January 11, 2010

Taking Care of Business, the Lebanese Way

I had to pay my annual ‘Mecanique’. No, not another venting session, but dealing with government services in Lebanon is intricately confusing, time-consuming, complicated and frustrating.

So much in fact, that an entire industry has developed itself around these government institutions that will do the work for you, because you - as a citizen – cannot deal with the amount of illogical and futile paperwork and/or civil servants and stay sane at the same time. They’re called fixers in my neighborhood, but their work is perfectly legal. And very welcome.

I know it is the same for Egypt and Syria, as I’ve had to deal with bureaucracy there as well, but I assume it is similar in other Middle Eastern countries that have had to deal with colonial powers. I don’t know who’s to blame for it; the Brits or the French, but it has resulted in a complete industry that operates independently, yet side-by-side, government institutions.

Back to the Mecanique.

So the Mecanique of my car was due in December.

You cannot get your Mecanique if you have not bought a government issued ‘third-party’ medical insurance, which is about $50. This one is not your regular car insurance, which you still will need to buy separate from the government insurance. And for reasons that elude me, my Mecanique was due in December, my government insurance in February and my personal car insurance in September. Why this cannot be coordinated within the same month is a mystery to me.

So I go to the bank, where I usually get the government insurance, before I get the Mecanique. No, they say at the bank, that must be done in Jounieh these days.

Yes, the Nifa’ah Jounieh, because you have a J in your license plate. J of Jounieh
There is indeed a J in my license plate. I never really got that part, but now I do. So you pay taxes in the district of your license plate. Never mind that I don't live in Jounieh, nor that I bought my car there. Whatever.

And off to Jounieh I go. It happens so that I have nothing scheduled that day, but imagine you’re at work? How are you going to organize this?

In Jounieh, I finally find the Nifah Jounieh. I show my car license, but the lady at the desk shakes her head.

No, Madam, you’re in the wrong place, you need to go to Dekwaneh.”

I just passed Dekwaneh, while in traffic jam on my way to Jounieh. If there is one thing you learn in this country, it is never to take no for an answer, and so I try again.

But my license has a J of Jounieh.”

The lady looks at me, and laughs.

“No habibti, J is for Jebel Lubnan (Mount Lebanon). G is for Jounieh” So much for that woman at the bank. "Besides, without the government insurance you cannot get the Mecanique anyway.”

A yes, of course. And so here I am, wrong place, wrong time as well, because I am one month late, with the incomplete paperwork.

In comes a lady who sort of roams around the office floor, and grabs my papers.

What do you need? Show me your paperwork. Where’s your insurance? You’re late! Now you have to pay a penalty! Why are you late?" she scolds me. “Why don’t you have this paper? And where is the original of this? No, you must have an original! If the police catches you like this you get a fine. And why does this insurance cost so much? You pay half with me. Why did you not come in December? Haram, the penalty is almost $100. Couldn’t you have gotten someone else to do it for you? You should have asked your husband.” And with a “Never mind. Come with me to my office, I’ll do everything for you,” I am ordered to follow her.

Ooof, you sigh, saved! Someone is willing to take interest in your case.

But as you follow close behind her, you notice that you now have left the government building, and enter a shabby building across the street with all kinds of small cubicle offices, where lots of men hang around, smoking, talking and drinking coffee. Now this surely can’t be kosher?

She is willing to do the whole paperwork for me, for a nominal fee of $15. And then I’m set – government insurance and Mecanique, all the way to December 2010. As a matter of fact, she has already put me in her agenda for November 25, 2010, when she will give me a call to remind me to come to her so she will organize my papers. What was my phone number again?

It sounds fishy, I am thinking. Surely it cannot be that easy. If I was supposed to do it in Dekwaneh, how come it is suddenly possible to do it now here, in Jounieh? And everything at the same time? Her Arabic is too fast, her French too limited. I call hubbie for advice. He speaks with the lady for a minute, and gives the advice: “Let her take care of everything.”

5 minutes later I leave her ‘office’, with all the paperwork in hand, penalty taken care of, stamped, signed, paid for and with official seal, ready for another year. And I had it checked. It is all complete, and perfectly legal.

So why would anyone still bother going through the official channels, when for $15 extra, you do it faster, and with no aggravation whatsoever? Hence and entire industry that has developed itself around government offices, taking care of business.


BabaGannouj said...

only in lebanon.

Raffi said...

Unfortunately, this is the norm in Lebanon. No one likes the public institutions along with their miscommunication, lack of respect, misguidance, mundane paper-works...
Many have reverted to paying the fixers 15$ without going through the headache procedures themselves.

Ms. Tee said...

It's our welfare scheme. We complicate the bureaucracy to create extra jobs and reduce unemployment. It is also redistributive, since those with cars who do not mind paying $15 subsidize a class of intermediaries between them and the bureaucracy. There are entire families living off of this. Brilliant, no?

Jundi said...

well maybe u will find this interesting .. i graduated from AUB in 06 and i went back last year to get my certificate stamped from the cultural attache at the saudi embassy in beirut .. work requirement .. the embassy actually requires you to get the transaction done through one of those makatib .. if u show up urself at the embassy they turn u back .. it MUST be done through a maktab ..

Anonymous said...

Wait I'm confused, did they do the paperwork themselves or did they do the running around for you? How can they just stamp the paperwork themselves? If that's what they did, then I'm absolutely blown away! I'd never heard of that!