As the Eid al-Fitr/Christmas holiday season approaches, thoughts turn toward getting away for a few weeks. Perhaps a break visiting family in Dubai or maybe that trip to the Louvre to finally see the Mona Lisa or, who knows, a trip to Whistler to do some serious skiing.
But wherever you are thinking of going and whatever you are thinking of doing, chances are that if, unlike hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens, you are the proud holder of only a Lebanese Republic passport, you have already considered that perhaps you might not be going away after all.
The problem is the visa and unless you are planning on a couple of days in Damascus you are going to need one of those. Tickets can be bought, hotels can be booked, but visas, well, they have to be suffered for: financially, emotionally, and physically.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a visa is “an endorsement made on a passport by the proper authorities denoting that (the passport) has been examined and that the bearer may proceed.”
In the past, getting that “endorsement” without the right connections was as pleasant as getting a tooth pulled. People simply did not travel and anyone who wanted to do so, without a very good reason, was regarded with suspicion. Travel documents and permits were often issued by local royalty and it was not wise to worry the king unnecessarily.
Then along came mass-tourism and cheap air travel, and suddenly speeding up the visa process became an imperative as each year thousands more people began to wonder what the sky looked like on the other side of the world.
These days, almost nowhere is out of bounds any more. For a $75-a-day fee, Bhutan is “accessible” and North Korea, once dubbed the Hermit Kingdom, now wants tourism almost as badly as Saudi Arabia, which recently admitted it might need to let the odd unbeliever in as oil revenues are not going to last forever. And Cuba no longer holds any mystery for anyone outside the American midwest.
But just because you can go there does not mean they are going to give you a visa.
In fact, in Lebanon, “visa” is fast becoming the worst of all four-letter words.
Filled out all the forms? Arranged for the bank guarantees, the letter from your employer and, in some cases, paid that (substantial) non-refundable fee and secured a letter of invitation? Then let the real fun and games begin. You are about to get your first taste of the country you are hoping to visit. It probably won’t be pleasant. Embassies should remember this. First impressions often last the longest.
The Germans will not let you into their embassy, requiring you to conduct all your business through the gatekeeper and the intercom. The Americans? They only take submissions by DHL. Impersonal perhaps, but at least you do not have to stand in line. Still, bear in mind that despite the imposing compound in Awkar, US visas are only issued in Damascus.
The Canadians and Australians allow you to see an actual human being, but they have restricted the number of applications they will accept in a day; so applicants hoping to avoid being forced to come back again are forced to queue from the early hours of the morning just to get through the door.
Michael Blackburn, head of security at the Canadian Embassy, is sympathetic but says it is circumstance rather than deliberate policy that has led to the long queues.
“It’s normally a quiet period, so our staff take the opportunity to take annual leave. We only have one immigration official working now,” he said. “We tried to stop people coming so early, but it didn’t work. If they want to come and wait on public property, there is nothing we at the embassy can do to prevent them.”
One disgruntled applicant, tired of waiting to find he had just come too late, reserved his ire for his fellow citizens. “Okay so they want to make it difficult for us to go, I don’t agree, but that’s the way it is,” he said, crumpling his completed form into a ball. “The problem is we Lebanese. I just don’t understand why we allow them to treat us this way, it’s as if we have no self-respect.”
To be fair, the humiliation é sorry, the visa game é is played all over the world. European Union citizens might not need a visa to visit the US and they might get the red carpet treatment elsewhere, but try applying for an Iranian tourist visa with an EU passport in any European capital that still has an Iranian Embassy and watch as that “privilege” vanishes and your passport-suddenly-non-grata ensures you are treated to a taste of Fortress Europe’s own medicine.
Still, some passports are clearly better than others. Over the years, many Lebanese nationals have learned the hard way that the cedar might look less aggressive than a Bald Eagle or a Lion Rampant, but in terms of helping to secure a visa, it might as well be the skull-and-crossbones.
The reason most often quoted is that these days the Lebanese are amongst the most chronic visa “offenders” in the world. One Beirut-based ambassador reported during a recent local radio interview that more than 30 percent of all Lebanese issued with non-immigrant visas through his consul end up not coming back.
But it is not just the Big Five (the US, Canada, France, Britain, and Australia take in the most applications for tourist visas in Beirut) who can be sticky about issuing an “endorsement.”
Some Middle Eastern embassies routinely refuse applications by single women wishing to travel alone. One woman who had been trying to visit Egypt for several years was only issued with a travel visa when she finally applied with her brother. “I had confirmed hotel bookings and a return ticket; I couldn’t understand the problem,” she said. “A friend told me later that the Egyptian authorities are worried that single Lebanese women will try to stay on to work as hostesses.”
Normally, restrictions on issuing visas lead to tit-for-tat measures. Thanks to some of the most stringent immigration procedures on Earth, many the legacy of the Thatcher-era, British citizens are now subject to some of the highest visa charges of all nationalities. Visiting India, Iran, Libya, and Syria on a British passport is an experience guaranteed to bring a smile only to the lips of the chairperson of each country’s National Bank.
In Lebanon, it is much easier to get in than out. Assuming you are not Sri Lankan or Ethiopian and suspected of trying to come in on a tourist visa to get an underpaid job as a bonded servant/beast of burden (although why immigration authorities are not equally suspicious of the English, Canadians, and Australians coming in on tourist visas to work in English academies IS a little puzzling) five minutes and as little as LL25,000 later it is ahlan wa sahlan and you are out the door and on your way.
In terms of first impressions, things rarely get much sweeter.