Yacob the bear

05/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Yacob, or The Bear as he is dubbed for his girth and warmth, is a man who can get things done. He has what is known in this region as “wasta”, literally “clout“ in the form of friends in high places. This is a man you want to know if you want to get around the grinding behemoth that is Kurdistan’s lumbering bureaucracy.

Getting a visa extension, friends told me, would be a painful thing. Anyone wishing to stay any longer than a month has to visit the immigration department and be bounced from office to office through heaving corridors for hours. Tales recounted catching the eye of another bedraggled victim of the civil service and the flash of a weary smile in a moment of solidarity. Or in contrast, fighting, elbows out, face in a sweaty armpit, to get to the front of a struggling mass squeezing through a small door to the diminutive man beyond, behind a heavy desk wielding an oversized rubber stamp.

There was also that matter of the mandatory blood test in the less than sanitary conditions.

Understandably the whole experience was not one that I was anticipating with much relish. The Bear was the man who would be helping me along the way. I told him a few days before my visa expired that I would need to get it renewed and he nodded and told me not to worry about getting it done on time, with the hint of a wry smile. A week passed and I hadn’t heard anything from him, and on questioning him again he once more told me not to be concerned.

After another week, he came to me and asked for my passport. “Don’t I have to come with you?” I asked. Apparently not . He lumbered off and a few days later returned with a visa for three months. No problem, his brother is a big man at the immigration office.

I had been alerted to the might of The Bear’s clout a few weeks ago. After a night of drinking in the Christian district my passport slid from my pocket and came to rest on the clammy leather seat of a taxi. Erbil’s streets are clogged with thousands of taxis. Where would I even begin with trying to hunt it down? My passport was lost, I was sure of that. As I was about to call the British Consulate to explain, sheepishly, that I had lost it, The Bear rolled over to my desk. “Don’t worry, I’ll have it within the hour,” he mumbled.

Sure enough, in half that time I was told that the taxi driver was outside with my passport. When I asked around about how he had pulled off such a feat, people just shrugged their shoulders and said, “He just knows everyone, has influence, you know, wasta.”

This is the positive side to the all pervasive nepotism in Kurdistan. Sadly its costs greatly outweigh its benefits. Getting a job anywhere without knowing someone in the ruling political parties is almost impossible. If you want to get a grant to study abroad, god help you if you have to attempt the official route. Even money is trumped by connections. “You can have one guy waving a handful of dollars, but if a distant cousin of the guy behind the desk walks in, the one with the money will still have to wait.”

Because everything is done unofficially, through backroom deals between big men, the door is open for corruption. As one Kurd put it: “Agreements between men with mustaches are worth more than any official contract.”

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You are currently reading Yacob the bear at MUSTACHES AND KALASHNIKOVS: Stories from Kurdistan.

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