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I am America

Don’t expect a warm welcome at your most officious government branch

By Juliet S. Samuel

CASABLANCA, MOROCCO—Like all of America’s embassies abroad, the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca is a fortress-like compound surrounded by swarms of armed guards and a jumble of metal barriers. At certain points during the day, there are five different lines outside, each carefully sorted by a pair of bored bureaucrats.

I arrived near the end of intersession, armed with a folder of the necessary documents. Having collated the dozen-or-so pieces of paper, I should have been sure of a victorious infiltration. But what if I had forgotten one of my siblings’ middle names on form DS-158? What if my serious-faced photo fell just short of the requisite two-by-two inches?

This predicament was the result of an ill-fated lapse of attention in a Marrakech internet café. Shoulder to shoulder with bellowing German skype-users and unibrowed Moroccan gamers, I failed to notice when my bag, student visa et al., was thieved from my side. Hence, my reapplication for entry to the States.

After a pat down, an X-ray machine for my sketchbook, and the confiscation of my water bottle, I was admitted. I was allowed to keep my shoes.

The Consulate’s hallowed inner sanctuary was a stuffy bunker-like room of visa-hungry Moroccans. I searched in vain for a water cooler to replace my lost bottle. Instead, I was welcomed by a cheerful three-minute promotional video, full of floppy-haired children, happy businessmen, family barbecues, one lone black woman and one woman in a hijab: “I am America!” they cried. “Welcome.”

After about 30 video loops, or 90 minutes, I was called to a window to present my forms, and told that my replacement visa would be ready the next day.

Of course, I should expect such treatment. I am a foreigner, pursuing my scholarly endeavors here at the pleasure of your government. Surely, an American would be treated differently? An American abroad would no doubt be welcomed with open arms into the soft, sympathetic bosom of his nation’s consular services! Any national abroad, in fact, should surely expect a brotherly welcome from this familiar institution, this happy little chunk of America?

Most of us, consular virgins imagine that, no matter how our people are mistreated and ignored at home, our country is our protector and Paladin abroad. In Washington, cold-hearted lobbyists trade handshakes with spurious politicians and inhuman CIA agents in Gucci sunglasses listen coldly to our wire-tapped weekend plans. But abroad, by god, our government is there for us! It will fight for our life and liberty, smile a familiar smile in a foreign crowd, and be there with a hug and a cup of tea when it all goes wrong.

But even if you don’t think of the Foreign Service as some kind of surrogate parent, most of us imagine that our national embassies—bomb targets as they are—are at least shelters, dispensers of information and help centers. Until you have cause to visit one such haven, it’s hard to realize quite how absurd this illusion is. Helping national citizens is, of course but a small part of embassy duties; they are mostly occupied with far more significant matters: negotiating trade disputes, schmoozing local bigwigs, putting on cultural shows or, if your country is important, promoting its hegemony in the area.

Even the section devoted entirely to citizen and visa services, the consulate, is little more than the paper-generating hub of this apparatus. They operate mostly like unusually officious post offices with Kalashnikov-armed guards outside. Consulates close unexpectedly on both native and foreign holidays, take long lunch breaks and confiscate your cell phone at the door. And then they turn you away because you’re one dirham short of the £70 passport renewal fee. Some of the officials who work there, behind the dreary glass screens, are, no doubt, delightful people. But there’s little they can do: Their job amounts to nothing more than glorified rule-book recital.

Ever since they grew popular in the 1400s, embassies have been more about international power play than relations with local people or their own nationals. But only in the last half-century did they begin to participate fully in the bureaucratic inanity of modern government. Perhaps more than any other political institution, national consulates demonstrate the discrepancy between our hopes for meaningful government and the pragmatic reality of faceless, centralized administration. Instead of providing informed support (and often despite well-intentioned efforts to do so), governmental bodies are mired in paranoid self-regulation. Because, internally, what really matters to the government is not that the average citizen shouldn’t have to pay $100 to obtain basic travel documents, but that all the correct boxes are checked.

Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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