“HECHLAND is a country not so far away. The Minister of So On and So Forth is as inept, as he is good at having his palm greased. His staff excels at taking tea – and lots of it all day – and do their best to do little else. Hechland brings tears to the eyes of Afghans every Friday night at 8.30pm, as they roll off their toshaks laughing. Hechland, or “Nothing Land” is a very popular comedy from the nation’s number one channel, TOLO TV.” Advert for TV programme in Afghanistan
Not so funny if you are a kharaje (foreigner) trying to navigate the system of Ministries and Government Departments that exists in this city. Trying to achieve anything, be that permission to visit a prison, apply to set up an NGO or a simple company is a game of persistence, dogged determination and blind faith that someone, somewhere, eventually will tell you what to do or at least try to help you achieve your aims.
I have lived here for two years and still cannot explain the visa situation to anyone wanting to visit Afghanistan. Whether you employ a fixer, a translator or someone ‘well connected’. It’s always the same. The path is a mixture of scorpion tales and disinformation. It’s like playing chess, blindfolded, underwater in Farsi, backwards.
Last month I applied for an extension of my visa. Armed with a ‘stamped’ letter from the British Embassy, a current passport, a contract from my funding body and a NATO media accreditation card (for which I had previously had to provide a retina scan, fingerprints, blood-group along with my religious preference and tribal loyalties). A very kind man, at the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs, politely informed me it wasn’t enough and that I had to provide a letter from a news-agency or media group and have that letter ‘stamped’. They love a good stamp here. It harks back to the halcyon days of the Taliban, many of whom were illiterate and couldn’t sign their own names. Which can create all sorts of complications if your trying to ‘officially’ get a woman stoned to death. Despite what people may say about the barbarity and brutality of the regime they had their paperwork sorted.
Anyway, in a bit of a rush to get this done I duly obliged and indulged them in their request by forging a letterhead (logo courtesy of Google) with an, ‘official’ rubber stamp (made in the bazaar in under an hour). I could have returned to the Ministry as a counterfeit ‘Director of the CIA’ and no one would have batted an eyelid. My media accreditation was instantly (next day) approved. All I had to do now was take it to the Consular Section for another stamped letter to take to the Minister of Information who would give another stamped letter to take to the Passport Office where they would issue a three-month Extension Visa which I could then take back to the MOFA who would then issue a six-month Work Visa. Plan sailing. That was until the Consular Section said my visa was a ‘Visit Visa not a ‘Stay Visa’. That my six-month ‘Visit Visa’ could not be extended and what’s more, it should never have been issued in the first place.
To add a bit of colour this all take place this in a decaying grey concrete Soviet-era office block. Most of the conversation takes place in localese. My Dari is shit. The MOFOs at MOFA can do no more for me. I get packed off to Ministry Of Information and Culture and told to ask for a tourist extension even though I am NOT a tourist. The MIOC is a monolithic building surrounded by blast walls and razor wire. There’s a lot not going on here. The lift hasn’t worked since the Russians left. Naturally my appointment is on the fifth floor. Friendly faces and amused looks greet me at every turn. No one can or will help me. Afghan tea and sympathy is all I get as I work my way down through four more floors unfolding and refolding my ever-increasing sheaf of ‘stamped’ paperwork.
It’s now Thursday lunchtime. The weekend starts here. My invalid / illegal visa expires in one day. I am an alien. I’m an illegal alien. I’m an Englishman in HECHLAND and tears are now rolling down my eyes. I am laughing like a drain. It’s just another absurd day in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Hound
(Part 2 – Registering a company in under 3 months – coming soon, if I’m still here).