MB writes this account as he sits in a ground floor apartment just down the street from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. In Khartoum, Sudan. Continent of Africa.
Two days earlier:
MB was invited long time back to the wedding of a young friend from Sudan. The friend in question is not Young Sudani Lad who regularly features in MB’s blog, but the cousin of YSL whom MB got to know during his days in Saudi Arabia, where the soon-be-married-Sudani also worked at that time.
But a trip to Sudan is not a simple matter. It’s not like traveling to France or Scotland for a rugby weekend or heading to London for a weekend shopping trip as ladies and gentlemen back in Ireland might do on occasion. In those cases Pat & Mary Irish people might book the flight ticket online, print it out, grab the Passport, stop off at an ATM for some weekend ammunition, continue to airport, board plane, enjoy the weekend, & return home. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Before doing any of the above in the case of Sudan, considered a pariah state by the US and others for various reasons, one must first apply for a travel visa. It’s not possible to purchase on arrival at Khartoum airport. No Siree, not even for Westies who get the royal treatment in many areas of ME/North Africa. The rules state you must arrive at your local Sudani Embassy or Consulate (assuming your country has one) armed with 2 passport photos, a letter from your employer stating they have no objection to your travel plans to Sudan and Euro 75 fee. And now that readers have the necessary background info, MB can start to tell his tall (but true) tale.
MB’s travel visa application was an eleventh-hour affair as the Abu Dhabi Labour Ministry had been processing the renewal of MB’s expired UAE residency for some time, and MB was not actually in possession of his own passport. MB prayed hard every day to St Anthony, St Patrick, St Jude and other good Christian saints to intercede with the big guy and work some Christian magic on the Muslim visa processors. The knees of MB’s jeans were threadbare by Tuesday evening last and all hope of getting the Passport back on time seemed to have evaporated into the dry desert air, as all the Saints seemed to be gone to some Saint conference or were all taking some chillax time out for themselves, ignoring their primary ‘intersessionary’ activity. The Sudani embassy had informed MB previously that they would require 24 hours to do their stuff after MB made his application. With one of the main wedding events taking place on Friday, MB was hoping to travel some time Thursday. So on Tuesday night, and still in a Passportless state, MB warned the Saints that he had received many offers over recent years from the local non-Christian organisation to join up, and basically they needed to sort their stuff out rapidly and quit screwing MB around, if they were to keep MB in their gang.
Wednesday morning arrived with MB making the usual coffee to kick off the day at the office, medium Nescafé, mafi sugar. That’s ‘no sugar’ for the 2 or 3 recent followers who do not yet understand MB’s fluent Arabic. Anyway, within minutes an apparition appeared in MB’s office doorway. No, not the Saints. Ten times better than a bunch of Saints – the company PRO stood there smiling like one of those cats born in Cheshire, holding the holy grail in his hand – MB’s Passport. MB’s threat had worked. One of the Saints had woken up or returned early from the conference, and had immediately done his intercession stuff as MB had requested. Presumably, it was Patrick, him being an Irish brother an all. MB could have sworn he saw a halo around the Muslim head of the PRO, and a Celtic cross imprinted on his forehead. But it may have been due to MB’s lightheadedness at receiving his passport. Note to MB – on arrival at the pearly gates, discover which Saint actually did the business and thank him. Also, ask if MB did actually see all that Christian stuff around the PROs Muslim head or not? MB is just a bit curious to discover how it all got sorted in the end.
Anyway, without further adieu, MB grabbed the Passport from the hand of the PRO, barely stopping to say thanks/ shukran/go raimh mile maith agat, and raced like the road runner cartoon character out the office door, leaving a trail of dust and sand as he broke the Abu Dhabi land speed record in the direction of the Sudani Embassy.
‘Cead mile failte’ said MB as he raced through the embassy door. ‘Sorry habbibbis’, said MB immediately, ‘MB thought for a moment he was back in the old Irish homeland. Let’s try again’ said MB – ‘Asalam Alaykom, keefaq intu allium (hello, how are all my brothers this morning?). Protocol complete, MB grabbed an application form, filled it in as neatly as he possibly could with a pen borrowed from a brother. ‘Now Sir, may we receive your two photos and the no objection letter from your employer?’ asked the official in charge.
‘S@#t’ shouted MB. In all the panic attacks of recent days and the head-spinning euphoria of receiving the passport earlier that morning, MB had left the company letter in his office and never even considered calling to some mall to use the Passport photo machine. MB pulled the Samsung from his pocket faster than Billy-Al-Kid could draw his six shooter, called his office and requested the company driver (an individual unknown in the West and to whom MB will return to in a future post) to deliver the letter to MB at the embassy. But what to do about the photos, many miles from a mall with the clock ticking and maybe even already too late for MB to take the visa on time to make the wedding.
‘MB does not have any photos’ confessed MB to the Sudani official. ‘Masha’allah – NOT!’, replied the official. ‘But MB has a cunning plan’ said MB, returning the tennis ball with lots of topspin. ‘And what is cunning plan sir?’ inquired the official, who was at this stage intrigued as to how MB would supply two photos, without any photos on his person, and without a two-tonne Passport photo machine in his pocket. ‘MB’s cunning plan is as follows’, said the cockily confident MB.
‘I am requesting you most respectfully Sir, to take the passport of MB, place it on your most superb photocopier and make two copies. Then Sir, both you and I will apply the embassy scissors to the two said copies, remove 95% of both pages, leaving only the two copies of the photo that already exists on MB’s passport. Eureka and voila’, shouted MB, hoping that Sudani official was well versed in ancient Greek and spoke French.
The face of the official went blank for a moment. MB was not sure if he was going to explode in anger before kicking MB out of the embassy, and the wedding travel plans of MB would thus be rendered to ashes. Or he was somehow trying to work out the complexities of MB’s plan versus the requirements of the embassy rules in relation to photo quality. Or he was just totally mesmerised by the sheer awesomeness of MB’s seriously cunning plan. ‘Call me Foxy Locksy if you wish’ said MB, introducing some light humour into the conversation & hoping that Sudan contained foxes as cunning as those in MB’s home country. Or that the official was at least a fan of the old Black Adder TV series. ‘ Good plan sir. I will try’, said the most helpful embassy official in the entire universe, as he headed off in the direction of the embassy photocopy room, leaving MB weeping for joy. But moments later – despair. The official returned with a gloomy look on his face. ‘I make the copies sir, but the General he say no’. MB is now totally and utterly screwed, though MB, at same time wondering how a Sudani General had suddenly, somehow, entered the proceedings.
And that’s just when MB had another eureka moment. Presumably, Anthony had also just returned from the conference and decided to assist MB find two passport photos out of thin air. MB opened his wallet, flipped open a section he rarely looked in that might, just might, be the source of a solution. ‘Voila’ (again), shouted the multilingual MB to the entire embassy staff. MB has two old photos in his wallet. One is two years old & one is 10 years old when MB had some hair, and MB is desperately hoping there is nothing in the embassy rule book that says Irish guys must provide two photos which are both the same and up to date. Large question marks appeared in the eyes and across the entire face of the official, as a bizarre twilight type situation confronted him; one he had surely never before encountered in his thirty plus years working in the embassy. Not altogether sure of the quicksand he was standing on, the official looked MB in the eye and informed MB ‘I will check with the General Sir’. Moments later, joy of joys. The General accepted MB’s two different photos. ‘Masha’allah & Praise The Good Lord’ screamed MB.
‘And most respectfully Sir, at what time might MB collect his visa’ enquired MB? ‘You may collect it Sir, 24 hours after the 10-day security check by the Security Ministry in Khartoum’. The blood drained from the handsome face of MB, & MB’s knees turned to jelly as he grabbed the back of a chair to help him stay in the upright position. ‘MB heard you mention 24 hours Sir, but did MB perhaps mishear your mention of some 10-day security process?’. ‘No sir, MB is blessed with very good hearing it seems, masha’allah’, said the official, thinking he was giving MB some happy-clappy news in relation to the absence of wax in MB’s ears. Meanwhile, MB was trying to figure out how he could murder an embassy official in the presence of ten embassy officials and some thirty members of the general public, and later plead – ‘not guilty your honour’. ‘But only last week you confirmed to MB that he could take the visa within twenty-four hours of his application’ pleaded the desperate MB. ‘Correct’ said the official, ‘Twenty four hours after the 10-day security check’. ‘But that is 264 hours’ said MB, the bullet of mental maths. Silence from the official. Silence from MB. Silence from the entire Embassy staff and assembled members of the general public in the reception hall who were by now glued to the entire MB visa application proceedings. Total and utter silence from all, as they sat enthralled and intrigued by the Shakespearean tragedy unfolding before their wide Sudani eyes.
What to do? thought MB, trying to think on his feet as fast as Michael Flatley can tap his heels and toes. ‘Excuse me gentlemen’, said MB to the by-now herd of Embassy officials that had gathered to support their ever-so-slightly-under-pressure colleague, ‘MB will phone a certain Young Sudani Lad who is presently in Saudi Arabia’. ‘Hello YSL’, said MB immediately down the Samsung. ‘Can you please inform your fellow countrymen in the UAE embassy that they will have to dispense with this 10 days security-check business on this occasion, on account of fact that MB must travel to Sudan tomorrow or he will miss the wedding on following day, and in all probability Sudan will never experience MB live in the flesh. Ever’. MB passed the phone to the official and a ten-minute conversation ensued entirely in Sudani Arabic, with MB only understanding an occasional word which did not throw any light on how MB’s demand was being received. Words like ‘and’ are totally useless in such circumstances, when you are trying to understand the full context of a sentence as you listen to a conversation in a foreign tongue, and you don’t understand a single other word, thought MB. A Sudani member of the public who was trying to sort out some passport issue, and with whom MB had had a brief friendly chat earlier, joined MB at the counter to provide some translation assistance. Other officials now started to speak with the official who was holding and talking into MB’s Samsung at same time. ‘Am I screwed?’ asked MB in English of his new Sudani translator friend (NSTF). ‘Maybe yes, maybe no, said the genius NSTF. ‘Allow me to listen some more’. ‘Ok’, said NSTF moments later, ‘they have made some decision’.
Just then the official interrupted NSTF, returning the Samsung to MB, who put the phone to his ear. ‘It’s sorted said YSL, they will offer you a solution to take the visa today on account of the fact the General likes you, and agrees to your suggestion. Do you agree to be fingerprinted right now at the embassy?’. ‘Mafi mushkal, and Allah u Akbar (no problem, and God Is Great) roared MB. ‘Don’t be shouting about Allah in the embassy’, said an agitated YSL, as he quickly killed the call.
Five minutes later MB was pressing the fingered tips of both hands onto an old ink pad and then onto a white cardboard sheet, leaving an indelible mark in the records of the UAE Sudani Embassy of MB’s memorable visit to take a travel visa. Thirty minutes later a fresh full-page Visa, Reference 0900437, was stuck into a free page in MB’s passport, as smiles, Allah U Akbars, and handshakes were exchanged between MB & all the Sudani Embassy Brothers.
MB headed out the door, business complete, one hour and forty-five minutes after entering. According to any Sudanis MB has spoken to of his experience, MB holds the all-time world record for shortest possible time to procure a Sudani travel visa.
Allah u Akbar indeed!