Right to an Answer
The only way you mess up is if you get made a fool of, I’d been told at my induction into this job: stamping applications for entry, either one of rejected, approved, provisionally approved. This last category was for the hard case—but mostly, invariably, unavoidably rejected. Pakistanis made a bigger deal of it though—made the ratio look far worse than it actually was. An article in the newspaper yesterday, for example: a man, Dr. so-and-so, PhD, MA (UK), whining about not being accorded a visa to take his family along with him to some fellowship in Wisconsin. But did he mention how old his son was? 26. Why does a 26-year-old need to accompany a father to a fellowship? Grown man. Whoever heard of grown men living on a father’s fellowship so late in life?
And thank god for anonymity in visa interviews: the Dr. couldn’t mention me by name only because we never reveal them. Whoever came up with these procedures knew what they were doing. What would happen, do you think, if they forced us to wear nametags? In this country, where everything is always personal. Every gangster refused a visa to take his wife touring America’d wage a personal vendetta against the officer, and I’m not stereotyping, for who hasn’t lived in Karachi and made the same jokes? Zahid does it all the time, has the same laments: the dirty politics, the monopoly of extortionists, the men surrounded by other men sporting guns in place of chains, belts of ammo across the chest like permanent tattoos punched into their skins. Terrible, telling marks I imagine they have to reveal to their wives at home, whom they—
What do I have for today? A mother claiming to visit a son, but the son hasn’t got any papers, fuck—undocumented, probably, ended up sticking out there, an overstay—or maybe Jay’s messing with me, just to see me miserable. Or maybe—actually this is probably why—because Kyra can’t handle blubbering women who come armed with their emotional ammunition, the kind of stories that really tug at your heartstrings but only if you were naively empathetic.
Fine, I’ll take this on—easy rejection—but only because the woman embarrasses me when she flails, visibly uncomfortable, skin paling before applicants, which only encourages them really: they begin to see you crack and falter and the sight of Lady Liberty appear behind your crumbling exterior. And soon they’ll switch their pleading to prayer, to supplication, if only you could, if only you did, if only you’d let them—make a fool out of you.
I’m tired today. Woke up with a trying ache this morning, a head that throbs at intervals, not constantly. The sun outside is intense—it stormed without permission into my apartment, baked the wrought-iron security bars of my window. I didn’t relish the prospect of coming in to work today. Also, I might curse the sun now but then I’ll miss it later, locked into the manufactured other-world of the visa interview hall, where there are no windows, where no natural light reaches—no reminders at all, in fact, of the country we are in.
Does skin dry under harsh, punishing white light? It must, mustn’t it? Those overhead lights in the hall color us pale and nasty and alien. One doesn’t exactly need mood lighting, but a softer touch would be nice, might take the edge off of some of these applicants. Some of them, you can tell, struggle to keep it in—their own personal jihads, their fury at being made to wait, to dredge over to the Consulate and put on display the very constitutive components of their lives: the medical records, property deeds, marriage certificates, birth certificates, salary slips, diploma exam results, notarized copies of the proofs of deaths of siblings and parents and children.
I get it, I’ve been told, all this is humiliating, distressing and traumatizing even. But we—I say we, but I mean the Department—need to know all about you when you apply. It’s like a risk assessment, basically, if you think about it. The likelihood is what we measure: the likelihood of an applicant’s returning to where they came from; the likelihood of their doing something terrible. Property, a job, some family here, all of these better your chances. But none of it is dispositive.
The Department wants you to know this. “At the end of the day,” Jay told us new inductees back in DC, “it’s on your reading of the applicant: do they look too desperate, do they seem trustworthy, do they give off the sense that they’ll play by the rules once they’re in?”
The first applicant I get this morning doesn’t give off any bad, warning vibes—but he’s short a few necessary assurances: no bank statements, no proof of parents’ employment, only a holographic note stating that “all expenses incurred by the applicant, Mr. _____, shall be borne by Mr. _____. You may treat this as guarantee for the purposes of granting him a study visa for the United States of America.”
“Who is this note from? Who is this Mr. _____?” I inquire.
“My uncle, ma’am.”
“Uncle—from your mother’s side?” I ask, for their surnames don’t match.
“Uncle, ma’am. Rich uncle, very rich. From our village, madam. Family friend, longtime relation, ma’am.”
“Alright,” I say, and I mean it. I’ve heard this before. “Where are the bank statements of this sponsor—this uncle of yours?”
The boy’s face drops, his eyes sink like a sun retreating into the fold at the end of a day. “Madam?” he pleads in the form of an inquiry.
“Bank statements,” I repeat.
Now the airborne fringe of the boy’s deliberately styled hair drops over his tanned forehead. A total eclipse. He starts to fumble and rummage through his plastic folder of unnecessary documents. “Madam, bank statements—”
I glance up at the digital clock strung up on the far wall. I catch sight of an older lady staring at me with frightened eyes, as though through her observation she can know me, anticipate the threat I pose to her, overcome me. The look and attitude of the hunted. I am offended. I’m not out to get anyone. I’m just doing my job.
The young man is still searching through the dirty, yellowed plastic folder, though he knows, I know, that the papers are not there. Yet he continues to look for them, either in desperate hope that they will appear out of nothing, or to make me believe that he really is in earnest, that he for his part was thorough in his preparations, but that he has waylaid the required papers, by mistake, not intention, and would I find it in my heart to forgive him this quite innocent mistake? Or perhaps he believes, in his desperation, that I will forget my request if he takes long enough in his fumbling, and ask him another question instead—one he can answer.
I anticipate all of this. After 2,000+ applicants interviewed, at least I have this: a wealth of knowledge about the excuses people make in desperate times, also the ability to predict expressions, actions, sounds they make when trying to avoid that inevitable pronouncement: “I’m sorry, but I can’t issue your visa at this time.” And then they, like this boy, are crestfallen—sometimes angry, sometimes not, but always crestfallen.
And this boy is evidence: he recedes into himself, face darkened, think beak swelling over disappointed lips. I offer him some consolation. I feel sorry for him. “You can always apply again. Next time, bring the bank statements of whoever’s sponsoring you—and proof of relationship, too.” He takes this as admonition, not advice, and hurries off, clumsily handling his papers, before I can correct myself and his interpretation.
“Kursi Kursi” by Jugni Chaudhry. 2012. Mix medium. 5 x 7 inches.
Some rejections leave you feeling low, leave you drained. Like rejecting an old mother, who perhaps wanted to visit her only child, or a grandparent yearning to see a newborn grandchild, but without a complete set of papers. These are the emotional rejections, the ones some others like Kyra just can’t handle, and which, then, get pawned on to me. The boy’s case was not one of those, and so I don’t require a time out, no break for water or air, or for a smoke bummed off of one of the secretaries collating approved applications in the back.
Besides, the hall is filling up, and I can make out that the usher’s face is tense. He wishes we would hurry up. If the procession of applicants moves too slow, people start to agitate. They first glare in our direction but, receiving no attention, direct their discontent at him, the long-suffering usher. Now and then, but at least once a day, a group of colluding applicants will approach him. “How long will it take?” they ask, pointedly, clearly more than a little annoyed. And he will respond calmly, asking them to take their seat. He does not know, he tells them, how long it will take. “It depends,” he says.
What it depends on, he does not say. The irritated applicant, left to wait longer, thinks he refers to the applicants ahead of them in line, or the nature of their cases. But what the usher really means is that it depends on us, the Americans, to whom he can say nothing.
He wants to tell us to hurry our determinations along, but he is a docile, deferential man, conscious of his place, who refers to us only as madam or sir upon address. And he is exceedingly polite, in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
I click the trigger on the number generator and receipt 1711 is called out. A heavy man with a lumbering gait slowly emerges from his seat, which is colored uniformly throughout the hall in the standard blue of the Consulate: the color of the ocean. He approaches booth #2, the booth I man—woman—most days of the week. He wears a tie, blaring colors and hideous shapes that really should not have been put together in a pattern, and a washed-out shirt that still bears a stubborn, blurred stain—of oil probably, knowing Pakistani food—and a suit-jacket that envelops him like animal skin. Either a millionaire or a pauper: the two possibilities for badly dressed men.
“Papers, sir,” I ask, after confirming his identity.
He counts out the required documents in order, meticulously smoothing out the sheets as he passes them to me through the slot that forms the only opening between us. All else is glass separator and ceramic structure.
“Purpose of your trip, sir?” I inquire.
“Business,” he responds and I see him rub his palm over a finely manicured set of nails.
“And what is it that you do?”
“We make clothes,” he replies. “Mostly shirts and vests but also socks and leggings—”
“Very well, and where will you be traveling to within the United States on this trip?”
“Dallas, madam, and Arizona—Phoenix—and Washington.”
“DC?” I ask, and he nods.
“Why those cities?”
“Our purchasers are in Dallas and Phoenix—and DC, my son studies in DC. I thought I would pay him a visit while I am in the States.” He pronounces ‘States’ roughly, such that it comes out sounding like “Shtats,” and I struggle to suppress a giggle.
But that he says States and not ‘America’ is reassuring, works in his favor. It indicates he knows the local parlance. A quick search of his recorded travel history confirms he’s been in the States several times before this. No irregularities, no overstays. The documents, too, are all in order. He has played by the rules. A rarity. An easy case.
I ask him to drop his passport in the slot. He complies, and as he does so his shoulders drop and relax. He catches on that he is being approved for his visa. I tie his papers round his passport with a band and drop it in a bin. Officially under processing.
I pick out a slip from one of the three color-coded heaps stacked on my desk and push it through the slot. He scoops it up gratefully and holds it up for examination. The crowd behind him twitters, in wonder and in envy, at the sight of the green slip in the man’s fat grip.
He looks, I note (amusing myself with the reference), like one of the lucky, grateful, disbelieving recipients of Wonka’s golden ticket to the chocolate factory. I smile. “You will be notified when your passport is ready to be picked up.”
The man lumbers away, nodding merrily to the usher and to the guard, who lets him out, and then he bobs out of sight, returned to the sea.
Before they ship you out here, they give you classes in the language: a full-time job for a few months that come as a release from preceding tours in other countries—at least if you’re an experienced hand—in between postings. More exciting for the new recruits, fresh and idealistic from their degree programs, some younger and more hopeful than others.
And for me, too, the language learning, I remember was a thrill. From easy mornings to late afternoons with the tutor, whom we called “Ustani,” a neatly made-up, very professional Pakistani-American lady trained in the task of bearing with the uncultured, dreadful accents of white people like me.
Once you landed here, though, the sojourn in DC completed, you found that language training only partly useful: more of a party trick to play in meetings with unsuspecting local bureaucrats or to startle the few friends you made from outside the insular world of the compound.
You realized very quickly that the locals thrilled in your speaking the language, but never really wanted to speak it to you. They’d much rather address you in a laborious or developed English, depending on their level of education or wealth. And you slipped easily back into the familiar rather than stumble through the memory of difficult words, complex grammar—and besides, the locals, those who did speak Urdu, spoke a mixture of many things: Urdu laced with Punjabi, soiled with Pashto, an amalgam you struggled to understand. They would laugh at me sometimes, call my Urdu “quaint,” would say it sounded like poetry or prose from a time that belonged to their grandfathers, now long past. I laughed too.
I stopped speaking it in front of my local friends. Zahid wouldn’t even tolerate my speaking it in bed, not even when I told him I loved him in Urdu. He prickled at the sound of it, expressed his disgust. “We would never say that—it sounds—too—mushy.” But then leaned over and said I love you back, in English in my ear. And so slowly, for the lack of use, the Urdu I had learned began to dissipate and rust.
Now, and only on occasions like these, do I drag it out, cobwebbed, simple words that translate the English that an applicant has not understood. “Documents — dastaweezaat.”
But the old woman retains that bewildered look, her dupatta tumbling from the top of her silvered crown.
I stub my finger against a sheet of paper on my end of the booth. “Papers — kaghazaat,” I try.
But she stares on, still unmoved, all wide eyes, stunned expression. We stare at one another, and for a second I have the feeling that I am looking into a mirror, at an image of myself from another life.
She peers at me with her sad, worn, devastated face. Ornate earrings of a dirty gold swaying off her ears, a nose stud to match punched into her nose. But I can tell she is not a rich woman, that she has perhaps very little money of her own. She relies on—whom? A son, a son-in-law—that is whom she wants to visit, I can tell from her application, papers she had filled out by—whom? The immigration consultants that reside in convenient basement chambers in the city, in the same strip malls that also house travel agents, postal offices, photocopiers—an entire economy of travel and travel restrictions.
Zahid points these out to me when we are in the city. His remarks cut, accuse. “See what you put these poor people of mine through.” A bureaucracy that feeds and gorges upon papers, anxiety, personal details, and harried effort.
The first few times he said it, I had felt guilty. The next time I said to him, with all the put-on American entitlement I could muster, “We also give your people jobs.” And it was true at least in some sense: the lawyers, photocopiers, postmen, specialists, all, in preparing American visa applications relied on our requiring immaculate dossiers of documents. And I admired their handiwork, made our jobs easier.
Meticulous work on this application too. Except the applicant still could not speak for herself. I called over the PA for the usher. He hurried over but not before having the guard bolt the door to the hall securely shut. He really is a responsible man, the keeper of order in our hall.
“Could you ask this applicant a few questions for me?”
“Yes, madam, of course, madam.”
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
And the usher went to work, translating and coaxing the lady into providing answers.
“Madam, she says she wants to visit her daughter. She says the daughter is about to give birth, says there are two other children besides, ages four and two.”
“How long does she intend to stay in the United States?”
Translation, hesitation, encouragement, reply. “She says she will stay as long as the daughter needs her to—”
I shake my head. “Six months, that’s the limit. Six months at a time—that’s the rule for a B1 visa.”
The usher nods, explains this to the woman. She gives no response, does not want to give in to this restriction. Then she blurts out a few words in Punjabi for the usher to translate.
“She says six months is too short a duration.”
I sigh an exasperated sigh. “Tell her I cannot change it. These are the rules.”
He complies, my helper. And the woman shakes her head, angrily. The heirloom earrings swing in tune.
She has begun to exasperate me. “Tell her if she does not acknowledge the six-month limitation I am going to refuse her the visa.”
The woman scowls at me when apprised of the threat. Ungrateful bitch. Doesn’t realize I’m doing her a favor. No way any of the other visa officers would overlook the fact that she’s patently incapable of communicating in anything but Punjabi, to anyone but native speakers. How is she going to make her way down to Arkansas, traveling alone?
“Does she acknowledge that she can only stay for six months in a single visit?”
And this time she needs no translation, looks up at me, the eyes of this being-from-another-life boring accusatorily into mine, and nods. “Passport,” I demand coldly.
The usher, mediating the chasm between us, takes it from her and passes it through the receptacle. It glitters in my hand, the soft green cover fresh from the government press, none of the pages stamped—a document this woman has clearly never needed before now, and procured for this very occasion.
“Give her this,” I instruct the intermediary and pass a green slip through to the other side. “Tell her she will receive a call when it’s ready for her to pick up. Is this her cell number, here on the application?”
The usher repeats the question to the woman, but more gently, I notice. “She says it is her son’s.”
“Very well, her son will receive a call when the passport’s ready for pick-up.”
He notifies her and leads her away, she holding the ticket secure in both hands, like a prize, or more likely an entitlement. It draws envious looks from everyone else waiting their turns about the room.
I am 2-for-3 today, and most of the applicants still waiting their respective inspections have only seen me grant visas this morning. They check the numbers on their slips anxiously, hopefully. They glance inquiringly at me, petitions and pleas emanating from luminous eyes. “Me, me, me.”
I get to choose—except I don’t really, and I wish they knew this. The program chooses for me. Do these people know that I am not the deity they take me to be? My hands are bound by systems, my questions of them mandated by rules, my decisions curtailed by procedures, my choices not absolute or final but subject to review. For a moment I despise their supplications, their pleading expressions. They implore, demand things of me I cannot give to them. They disgust me—I catch myself just in time, transform disgust into pity.
Yes, I do pity them. And I do what I can, don’t I do what I can? Didn’t I just grant that unpleasant old lady a visa, despite her incompetence, her refusal to respect the rules, despite her every effort to convince us she should not be allowed entry?
I tap the number generator icon and the number 1717 comes up. A sharply-dressed boy jumps to his feet. Two hopeful women sink back into their seats, firing vicious glares my way before they drop to minor despair. I sigh. The boy—though now that I see him up close he is more of a man, his fading hairline gives him away. He is pretending to a calm he does not feel.
“Student visa?” I inquire to confirm.
“Yes, ma’am. F-1.”
“Which university are you going to?”
“Ma’am, Oregon State, ma’am, for my MBA.”
“Do you have the acceptance letter with you?”
“Yes’m,” and he pulls a sheet out of a neatly kept folder. He has come prepared.
“Proof of finances?”
“Scholarship, ma’am. Here’s the letter.”
I take my time reading the offering. “But this only covers tuition. What about living expenses?”
“I have bank statements, ma’am. Father’s. Would you like to see them?”
I nod, hold out my palm. A sheaf of documents is passed from the other dimension to me.
The papers are in order. The transaction is straightforward: to every question a paper response. By the end of it I have a thicket and still, in his file are several more papers. “What else have you brought with you?” I feel compelled to ask.
“Ma’am, property documents, in case you needed them; birth certificate, if you needed to see it; exam results, ma’am; personal statements I wrote for the application; family registration certificate; parents’ marriage certificate; certificate of domicile; copies of national identity card; certificate of character issued by the police, ma’am; letters of recommendation; affidavit sworn under oath at the Sindh High Court pledging to remain in America only insofar as my stay is legal, ma’am—ma’am, would to see any of these, ma’am?”
I can’t help but laugh at his earnestness, and my laugh startles like a wave that breaks over dead waters. It pierces the side of the room closed to the boy, removed of the other applicants. Kyra, surprised, distracted from the interview she has been conducting, reaches back into her chair and my eye catches her posting me an inquiring glance.
I shake my head, say, “It’s nothing,” and return to the boy applicant. He has been concerned but now spying the mirth, clearly genuine, in my expression, breaks out in a nervous, relieved grin himself.
“You really came prepared, huh?” I ask him. He nods.
“Well, I don’t need any more documents from you. Take this slip.” I slide the coveted green card through the galaxy to him. “And wait for a call.” He nods brightly, in comprehension.
“Good luck,” I add.
He returns to me a winning smile, tucks the slip carefully into the inside pocket of his shiny, slightly over-sized blazer and leaves. I see him wipe his forehead of shine, muss his hair up in a style as he has the exit door pulled open for him by the guard manning it. “Next,” I whisper to myself, as I ask the machine for another number.
1721 is flashed out now for one of the women, previously despondent. She stumbles up in haste, slips and slides on the swept ceramic flooring before regaining her footing. A close call. Shaken, she grasps the arm of a chair, steadies herself, contemplates what was so nearly, she thinks, a disaster.
The usher is already beside her. “Are you okay?” he must be saying, though I cannot hear him behind the counter, from all that way across the hall. The woman, pale, nods. She starts to make her way to my counter, in steady, careful treads.
Just then there is a cry—a despairing cry, almost a yell—and then a sound of something hitting the floor, then wails that will not end. Wails that ring past the barriers between that world and this.
There is a time before the panic, the pandemonium, the response. This is a time of bewilderment. I’m up from my seat at that instant, cheek pressed up to the pane of reinforced glass, trying to see out. I can see a part of the body in pain, a splash of color on the blank tile.
Concerned citizens begin to attend to this body, a woman, in distress. A man has leapt to her aid. I see him squat beside her, say something to her. I can’t make out what is being said, the voice is attenuated by design, but I guess he is entreating her to stop, to comfort her and prohibit her in the same plea. The body flails out at him, catches him and he stumbles. He yells an obscenity. Now he has to be held back, to be comforted.
“I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” Kyra is pleading, from our side of things. She is panicking, blubbering.
“What happened?” someone throws the question at her.
“Nothing—I don’t know. She didn’t have all the papers. I told her I couldn’t—”
“Jesus. Where’s Jay? Call Jay.”
“Jay’s not here today.”
“Jesus, fuck, Jesus.”
I call for the usher over the PA. No response. He’s out there somewhere, in that crowd of fighting applicants. Some are up and trying to quiet the woman, trying to quiet the man, and more fights are breaking out. A fist is thrown. “Don’t touch me, don’t you dare touch me,” another man has screamed loud enough to funnel through the individual slots of the seven booths.
Some applicants cower in their seats. But the mood in the hall is darkening.
“Usher, usher,” I call from the slot at my booth. My calls are drowned out by the woman’s screams. The screams turn into moans and moans into sobs.
The guard has left his post at the exit door and is now yelling for order. A mother takes her child and tries to flee, but the guard has bolted the door shut. She struggles with the mechanism. The guard spots her, rushes back and yells at her to keep away from his domain. The woman’s child begins to wail.
I see the usher emerge from behind some bodies. He bends over the screaming woman and attempts to speak to her. He is bundled over, lands on top of the fallen body, who squawks and screams louder.
The guard has acquiesced to the mother’s pleas. He opens the door. But before the mother and child can escape, others who have been anticipating the moment for their entry into the hall leap in. And then, upon seeing what pandemonium is raging inside, stand at the doorway and gawp. The mother and child push them aside, and now more attempt to exit. Now the doorway is jammed with traffic.
The woman continues to wail. It is deafening.
Several officers, helpless, rage behind me. Kyra is crying. No one comforts her. She drops to the ground, crying. “Shut up,” I yell at her. But when I turn again to the developing scene there is a face right up against mine on the pane. A woman’s. Her nose is pressed against the window, inches from mine and yet a world away.
I gasp and step back. She remains in place. The woman with token 1721. She begins to yell at me through the glass. “My turn,” she yells, presses the token against the glass.
“One-seven-two-one: my turn.” Her face burns violent. I can see the lines of mascara around her eyes, the corner of her lips where the lipstick has smeared.
“Visit visa, visit visa. I got to see my son. Visit visa, visit visa.”
For a moment I stand there, cannot speak. Behind the woman the chaos rages. But now the room has emptied. I can’t see the guard. Perhaps he too has run out. Can’t see the usher either, likely knocked unconscious.
“Miss, miss,” the woman calls, banging her fist against the panel of glass. “Visit visa, visit visa—here, my passport, take, put visa.”
“Get away from the screen, ma’am,” I yell back at her. And then louder. “Get away from the screen, ma’am.”
“Visit visa, visit visa—I go see my son.”
“Not now, ma’am, not now. Iss waqt nahin.”
“Visit—” she bangs at the separator. And now I bang the pane back, harder than she has. The reinforced glass reverberates, threatens to shatter, knocks her back by the nose.
“Get away, ma’am. Not now!” I yell—and I must have been loud, for Kyra behind me has stopped sobbing.
The woman is shocked at first, then bares her teeth, comes back at me again. “Give me visa. My turn.” She holds up the token bearing the numbers again. A declaration of her right.
“Ma’am,” I gasp, “this is not the time. Iss waqt nahin.” I point to the bodies behind her. The body in distress is not screaming any longer, merely emanating hurt moans.
1721 gives the fallen woman a derisive, dismissive look. “Your problem,” she screams. “Your problem, her problem. My visa?”