Written by Chelsea Marie Hicks
“Why am I here?” I harshly inquired to the tightly crammed room full of chain-smoking Egyptian officials.
Ashes smudged their desktops, which were covered in a mess of documents—the unorganized details of bodies moving in, out, and around their borders. This private office, occupying the innards of the terminal authority in the Cairo International Airport, mimicked a boys’ club—a swamp of officers keen on flexing their might and taking full advantage of their positions within a regime bent on suppressing protestations and requiring lagniappe from whomever.
After Oliver was waved through the passport check, the official behind the counter ordered me to step aside and wait as other male travelers continued to be quickly examined. Holding on to my passport, my captor guided me across lines of travelers to a small airport staff room.
“150 pounds,” one stout man demanded flatly without explanation.
“For what, exactly?” I asked in search of a justification.
My passport was likely one of many that would be taken hostage over the course of the day for violations unnamed or imagined out of smoke-choked air. The serious man who brought me to this back room, after examining stamp laden pages of my passport, stood behind a table among his comrades and lit a cigarette. His momentary grin a break from character brought on by the relief of nicotine, the company of tired fellows, the satisfaction of power, or any combination of factors. Whatever brought on this brief baring of teeth scratched at my core sense of justice as my eyes glared at my passport gripped in his grasp.
“I’m not paying you until you tell me what this payment is for,” I firmly stated to the impassive and bored looking official sitting before me, his affiliates staring in annoyance at the interaction already exceeding the allotment of time for this cash exchange.
“You overstay. 150 pounds,” he announced again with only the slightest detectable emotion beginning to show its presence.
Though from the moment I entered the room, I knew I would exit with a lighter wallet, I refused to do so without some show of resistance. Thinking, perhaps, that this man could be caught in a lie.
“No, I did not overstay. How long is a visa valid?”
This question gave him pause and, comically, he turned it back on me.
“What do you think?”
“How long is a visa valid?” I reiterated, in a display of cat and mouse.
The intense lethargy of his stare asserted that he would speak of nothing until I spoke and perhaps assumed a disproportion between our values of time in this current situation; I had a flight to catch and a seized passport; he had another day in the office.
“The visa is for 90 days, is it not?” I asked.
An admission of defeat, each male present witnessing another back and forth that would end in their favor. These days, and perhaps throughout their entire exhausting careers, the resulting outcome always went this way.
“Visa is for 45 days. You overstay. 150 pounds.”
He commanded this statement plainly without eye contact or feeling, but there was a familiarity in his voice as though only the numerical values changed from day to day in this default.
“Fine. I require a receipt for my boss,” I replied sharply, thrusting three 50 pound notes into the outstretched palm of my extorter.
This demand simultaneously irritated and entertained the men in the room. Their chests puffed out, heads held high, blazers emblazoned with medals of some sort of honor, stacks of cash aplenty on the table. The power belonged to them and we all knew it. And the power continues to belong to them and most of us, myself included, are powerless to cease any of it from them. At least not on our own.