If asked about one of the worst days of your life, you as a Pakistani — aside from health-related emergencies or a financial crisis — would almost always recount the time you were humiliated in a government office while applying for a passport, filing a complaint in the police station, getting the electricity bill fixed, or updating the address at a NADRA office. To cope with the psychological trauma inflicted by clerical staff, people go through the same five stages of grief as they would upon the diagnosis of, let us say, terminal cancer. First of all is the denial phase. “How could he [the clerk] delay such a simple process?” the victims complain. It is quickly followed by anger in which the applicant tries to intimidate the official by screaming at the top of his lungs, or by threatening to take up the matter to senior executives or by warning the staff of the consequences. But, the truth is that these hollow warnings never work. People blow their fuse in theses offices everyday. Employees know the routine well and they just ignore complaints. So after the wave of anger has receded, while the file has not moved an inch forward, the reality sets in, and people cover the next three stages — depression, bargaining and acceptance — fairly quickly.
Do you know very well what I mean by bargaining? In simple terms, you negotiate a price that will satisfy everyone from the peon to the director to get the ball rolling. It does not matter to them if you took a day off from work, wasted hours on public transport and spent hundreds of rupees to file your application. If the ‘surcharge’ is not paid, your request will be denied with a strange objection on it. For example, he might say the backside of the copy of your national identification card is not attested, even though the front has been signed off; the picture looks too dark while it is not any different from other documents; or the application requires four copies of your passport while you have submitted just three.
The only way to avoid this embarrassment or paying the ‘premium’ is to by-pass them altogether by approaching a senior, more powerful officer, in the same department through your personnel connections. Some times you do know the right person and get lucky. But, mostly you don’t, which means you are at the mercy of maniacs waiting to pounce on your vulnerability. The worse part is that their notoriety transcends beyond the physical boundaries of Pakistan. Stories circulate about how people were ignored or mistreated by the staff in overseas embassies and consulates. Even for simple tasks like the renewal of passports, Pakistanis look for a ‘source’ to circumvent the procedure and avoid unnecessary delays or humiliation.
We expected the same treatment from the Chicago Consulate of Pakistan when a few weeks ago we applied for Pakistani visas for my children. The process, according to the consulate, takes four-five weeks. The problem was not that we did not have a few weeks, we did. It was only that we did not have more than a few months in our hands. A single objection could easily push the application back by a fortnight, spoiling our plans. We were nervous that they would tell us how we forgot to sign the first page of the form or did not get the sixth page notarised. Should we call the Consulate General and ask for help or take our chances? That was our dilemma.
After brooding over it for a couple of days, we decided to take our chances and sent the application. As an extra step of caution, we called the consulate to say we would appreciate if the application could be processed faster. Five days later, a knock on the by FedEx surprised us delivering our passports, visas stamped, no ‘surcharge’ paid, no ‘source’ required. It was unbelievable.
Impressed both by the courtesy and the efficiency of the office, I called the Consulate General of Pakistan in Chicago, Faisal Trimizi, a career diplomat and a gentleman, to share my experience. “People call me all the time to expedite their application. I tell them you don’t need my help,” he said. “Just let me know if you encounter any trouble.” He sounded confident that his staff would not delay or turn down the application without a good reason. “People from all over the US want to apply through our consulate.” He later on added. I do not doubt that because every Pakistani I have met in the last few months who had to deal with Chicago was raving about their experience. “The staff was respectful and friendly,” a friend of mine told me who had to get a new passport in 24 hours. “I got it and flew the following morning.”
I know growing up in Pakistan we develop a keen eye to detect the negative aspect of almost everything. Over time, we sharpen our skills so much so that even the positives also look negative. Probably, it is our way of giving back to the community what we get from it: stubborn unhealthy scepticism and paranoia. It is therefore understandable that that we find it hard to appreciate if only a few out of many government offices perform their duties well. Don’t get me wrong, we are very good at sycophancy but I am not talking about that. I am talking about the admiration the whole team deserves, like the Chicago Consulate of Pakistan, when they take an extra step to bring ease in your life.
The writer is a US-based freelance columnist. He tweets at @KaamranHashmi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org