Casablanca - I recently went home to Morocco after my grandmother’s death. During my trip, I experienced unexpected efficiency and kindness by government employees. But I also experienced the utter indifference and inefficiency that our bureaucracies have perfected. This is my story.
Casablanca – I recently went home to Morocco after my grandmother’s death. During my trip, I experienced unexpected efficiency and kindness by government employees. But I also experienced the utter indifference and inefficiency that our bureaucracies have perfected. This is my story.
I worried as my plane landed in Casablanca that I would have a hard time at passport check. In my scatterbrained state, I had remembered my American passport but forgotten my expired National ID card. I recalled from past experiences that the officers at passport check were dour, humorless sorts who disapproved of my dual citizenship and marriage to a non-Moroccan and harangued me about never forgetting who I was. One had said to me once, “You couldn’t find a Moroccan to marry, you had to go marry a foreigner?” So I was expecting unpleasantness. But the policeman at passport check at Mohammed V Airport welcomed me home. When he learned the reason for my trip, he said “Lbaraka frassek.” He asked me for my National ID card. I told him “I forgot it,” and thought “Here comes the lecture.” But he didn’t try to shame me.
Instead, he said “No problem, give me your name and your father’s name, I’ll find the number, and I’ll write it down in your passport so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.” I thought “My goodness, how terribly efficient, and a little scary” (but we know this about our security services, they are good at their jobs). I also thought “What kindness.” And when I told Facebook about the kindness of strangers on my trip home, I included thanks for this gentleman.
But in case you thought that this attitude has spread to other government agencies, I am here to reassure you that it’s business-as-usual in the Ministry of the Interior Office of Vital Statistics.
After my experience at the airport, I thought I should apply for a new National ID card when I returned to the US. I would need official copies of my birth certificate. I don’t really need to do this, you understand. I have my expired card. The police database at the airport knows me. I also have a Certificate of Foreign Birth, which the US Consulate gave my mother when I was born. So I already officially exist in two countries’ government databases.
But the Ministry of the Interior has been doing a PR campaign saying that the bureaucracy has been streamlined and it’s easier to get what you need from them. And the Moroccan Embassy website said I could apply for my ID card online. So I thought “I’m here, why not?”
The Office of Vital Statistics was an ancient building with numbered doors and barred windows around a courtyard. People wearing sabr (a cross between patience and endurance) like a second skin stood in lines. Some people sat or milled around in the courtyard. My father and I stood out as people who looked like we believed things would work out for us. After all we had a copy of my expired card, and the “Carnet de Famille,” or family booklet, listing my birth.
We waited to see the lady who would issue the copies. In good time, a policeman called us into her office. Another woman sat there trying to get papers. The vital statistics lady looked me up in the big paper registry for 1971. She found it, which didn’t surprise me, but then she said:
“I can’t issue copies of your birth certificate because the person who registered your birth made a mistake, scratched it out, and corrected it. You have to go to court to get a judgment that this is the right date, and then come back.” I wasn’t sure I understood her correctly because 1) my Darija is rather mediocre and 2) it seemed shockingly wrong, so I asked my father to translate. He confirmed what she said, and said to the lady, “but here’s the family booklet issued by the state, it has the right date.” That didn’t make a difference.
My dad said “So your employee made and corrected his mistake in 1971 but we have to get a judgment to confirm the fixed mistake?” That earned him a frown.
I thought I would offer a solution. I said “Look. Here’s a copy of the expired card, issued by this office, my birth date is on here. Here’s my American passport, my birth date is on here too.” She wouldn’t budge. In a split second I thought of the efficient police database, and the contrast with the paper registry where someone used a Bic to write down my birth in 1971. I thought of the Ministry of the Interior’s PR campaign. I looked at the lady bureaucrat’s face, which had closed like a fist, the citizen who was looking at me with sympathy, and the policeman who was just watching to see what would happen next. And I made a decision.
“Never mind, Dad, let’s go.” That surprised them all. “Blesh,” I said. “I don’t need it. I don’t even need the citizenship. I’m an American.” And we left. Because having experienced the courtesy and efficiency of airport police (believe me, that is not something I thought I would ever write), I knew what I could expect from a government agency, and I wasn’t willing to settle for less.
When my father and I left, the courtyard was still full of people trying to get something vital out of Vital Statistics. I am sure some of them will be told, like me, that they have to get something important from another labyrinthine government agency first, by someone with a huge paper registry that looks like it dates from the administration of Maréchal Lyautey. Most of them will make remarkable displays of sabr and humor, and some will feel forced to deploy the weapon of last resort of Moroccans faced with broken bureaucracy: the MAD 200 bill.
Asking a citizen to hire a lawyer and go to court to get a judgment nullifying a mistake made by a government employee that the employee had corrected is asking them to live in an Ionesco play. Is it any wonder so many Moroccans want to live elsewhere? Or resort to bribery?
I have heard from friends that my story is quite common. Here’s what I would like you to take from it, aside from the fact that I clearly failed sabr class in the school of Moroccan life:
- Morocco has made some great progress. The way I was treated at the airport is proof.
- But parts of the bureaucracy are stuck in an old, rigid way of doing things that strips citizens of their dignity and encourages corruption, regardless of government PR.
- The majority of Moroccans can’t say “Blesh” and turn their backs on the absurdity and indignity of some of these interactions, as I did secure in the knowledge of my American citizenship. I share my story with them in mind, hoping that one more voice demanding efficient government services for all Moroccans will make a difference. It can happen, it must happen, and we all deserve it.
Maimshi m3akoum bass.
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