The end result was that that I simply had to leave the country to come back in. The nearest consulate is in the UAE. A week in Dubai, lying on a beach? No problem. Everything works there. Only this is the Afghan Embassy, a little enclave of Absurdistan. First Rule about Afghan Visa Club – there are none. It’s elbows at dawn and you’re fighting against some of the sharpest little fixers/fuckers in the business. There is a hole in a wall (set so high I assume it is to prevent punching unhelpful staff), which requires tiptoes to hand over your grubby passport and request form. This was my sixth visit but the rules change every time. There is a small sign warning people not to accept or offer bribes. “Anyone doing so will be regarded as an enemy of Afghanistan”. It seems that The Lord of Visas has declared war upon the development community. Many say this is at the behest of President Karzai because of all the criticism from western organisations regarding the “C” word. The only people suffering seem to be the NGO workers – a.k.a Agents of Virtue – who are merely trying to get into the country to save the unfortunate people of Afghanistan. The phrase Ingrateful Basterds springs to mind. “C” is for corruption so “when in Rome” I purchase a small gift for the First Secretary in an attempt to ease my paperwork passage in the form of a book entitled Butcher & Bolt, a cheery little tome about Britain’s three failed Afghan/Anglo Wars. My personal victory comes in the form of two very civilised cups of tea and an effortless entry visa back to Afghanistan. Corruption 1 – Civil Society 0.
All that is required now is business registration at AISA – the Afghan Investment Support Agency. This will allow me to receive funding for my “Kabul at Work” project – a multimedia project whose aim was to reflect the positive side of a much-maligned city.
Here’s how it doesn’t work:
Step 1: Get a form and fill in the name of your business and its primary function. The queuing system resembles the fall of Saigon. My elbows are now fully sharpened so I quickly move on to next level.
Step 2: Take it to a man upstairs with a computer database in which every Afghan company is registered. This is a man whose remit is to say “NO” to anything straightforward, catchy or simple. He weirdly has a “noun only” rule. “Kabul – City at Work” and “Kabul at Work” are both rejected mainly because of the offensive use of a preposition. He wants to call it “Kabul Book Work Publication Organisation”. I decline his Stalinist suggestions explaining that I have a website, business cards, printed promotional materials, contracts with government bodies and businesses all using my chosen name. It’s not personal; the funky young Afghan next to me is trying to register a mobile computer repair outfit as “I.T. All-Stars”. The man who likes to say “NO” barks that it doesn’t mean anything. He offers up “I.T. Solutions” as an alternative.
The words “Logistics” and “Solutions” are embedded into the titles of more than half of the companies in Kabul. Now I know why. There’s probably a street kid selling chewing gum who is operating Mouth Freshening Solutions Inc and a shoe polisher outside the ministry trading as Foot Leather Cleaning Logistics. Your company name literally has to do what it says on the tin or you’re not getting in. I ask him sarcastically what Apple, Microsoft, Kodak, Toyota or Sony means? This blows a fuse in his computer and he sends me back downstairs to talk to a man with a bigger desk and larger display of plastic flowers – ie more power.
Step 3: The big boss says yes, but with a slight compromise. My new name is “Kabul at Work Productions”. Back upstairs to get my stamped piece of paper with an OK from the Listmeister General. Only the word “productions” strikes fear into the hearts of the pen pushers at AISA and I am directed to the Ministry of Culture and Information to get my name doubly approved. This is the same Stalinsque nightmare building block where I previously tried to get my visa. Think the Ministry of Information Retrieval in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets an unemployment office in Walsall. Five floors containing a state of neither motion nor development – it’s stasis in full effect. Every office has the same furniture, an Afghan flag, a portrait of Karzai, a readers’ wives nylon sofa, plastic flowers, a chrome glass coffee table with standard issue boiled sweets and overhead lighting that gives the ambience of a cancer ward at a hospice. Everyone has a computer but they are never, ever switched on. AISA is like a Swiss Medical facility compared to The MOCI. My Pashto and Dari are not good but I think the phrase No Chance / Go Away / Bugger Off! is embossed on every door.
First refusal comes from the “secretary” – dictionary definition: “somebody who does general clerical and administrative work”. They are more like gatekeepers to The Lord of the Rings. I am told that the name has to be translatable into an Afghan language. Seeing as nobody seems to know what “work” actually is, this seems like an impossible task.
Step 4: I return a day later with a copy of a colleague’s company certificate in English and pull out a copy of the Afghan Constitution and inform them it’s simply not true. Look at Article 37! OK, they say. But now you need an Afghan partner. This is like snakes and ladders, just when you think you’ve double-trumped their crazy-arsed requests they invent something new or send you to see someone else equally hostile and resistant in another department.
I come back to this building so many times the armed police outside have stopped searching me. The drones in Publication Information Retrieval now smile when they see the angry foreigner approaching. I have raised my voice so many times they ask me about my “mazaj e lateef,” roughly translated as, “how is your soft temper?”
At no point am I asked for a bribe. I wonder why. This is the most corrupt country in the world. I begin to see patterns, the system in effect, the matrix that still exists but without any money changing hands. The default setting for everyone is refusal. At this stage, back in the day, a bribe would be proffered and you could progress though the system. Only now it’s too risky to accept money but they still have the “tut tut tut” shaky head, “more than my job’s worth” structure in place. But no reward other than the satisfaction of ruining your day.
Step 5: At one point I have three different people in three different ministries trying to get the officials to talk to each other simultaneously. To say it’s a frustrating system is the understatement of the year. Fortunately, this is a country where you can still make jokes about terrorism so I tell them that if they don’t approve my application now the next time they see me I will be wearing a suicide vest. It does the trick. My application is approved. I pay my fee and they hand me a yellow Post-It note with a four-figure number written on it… a worthy prize? Who gives a fuck? I am a businessman in Kabul.