As the alarm on my phone blared in the room, I woke up with a start. For a moment or two, I was disoriented, my body was not used to being roused at 4 AM but then I remembered why I was up and let out a loud groan before jumping out of my bunk bed. An hour later, I was on a CTM bus heading for Rabat. I drifted in and out of slumber the entire journey, my forehead pressed against the cool glass window. When we arrived at Rabat, I roused myself with a shake of the head and scrambled my way to the Police Headquarters. I tried very hard not to think about the disappointing outcome of my last visit. One of the men who worked in the carte de sejour department, a man who’d given me an appointment for that very specific date, had acted as if he’d never set eyes on me when I showed up for it.
I’d stood there at a loss of what to say, a sick feeling slithering its way to my stomach as the realization hit me that my trip all the way from Fes was futile, that the fare I’d spent, money that could have fed me for at least three weeks was gone and I had nothing to show for it. The fact that there was nothing I could do to the man telling me I would have to come back made the situation even more maddening. Then I decided to blame myself instead. My anger had to be directed somewhere. I knew how laborious and complicated the process of renewing your resident permit in this country was, why then had I waited an entire year since my current one expired?
No matter. I’d resolved that something like that was not going to happen today, oh no. I was willing to beg, shed tears if I to had but there was no way I was leaving the Police without attaining my goal. If being interrogated and having my fingerprints taken and recorded into their criminal database was what needed to happen so I could get the transfer slip I needed to move on to the next stage of this renewal process, then that was exactly what was going to happen today. I don’t think anyone has ever been as eager as I was to be processed.
I stepped into the imposing building with that singular purpose and bee-lined for the office I usually went to. It was a medium sized-room, bathed in white light from the overhanging bulbs. It was filled with the clicking sounds of fingers tapping away at keyboards, sporadic laughter and conversations from the people who occupied it.
I stood at the doorway, hesitant, my heart in my throat. The man I’d come to see was talking down at a young woman dressed in a tracksuit and carrying what looked to be a very heavy backpack. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-five, had the distinct features of a Filipino and there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind that she was on the verge of tears.
“But sir,” she began in a voice that trembled, “I’ve already been to the Canadian embassy and told them I lost my passport in Marrakech. They directed me here. I’m supposed to declare it lost and get a document that says so or else they can’t help me get back home.”
“Miss, haven’t you listened to a single word I said?” The man said in a voice that was so cutting it could have sliced through a rug. “You have to go back to your embassy, ask them to give you a document attesting that you are indeed a citizen of Canada before we can give you the document you are requesting right now.”
“But they said they wouldn’t give me anything unless I get this document from you.” By now, tears were running down the woman’s face.
One of the man’s colleagues, a woman sitting beside him, rose and joined the conversation at this point. “Miss, why are you crying? Why?” she asked the question as though she was genuinely puzzled, as if losing your passport in a foreign country and the terrifying thought of not knowing when you could go home couldn’t reduce anyone to tears.
“I just want to go home,” the woman said in a low voice as though she was whispering to herself.
“Please don’t cry here. Go back to your embassy and relay what we’ve told you. You can cry there if you want.”
Did I imagine it or had he really uttered the words?
The woman nodded and stepped out of the office, sniveling and looking lost as she stumbled away. I hesitated a breath before I walked in and threw a hastened bonjour his way. When I stated that I had an appointment, I braced myself for battle in case he got it in his head to pretend not to know me once more. It was a relief when he only nodded his head and asked me to follow him upstairs. I did, my breathing coming in quick gasps when we reached our destination. He left me in the hallway and told me to wait until I was called in.
I sat down on the only available chair I could see and leaned my head against the wall. The drowsiness I was fighting every second pressed against my eye-lids and I shivered. Suddenly feeling very cold, very impatient. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anywhere but here. I closed my eyes and the image that materialized before me was that of my father. He was wearing his favorite white kaftan, sitting crossed-legged on his prayer mat, fingers flicking through his beloved prayer beads. I focused on the calm look on his face, on the set of his slim shoulders, on the way those prayer beads he loved more than anything else in the world bounced back and forth on his lap.
I let the image lull me into a semblance of peace as it always did. As I hoped it always would.
I was soon called into another office where I was interrogated at length as to my reasons for living with an expired resident permit for an entire year. My answers were vague, half-truths at best. In the end, the guy must have decided he was satisfied with my responses but as his job dictated, warned me not to do it again and handed me a document where I had to sign to that effect.
From my friends who have already been through the process, I know what’s next. I walked through another hallway, paced outside another office. The strong scent of urine wafting out of the open bathroom opposite me made me nauseous and I wished for the umpteenth time that this whole ordeal would be over already. As soon as the Swedish lady with bouncing blonde hair in a ponytail walked out, I strode in, not even waiting for someone to call out for me.
My name and address were written on a black board by a smiling bearded young man wearing a black sweater and faded jeans. I could see he wanted to put me at ease so I returned his smile and stood against the wall. He instructed me to strike a pose, then came forward and tilted my head to the desired angle. I had to hold the board with my details on it as he snapped pictures of me. I couldn’t help the giggles that bubbled out of me as I thought about all the times I had watched criminals go through a similar process in movies. It was surreal to say the least and little bit of fun.
“Alright, that was good,” said black sweater guy. “Come over here so I could collect your fingerprints.”
I nodded, dragged my feet over to where he stood.
“Give me your hands, palms up.”
I wiped my sweaty hands on my black coat and did as I was told.
“Just relax. If you tense up, we would spend all day here. I need ten sets of fingerprints.”
I nodded again, exhaling loudly. He dipped finger after finger into the ink then pressed them against the paper.
“Why are you breathing so loud? Are you asthmatic?”
“No, I don’t have asthma,” I mumbled, too surprised by the concern in his voice to be offended by what I would have otherwise considered an intrusive question.
“Well, what do you have then?”
“Anxiety,” I offered because why the hell not?
“Just relax, okay. This is a normal procedure. I am your brother. This is your country as much as it is mine. Tell me, do you feel at home here?”
“Yes. As much as anyone can feel at home in a foreign country, I guess.”
“You must miss your family though. Did you visit them during the summer holidays?”
I looked down at where he continued to dip my fingers and press and didn’t say anything for quite a while. “No, I didn’t. But I’m planning to next summer.”
“I bet you can’t wait to see Mum and Dad.”
“Just Mom. Dad passed away two months ago,” I said shocking us both into silence.
“I… I’m sorry.” His grip momentarily tightened on my finger. “You didn’t go home for it?”
“It was the beginning of the semester. I possibly couldn't… I had classes.”
“That should have been the last thing on your mind.”
On the contrary, I wanted to say but held myself back. My studies had been the only thing that kept me sane, the only part of the new reality I’d been brutally introduced to that made any sense so I’ve clung to it with all my might.
“Are you feeling any better now?”
“I’m doing okay,” I said and looked into his eyes for the first time since our conversation started. I wanted him to know I meant the words, however generic they sounded.
I thought about everything that separated him from the people who’d been screaming at a poor confused tourist downstairs and felt that my faith in human decency has been restored.