As a Palestinian, I have a phobia of government institutions because I grew up dealing with the institutions of the occupation. They can be summarized by one word: "permits." A misnomer if you stop and think about it. They should call them "forbids"or "stoppers" or "Were you humiliated today?" I'd rather go to the dentist and have root canals rather than apply to get a permit (and my dentist there was anti anesthesia).
But sometimes I had to. The office near al Mukata3a, the one directly across the street from Hanan Ashrawi's house, had a really nasty guy posted at the door, whose job was to herd cats, i.e. make us stand in line. You see, it's hard to stand in a straight neat line for 7 hours. Especially in the heat of the sun (years later the authorities did us the favor of adding a canopy that offered some protection). People got tired, leaned on each other, sat down on the ground, took a break under a tree and the line got messy and looked more like a blob. Ok, I should tell the whole truth. Sometimes some people didn't like to tow the line, so to speak, because they were convinced their emergency is more pressing than your emergency.
The guard was hated. Not as much because of his military uniform or his Uzi. But because of the words that came out of him mouth whenever he got bored or angry: "enta sursar we emmak sursara." (You are a cockroach, and your mother is a cockroach." He would say it in a perfect Egyptian accent. See, in a former life, he was an Egyptian Jew.
He would usually direct his "cockroach monologue" at a particular person, anyone guilty of line infraction or of asking him one question too many. Other soldiers threw insults in our faces when the mood hit them, but most of the time they did it in Hebrew and we didn't' know Hebrew. Those who spoke in broken Arabic sounded too comical to be taken seriously. This guy spoke perfect Arabic. We understood his insults. We winced to hear him insult us in the dialect of our beloved Egyptian movie stars. But this was no movie. We dealt with his words by fidgeting in place, avoiding eye contact with each other, and, sometimes, giggling nervously. It was at such a moment that you started wondering if you really needed that particular permit or if you knew of any "collaborator" who may "help" you get it.
So when today I forced myself to go find the PLO office in DC, I had low expectations, simply because I've been conditioned to go into automatic dread mode at the sight of official documents, regardless of the flag flying over the institution. It didn't help that the guy I talked to on the phone before leaving home had, I swear (or is it my imagination?) an Israeli accent. Well, he looked Asian. He politely showed me into the right office. The young man there politely asked if I minded waiting a bit. He was in the middle of a polite conversation with someone else. I waited. Twenty seconds later, he politely invited me in but not before he said: "sorry to keep you waiting!" Keep me waiting? For 20 seconds? Take your time, habibi. I'm used to it (to quote
I never thought I would say this: but it was rather a polite and pleasant experience. I wonder if they renew driver licences there!