February 14, 2008

Eyes on a Stamp...


I was queuing the other day to have some official paperwork "authenticated and approved"...

The queue was long, tediously long...

We were lined up like a herd of sheep, patiently waiting for the "official's" stamp. That much needed stamp which will prove that we are still accepted here...

Or that stamp that will allow us a few more months of breathing space...

Or that stamp that will give us an illusory freedom in some temporary legality...

Or that stamp that will confer upon us a seeming sense of belonging...Another illusion of a "home", however fleeting and ephemeral, that illusion may be...

I stood there like everyone else, waiting for my turn, overwhelmed by a strange feeling that I am about to take part in a game of Russian Roulette...

Strong apprehensive thoughts kept whirling in my mind, assailing my head, pounding away...

What if he refuses to stamp, what if he finds an excuse not to stamp, what if he delays the stamp, what if he requests more papers to stamp, what if...what will happen then?

I am almost certain that I was not the only one entertaining these deadly thought. And yes they are deadly if you happen to be an Iraqi hanging on by a string...

Two men in front of me sighed, in unison...I thought to myself is that some omen foretelling bad news?

Every single act, movement, whisper, exclamation, expression...around me, was loaded with meaning, like some losing, obsessive-compulsive gambler, checking for cues, superstitiously infusing them with ill luck, misfortune and more loss...

I noticed that eyes were fixated on the person right at the front...right at the frontline of the Russian Roulette. And we could tell, from his reaction, how his fate would later unfold...

If he left the booth with a smile and a relaxed facial expression, that meant that his hanging was delayed by a couple of months. But if he walked away from that booth, with a frown or eyes glistening with tears, then we knew that his death sentence had been signed – He is to return back to Hell.

The third alternative, which I consider to be the purgatory, is when the official tells you in his stern but monotonous voice, as if he has rehearsed his role a thousand times "Estana" - Wait!

If he utters that one syllable word "Estana" ,be sure that you might be seated on some broken plastic chair or standing up for hours if not days...

So much power in the hands of some official, who sometimes holds your documents upside down...Some much authority in the hands of this, almost always, mustached man who has the final say on your life or death...

His status requires an utmost reverential demeanor from the one who is patiently waiting...waiting for the ultimate sentence to be proclaimed. Proclaimed by the judge and jury presiding over your life... And you are at his mercy. No question about it.

Needless to add that all those who were standing in line were Iraqis. You probably would have guessed by now...or maybe not. Knowing how cut off you are from OUR reality, I just thought I would make sure to mention it.

The two men's turn finally arrived and I, behind them...

It felt like an eternity, endless hours and minutes ticking away ever so slowly...

I noticed as I usually do-- one of the men was wearing a sober suit, as if he was dressed for the "occasion". But I also could not help but notice, that the collar of his shirt looked as if it was chewed at, eaten away...I looked at his shoes, and I noticed the discreet shine of some metal staples, stapling the rubber sole to the leather. I noticed his vest, the sleeves were way too long and covered his reddened hands, hands which had been earnestly clutching the paper...gripping life...that piece of paper, thirsty for a stamp.

This man tried to look his best for the officer...maybe hoping that his attire would play favorably on his behalf. But it is a Russian Roulette, is it not ?

The second man, on the other hand, had put no effort in influencing the judge's final verdict. He looked rugged, unshaven, tired, his eyes were red shot, as if he had not slept in years...he looked very worn out, very down, very desperate...

The first man looked desperate and worn out too, but he came across as calmer or should I say, more resigned...

In fact, we all looked worn out, tired, desperate and...resigned.

There was an eerie silence hovering above such a long queue, quite unusual...But the eyes, the eyes spoke like no tongue can speak...

This all pervading sadness, so hard to translate in words...so hard.
It's as if the sadness has gnawed away until it has reached the deeper levels of one's being...

A deep, profound sadness, a collective sadness...that goes beyond name, age, gender, background, status, profession, appearance, religion, sect...

Unified by Sadness, our common denominator, trademark...our collective stamp.

Very hard to describe, very difficult to convey in words...
But maybe those who have looked into our eyes, really looked into our eyes, know exactly what I mean.

A sadness tinged with despair. A sadness mixed with grief. A sadness covered with anger. A sadness held back...by patiently waiting in line...

The man in the suit, his turn had come. He took a few timid, hesitant baby steps to the booth, where the officer rigidly sat...

He examined his papers, checked his computer, examined the papers again, checked his computer again, raised his big head up from his tight, cluttered desk and said "Enta, Estana" – You, wait!

The man shrank and his suit looked even larger, ampler, engulfing him...
Wait, for how long, until when...? Wait.

Then arrived the second man's turn.
Same procedure. Examine, check, examine again, check again...
And the final verdict was proclaimed with great severity; "Enta, Marfudh" - You, Rejected !

"Leish, Leish?" Why? The second man cried out, and his cry sounded like that of a wounded animal, just pierced by a hunter's poisoned arrow...
And he continued in his Iraqi accent "Shakoo, golee shakoo"- What happened, tell me what happened ? What is wrong with my papers ? What is wrong with my documents ? What is wrong with me? Leish, leish...?

And the mustached officer repeated without batting an eye lid "Enta, Marfudh!"

The man tried to reason with the officer to no avail...He walked away looking utterly disoriented, like some accused criminal about to face his death sentence any moment and being shown which door to walk through...yet unable to take the steps in the pointed direction.

And I took a quick glance at his face and saw his red shot eyes shimmering like a lake reflecting a dark grey sky on a cold winter's morning...And I saw a couple of tears caught, imprisoned between his eyelashes, hanging there like drops of ice.

Now is my turn...

And as I approached -- I could hear the big white clock covered with dust, the big white clock turned dirty beige, like some melting snow taking on the colors of the earth it had clothed, taking on the colors of white mixed with mud...

The clock that I had been observing, the clock whose needles have been moving ever so slowly, pointing and lingering onto the seconds, minutes, hours...

As I approached, I could hear it ticking in the silence...ticking away, and each tick was accompanied by a heartbeat, that heart thumping in my chest...tick tock, tick tock...

As I approached that booth, its officer and the ink stamp...as I approached my turn in the Russian Roulette, as I neared the greatest gamble on, of, my life...

As I stared at this stamp, begging it to seal itself to my piece of paper...

I knew,

I knew that whatever the outcome, my life was no longer in my hands.

I knew that I was at the mercy of an officer and his stamp.

At the mercy of some onlooker, at the mercy of someone else's eyes...



Painting: Iraqi artist, Mohammed Shammarey