International Writers Magazine Kafka
Its Rude to be Polite
dont realize Ive allowed my Israeli passport to expire
until I pop over for a family wedding last month. At customs on
arrival, where I present my American passport, the official merely
says, "Madam, when in Israel you are first an Israeli. If you
expect to return home in"--he peers at my ticket--"three
days then you must obtain a new passport immediately."
It is Thursday around noon.
From my hotel I
go directly to the Interior Ministry and take a number, 27. Im
sent downstairs for photos. Outside the closed photo kiosk are a dozen
irritated people, waiting. After 25 minutes someone notices the operator
drinking a coffee with some friends and drags him over. Begrudgingly
he takes my picture and directs me to the "new passports"
department where I take another number. This time Im 48.
I explain to the clerk that I hadnt realized my passport had expired.
She says, "The clock doesnt move forward overseas?"
She asks for my passport photos so I pass her the envelope. She thrusts
it back and says "Take them out." Okay, I think to myself;
must comply. I ask if my new passport will be ready in time for my Sunday
evening return flight. She looks at me and says "What, I can predict
the future? Take a number and ask the manager." Im number
The manager says, "You must allow 72 hours for processing."
I say, "But I must leave in 72 hours. I have two small children
waiting for me at home." He says, "Sometimes longer."
I say, "Please, cant you expedite matters somehow?"
He says, "Look, you come back first thing Sunday morning."
Is that a hint of a helpful tone?
I ask, "May I call you to check on its status?" He says, "I
have time to answer phones?" He returns to his cigarette.
It is almost 5 pm. There is nothing to do but go celebrate the wedding,
Sunday morning I arrive at the Ministry and take a number--15--and then
am told that my passport isnt there and I should take another
number to speak with the manager. As number 38 I again confront the
man. I ask him if he might have my passport. He says, "I carry
passports around in my pocket?"
He disappears into a back room, emerges many long minutes later. "It
was mailed to you, as you requested."
"Mailed?" I stammer. "I didnt ask you to mail it.
I must fly home tonight to my two small sick children. I asked you to
hold it." He peers at my receipt. "Ah," he says. "You
were here July 3. That was Wednesday. When you didnt show up on
Thursday, we mailed it." "But July 3 was Thursday," I
say. "You said it wouldnt be ready for 72 hours and I should
come back Sunday."
"No, Madam," he says smugly, "July 3 was Wednesday."
"Excuse me?" I erupt. "Wednesday I was over the Atlantic.
I was here Thursday. Check your calendar!"
"I have time to check calendars?" he says. "Check your
"What?!" I exclaim. "If we can be of further assistance,"
he says, "take a number and ask the passports clerk." He resumes
moving important papers around his desk.
Im number 47. Its that woman again.
"Please," I begin. "My two small dying children at home
need me. Brain tumors. Please help me go home."
"Is it so bad here?" she asks, with no trace of irony.
I just start to cry.
"Listen," she suddenly whispers. "I have a friend at
the Central Post Office. Go, speak to her."
She scrawls a name on a slip of paper and passes it to me.
My flight is in three and a half hours.
At the Post Office I take a number. Three digits. I ignore it. I push
my way to a clerk, show him the name. He directs me elsewhere, another
clerk, another line, I push past them all, Im one of them now.
I finally stand face to face with my only chance of making it home.
The woman nods at me. She leads me into an enormous room, a warehouse,
with bins and carts everywhere piled with mail. She leads me to one
particular cart containing a mound of mail 7 feet high.
"Its in there," she says.
I look at her.
"I dont have time to dig through that," she says.
I immediately start digging.
"No no," she says. "Youre not permitted to touch
I am done. I am never going to see my babies again. I am going to spend
the rest of my life in this place, in this post office, in this room.
I start to cry.
"Oh wait," she says.
She stands on her tip-toes and plucks an envelope off the very top of
the mound and hands it to me.
"Have a nice flight," she says.
Ill leave the details of my return journey for the lawsuit. But
during those long hours I couldnt help but reflect on what an
odd place Israel is, located on that fuzzy border between the First
and Third Worlds. In the U.S. people typically arent so rude to
you, but then again they also dont steer you to their friends
in the bowels of the Central Post Office. But maybe the indifference
to civility is part of a more general indifference to bureaucracy, to
the nameless, faceless rules of a system; after all, politeness means
treating people all the same, while impoliteness requires tailoring
ones responses to each person in his own way. And so maybe incivility
is what it actually takes truly to respect you as an individual. And
so maybe, just maybe, thats what it really means to be polite.
© Gabriella Pessin August 21st 2008
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