At the southern end of Midab Tahrir an enormous gray office block looms like a gigantic toad.
The building was a gift to Egypt from the Soviet Union during the Nasser regime in the sixties. And it looks it.
I'm on my way there to extend my visa. Noor, a young boy with big round eyes who works for the gallery, is coming along to help me because his father works there at the visa department.
Inside the Mugamma building it's crowded like a train station at rush hour. People swarm like flies in front of the elevators, and the steps we climb to the first floor are not wide enough to hold the 50,000 people who visit the building every day. Besides the visa department the building also houses the interior and health ministries and the Cairo government.
I follow Noor down a low corridor. Through a window I see that the inner courtyard is used for paper disposal. Pieces of paper float down through the air like confetti. I am led into a small room with three police officers in uniforms with big silver stars on their shoulders. The policemen sit back in their chairs behind wooden desks. One of them dips square biscuits in his coffee before bringing them to his open mouth. The youngest inspects my passport, looks up at me, smiles and says,"First of all, welcome to Egypt," and signs a paper. I shake his hand and leave again.
We walk down more long corridors with low ceilings. Looking into the rooms we pass I see men talking, a veiled woman sleeping sitting up in a chair behind her desk, and everywhere big piles of papers on small wooden tables held together with rubber bands. The one computer I see is neatly covered in a plastic cover, just like the cars in the street.
People are gathering at the window where we're supposed to be. Noor, the boy who came to help me, gracefully squeezes himself right in front of the window and has my papers delivered. "Now we just wait a little while," he says smiling. In the hall where we wait I see tall dark Africans with decorative scars on their face and men in long white galabias and turbans. White Westerners like me look helpless amid the swarms of people. The collection of foreigners makes me aware of Egypt's geography. Here, between dark Africa and the Middle East and relatively close to the West, Egypt feels like a balancing act standing on its third leg.
Five minutes later I have my passport. Instead of a three-month Noor got me a six-month visa."For the same price," he says proudly as we walk out.