In one sense, she was right. I had overstayed. Anyone taking the lengthy bus ride from their plane to the arrivals terminal has already stayed too long in Sha’tar. Three years ago, when I rode that bus for the first time, I should have just turned around and bought myself a seat on the next flight out. But I did not know that at the time. We have to trust people, in order to function. Back then, I believed what people told me about Sha’tar. Lying bastards. Lying, immoral, medieval bastards. It is true that money talks. It talks a load of bullshit. And there was lots of money in Sha’tar.
“No I didn’t. My visa was cancelled seven days ago.”
I had overstayed, and now I was going. Or I would be going, if only I could convince yet another dullard to let me through just one more barrier. They loved barriers in this country. They put up barriers, just to employ the people who would not let you through.
“Nine days ago.”
They had to let me catch my flight. I mean, what was the alternative? Would they punish me for staying too long by making me stay even longer? How does that help them achieve their goal? Then again, the Sha’taris have no goals. They are born. They receive qualifications, whether they go to school or not. They get a job, whether they have qualifications or not. Probably they believe they will go to heaven, whether they were good or not. Sha’taris have a powerful sense of their destiny, which they perceive as having nothing to do with working hard or being right.
All Sha’taris work for the government. All of them. Okay, not all of them, but near enough. The average Sha’tari is schooled to believe that jobs should come from governments, and that every job should involve sitting behind a desk and being superior to one of life’s losers, otherwise known as the people who did not get government jobs, otherwise known as foreigners. Every Sha’tari has the job, and duty, and pleasure, of trying to control the anarchic foreign hordes who do all the jobs that no Sha’tari will ever do. Sha’taris are the modern-day equivalent of the ancient Spartans, a small people that obsessively subdues the many foreigners around them. The Spartans used shield and sword to exert their authority. The Sha’taris prefer paper, ink, and rubber stamps.
Amazingly, fools from other countries would often be overheard lauding the stable government of the Sha’tari Emir. Of course the government was stable. The government has only one goal: to breed the most self-satisfied, complacent, deluded and dream-bound paper-pushing automatons that the world has ever known. Only malcontents ever want to vote for another ruler. That is why democracies win – they ride the sustainable energy created by endless waves of malcontents, all of whom want something better. In Sha’tar, there is nothing better. In Sha’tar, happy government employees are bastions of the status quo. And in Sha’tar, the status was always going to be, and will always be, quo.
Also, I can count. If you want to get nit-picky, then maybe it was eight days, but that seems unlikely because that would mean the visa was cancelled on the day I handed it over to be cancelled, and they just held on to it for another two days because they fancied. My guess is that they left the passport in a pile for a day, cancelled the visa the next day, and returned the visa the day after. Notice how I assume that Sha’taris are averagely slow all the time, rather than rushing to do a job so they can be exceptionally slow afterwards.
“What do you want me to do?”
“You must pay fine.”
People think I exaggerate. I do not exaggerate. This is what Sha’tar is like, from the disappointing beginning to anxious end. Like all government employees everywhere, they have no heart. They view people as a problem to be overcome, not as something to be helped. Why volunteer the mundane detail of how to pay a fine, when you can wait for me to ask?
“How? Do I pay it to you?”
“You have to go to office.”
Like I said, I do not exaggerate. Maybe she was old, or maybe she just looked old after a hard life of scowling at people. I just felt old.
“Where is the office?”
She gesticulated vaguely. The ‘office’ must be another building. Her arm drooped back down to her side. This great effort had evidently left her exhausted.
And this is how they treat the premium super-duper travellers. My heart goes out to the world’s flotsam and jetsam, the Asian construction workers that literally build the air-conditioned temples of Sha’tari government sloth. One can barely imagine the treatment they must endure, when they try to leave the country. Or when they arrive. Or when they do anything whilst in the country. In Sha’tar the status quo was motionless. Anything else disturbs their sensitive natures.
“I need to pay a fine, where is the office?”
I was confident that the fashion models working for the world’s only nine-star airline would be sure to know the answer. They have to be good looking, helpful and capable to land their job. Appeasing Sha’tari sex pests only becomes part of their routine on the day after they begin work. Which proves the point that life is roulette, starting with the wheel spin of which soul is shot into which bodily slot. Not that Sha’taris openly admit to gambling. But they do pretend to believe in souls. The ugliest and stupidest can be born to luxury, if they start in the right place at the right time. Others are born with incredible gifts, but still must market them to foreign buyers. And yet others… well, there was nothing I could do for them. At least, not in this place. In this place, the elite distributed everything, even goodness. And the elite held the monopoly on everything.
“I don’t know.”
Bugger. I had forty-five minutes to pay a fine, get through immigration and get on my plane. And it occurred to me that, in Sha’tar, nothing ever gets completed in less than an hour. But like helpful people do, she came up with a good suggestion.
“The porters will know.”
So she walked with me to the porters, which was not necessary, as I had walked past them on the way in, and, being English, my English was as good as hers. Everyone speaks English in Sha’tar. Even the Sha’taris, which must annoy them endlessly. Even if money talks bullshit, at least it talks the international language of bullshit, which is English.
“This way, sir.”
Obviously. I may be in the premium super-duper terminal, and I may be a doofus needing help to find an office to pay a fine I should not need to pay, but I can remember where the doors are. Especially when I can see them. But at least she was making an effort to be helpful. Helpful people can walk briskly across a room, even when there is no need. Sha’taris never walk briskly across a room, even when the room is on fire.
The porter pointed. He looked like he was Indian, but you can never be entirely sure and such labels mean little anyway. His point was much firmer than that of the Sha’tari at Passport Control. But still, he was pointing into a vague distance.
So I told him to “come with me. Show me.”
And I started to walk in the direction he pointed. He was not walking with me, but he would. His job was to stay there, portering. Along with a dozen other porters, all waiting patiently for the next premium passenger to arrive. But this porter would come with me. Small. Brown. White-suited. He was mine. I had no doubt about that. Being firm is all that is needed. The Sha’taris train people to bend to their will. Even if you disapprove, you can take advantage when the situation demands it. And Nietzsche was a German, not a Sha’tari. This Indian porter could be commandeered by anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s words in Beyond Good and Evil, or Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sha’taris relied upon impressing their will by being angry and loud, but ultimately they were still too lazy to get the maximum returns from it. Modern Germans may be very polite, very considerate and very democratic, but moments like these demand the channeling of some old-fashioned Germanic will. As far as I was concerned, The Ride of the Valkyries was already playing in my head.
“Come with me. Don’t worry, you’ll get a tip.”
You could see he wanted to hesitate, worried about leaving his post, but I walked away at just the right pace, and the elastic pulled him along, first slowly, but he soon caught up. And then he was taking the lead, showing me the way to the ‘office’.
It had not occurred to me that I should hand him one of my bags. That was not a priority, despite the forty-degree heat that baked the concrete car park. He reached for one bag. I gave him the lighter one. I wanted him to be fast, not strong. I could carry bags. He needed to show the way.
So we scampered, in that half-walk, half-trot, half-jog born of knowing you are in a hurry but not knowing exactly how far you have to go. We crossed a car park, weaving through white Toyota Land Cruisers. We walked under canvas where we could, sheltering from the sun. We passed the old old terminal for poor people. We passed the new old terminal for poor people. The super-duper premium terminal was left far behind us. At the car park’s end, we squeezed through a turnstile, and crossed a road. And crossed another road. The porter hesitated, unsure if we could cross the next car park, or if we had to walk around. He dithered. I pressed on across the car park, hopeful. It turns out we could and did make it across, taking advantage of a gap in the chain link fence.
Sweat poured down my back, but I did not break my trot. Past the second car park, we weaved around one wall, then through a gate, and up to an empty-looking building. Inside, a skinny brown man pushed a wet mop along its tiled floor.
He pointed to the building next door. Out we went, the porter and I, around the corner, to the entrance of the next building…
… to find ourselves in a waiting room. A large waiting room. With a lot of people waiting. At least it was the right building. The round emblem of the Ministry of Interior was painted on the ceiling. Presumably if you looked upward in despair, the emblem would remind you who was to blame.
My eyes darted left and right. Where was the machine that would print the paper with the number that said my position in the queue? Every Sha’tari government office has one of those machines. Somebody must have grown very rich from selling those machines to the Sha’tari government. But no machine was visible. Just rows and rows of chairs, arranged in square blocks, with lots and lots of brown people sat upon them, waiting patiently, surrounded by a ring of windowed counters, starting to the immediate left of the entrance, and ending at the immediate right of the entrance. If Bosch had painted Hell as a waiting room, then this is what the painting would look like.
A man sat behind the counter to the left of the doors. His skin was too dark to be a Sha’tari, and he was dressed in a brown suit rather than a white gown. Numberless, I hoped he would take pity on me.
“I need to pay a fine for overstaying.”
He was unusually helpful. He very clearly pointed to the counter where I could get my numbered piece of paper. The porter and I ran around the waiting room, to that counter. There was nobody behind the counter. A man in a military uniform sat at the next counter. He was not serving anybody.
“I need to pay a fine for overstaying.”
“For staying too long. I’m leaving today. My flight goes soon.”
The man in the military uniform stretched across, pressed a button on the machine, and pulled out a numbered piece of paper, which he handed to me. F24.
F21 was ‘served’.
The porter and I sat.
F22 was ‘served’.
The porter was quiet. So was I.
F23 was ‘served’.
Everybody was quiet.
F24 flashed up in red LED letters. By chance, this was the counter alongside that of the man in military garb. Behind the counter, a Sha’tari in a white gown took the paper that read ‘F24’, and verified that it was, indeed, my turn to be ‘served’.
“What do you want?”
“I need to pay a fine. They say I overstayed.” I handed over my passport.
I quickly calculated there was nothing useful I could say at this point.
Sha’tar is the only country in the world where you can be punished for not getting permission to leave.
“I have a permit, a multi-exit permit.”
This means I can leave any time I like, without needing even more permission. Usually.
“It expired. First you get permit, then you pay fine.”
The man in white started talking to the man in the military uniform. They spoke in Sha’tari. Heck knows what they were talking about.
“Look, there are months to go before it expires.” I showed him the photocopy I kept in my wallet.
“It expired. You overstayed.”
If you have never been to Sha’tar, you probably would not understand the full depth of information given in those four, curt, words. A fuller explanation would be: “we cancel your exit permit at the end of the day we say you should have left by, so if you overstay, you need a new permit in order to leave.”
To reiterate, I do not exaggerate. Or embellish. Or manufacture, or deceive. This really is the Sha’tari idea of good government. Years of experience meant I understood their fiendish ways, without condoning them in any way.
“How do I get a permit now?”
“Speak to employer.”
Yes. That is what he said. The same employer that booked my plane ticket, and had insisted my visa be cancelled, rather than just allowed to expire. The same employer who gave me so much advice about what date to cancel my visa, and when to fly out. I would have to speak to that employer. My former employer. And with half an hour before the gates closed for my flight.
I called somebody. Who called somebody. Who called back and gave me a number. I called the number. And loudly spoke in the waiting room, thinking that being rude in a government waiting room is possibly punishable by deportation.
“Hello. Government Liaison.”
I explained my situation, and who I was.
“Who are you?”
“I just told you, Pierre Snazlick”
“Which ID? Sha’tar ID?”
“I don’t have it. I returned my pass. I’m in the airport. This is really urgent.”
“Then how do I know who you are?”
“I told you my name.”
“You could be anybody.”
“How many people called Pierre Snazlick do you think has resigned from your company in the last week?”
“I don’t know.”
The line went dead for a little while. I realized I needed to be more polite and patient – Sha’taris only respond to foreigners who are polite and patient. That is the natural order of things, in Sha’tar. Foreigners are polite and patient. Sha’taris are rude and impatient. And rich. As time is money, there is an asymmetry in Sha’tar that reflects the value of Sha’tari time, compared to everyone else’s. I had thirty minutes to catch a flight, whilst they only had six hours before home time. Unless they went home early. Which they probably would.
Somebody new was on the line. He spoke like a Pakistani.
“Hello. Government Liaison.”
Touché. That would teach me to be impatient. At least the first Sha’tari had not hung up on me. He had just passed me to an underling, who would be more patient. And diligent. And capable, I hoped. So I explained the situation again.
“What is your name?”
He made me spell it out.
“What is your ID number?”
I explained I did not have it on me.
“Then how do I know who you are?”
“You could look at my name in the corporate directory, and see my ID number there.”
He did not speak for a while, which presumably meant he did as he was bid, and being armed with my corporate ID number, he was now empowered to act.
“You want an exit permit, right?”
“Yes, please, straight away.”
“I’ll call you back.”
He hung up. I stood. And pretended that I was still speaking to him.
“Don’t delay. I really want to get out of this F-U-C-K-I-N-G horrible country.”
But nobody deported me. So I sat back down, next to the porter. He seemed without care, although his face indicated some sympathy for my plight. Maybe he had a family at home, and had not seen them for years. We waited.
I wondered if I would get a call back.
I wondered where I would sleep that night, if I missed the flight.
My phone rang.
“Yes, yes, thank you for calling back. Did you arrange the exit permit?”
“Yes. Permit is arranged.”
“So I can pay the fine now?”
“Yes, I paid the fine.”
“You paid the fine? I thought I had to pay the fine?”
“Yes, I have to pay the fine?”
“I’m not sure if you understand me. Did you pay the fine, or do I have to pay the fine?”
“No, you’re not understanding me. Did you pay the fine for me?”
“So do I need to pay any fine?”
With fifteen minutes until the boarding gates closed, and at least a ten minute run to get back to the terminal building, I could not afford to take the chance of having to run there and back and there again. So I got another numbered piece of paper: F33. But seeing my plight, a Nepali came up to me, and swapped his paper for mine. He traded his F29 for my F33. Such are the ways of the world. The people who have least are prepared to give most. I thanked him, but did not have long to do so, as the number flashed up on the red LED straight away.
This time I was directed to a counter managed by a black-clad Sha’tari woman. This was good news. Sha’tari women, being oppressed, work harder at school, and are usually more helpful. Usually.
“I want to check if I have to pay a fine.”
She took my passport, and looked at it. She pressed buttons on her system. And then she did something unexpected.
She rose from her chair, taking my passport with her.
Sha’tari women are more helpful than the men, but when it comes to physical tasks, they can be slow. Very very slow. No, slower than that. As slow as this. Yup, as slow as this. Because it took this long from when she started standing up to when she finished standing up. And she had not started walking yet. No, not yet. Still not yet. Nearly. Yes, now she had turned and started walking to her colleague, past the two empty counters, to another black-clad Sha’tari female, three counters down.
In some places, they advise that physical wellbeing starts with simple daily exercise, like using the stairs instead of always catching the lift. In Sha’tar, they need to set their sights a little lower. In Sha’tar, they needed to foster the habit of walking instead of dawdling. Not that ‘dawdling’ is the right word. They say the Inuit have three hundred words for ‘snow’. The Sha’taris probably have three hundred words for all the kinds of walking that fall between walking very very slowly and not really moving at all. ‘Dawdling’ was not the right word for this young woman. Nor was ‘gliding’, though there was no evidence of a stride pattern beneath the robe that draped down to the floor. ‘Glaciering’ was the word that came to mind, as in
Definition of GLACIER
A large body of ice moving slowly down a slope or valley or spreading outward on a land surface
1: to move smoothly, continuously, and very very very very slowly, like a glacier
2: to move even more slowly than that
In Britain, any government employee would have taken a radically different approach to saving energy. They would have just turned and shouted across the space between them and the person who was three counters down. This would be unseemly in Sha’tar. Grabbing back my passport would also be unseemly, so I smiled, and said nothing, and acted like I had all the time in the world. In Sha’tar, acting like you have all the time in the world is, paradoxically, the best way to speed things up. Because trying to hurry a Sha’tari won’t make them go any faster. Oh no. Oh no. Yes, I am stalling. She was still walking towards her colleague. Really. Yes, really. She really was that slow. Did you not read the definition of ‘glaciering’?
Finally, she arrived at her colleague, and spoke to her in a low whisper. She spoke. Her colleague spoke. She spoke. Her colleague spoke. Mindful not to intrude on their hushed conversation, I had not moved. I waited patiently, at the original window.
Their conversation over, the Sha’tari returned, with my passport in hand.
No, not that quickly.
Only half way there.
A little while longer.
She was back.
And she sat down.
Half way down.
“There is no fine to pay.”
She gracefully reached out her long and languorous arm. The folds of her sleeve delicately rearranged themselves. Somewhere across the galaxy, a star blinked out of existence, and somewhere else a new star was born, erupting with a light so bright it would sear your eyeballs if you were within a billion miles of it, not that any of us will see that light within our lifetimes, because it has such an unimaginably long way to travel before it reaches us, as we stand under a night sky, letting our dreams rise above us and dance amongst the sirens of the universe. She held my passport out to me, and, when it was close enough, I grabbed it. And ran.
I grabbed the porter on the way. He ran too.
He ran, I ran, we ran. Across the first car park, over the first road, trying not to be killed by white Toyota Land Cruisers, over the second road, still not killed by impatient Sha’taris driving their white Toyota Land Cruisers, through the turnstile, across the second car park, past the new old terminal for poor people, past the old old terminal for poor people, to the super-duper terminal for premium people, which was located as far from the Ministry of Interior office as possible.
When we got back to the premium terminal, the porter was knackered. It was a good job I was carrying all the bags. I went into my wallet, and gave him every Sha’tari note in there, and then fumbled around in my pocket, and gave him my almost worthless Sha’tari coins too. And I thanked him, well, but briefly.
Back at the immigration desk, the same old woman needed my photograph. I imagined myself being put on a list, barring me from re-entry into Sha’tar, with no exceptions, not even in the case of my being temporarily insane and wanting to return.
This being the premium terminal, the bus had waited a little longer than it should have done. I was the last to board it, and its doors closed behind me. It rolled its long way across the airport tarmac. I grabbed a fistful of the front of my sweat-soaked shirt, and tugged it in rapid pulses, allowing the bus’ conditioned air to reach my skin, whilst my fist kept tempo with the heart beneath. I was going. At painfully long last, I was going. This was international territory, so I felt safe, and returned a call to a man who gave me a number when I needed it most, and shared my joy that I was now leaving. Aboard the plane, within the realm of business class, I explained to the cabin crew supermodels what a Bucks Fizz is made of. And when the plane took off, I did not look back, nor down.
Oh, I nearly forgot. £3.50, if you are curious. That was how much the fine cost.