit, though this process was thankfully much shorter - it involved sitting on a bench in a grey corridor with many other random foreigners, after about twenty minutes being summoned to an office in small groups so we could formally receive our documents from an officer. I wanted to kiss the guy.

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