I mentioned in a recent post that there was an incident some while ago in which PolitiGal and I found ourselves in an alarming situation which looked horribly like we weren’t going to be allowed to leave Tunisia.
It all boiled down to a simple misunderstanding, as these things so often do. But that’s not to detract from the fact that the imminent possibility of a Tunisian jail is a scary, scary thing.
We’d arrived in the country last autumn, fortuitously pre-Arab Spring, for a week of by-the-pool lazing and reading terribly clever and worthy books on policy and aging (PG) and Jilly (me). Having landed in the middle of the night, we queued semi-patiently for what seemed like hours in a stuffy, non-air conditioned customs hall.
Apparently frustrated at his colleague processing the incoming visitors at snail’s pace, one official took it upon himself to chivvy along the ending of his shift by merrily waving us past the desk, no passports checked. Of course, at 1am in a Tunisian airport in close proximity to a bored-looking man with a rifle, one is inclined to do as one’s told and hang the consequences.
Which was all fine until we came to leave, and the consequence was that neither PG nor I had the requisite stamp in our passports to say that we’d been satisfactorily processed into the country.
It all started off happily enough – the customs official took a cursory flick through PG’s passport, and waved her through, and then called me forward.
He looked at my passport, rifled a few pages to find the right stamp and, when he couldn’t, paused. I froze. PG scurried back.
The guard at the desk peered at us.
“Why you not have stamp?”
“We were waved through by your colleague when we got here.”
“Yes, possible. It’s what happened,” I said.
He motioned for PG’s passport and, on closer inspection, found hers was missing the right documentation too.
PolitiGal cracked out her best I’m English and about to get cross: don’t mess with me voice. “It was very late when we arrived, and your colleague waved a whole lot of people through customs without our passports being checked.”
“You here illegally.”
“No, we’re not. We were doing as we were told by your colleague.” Mine was slightly louder, slightly firmer, and just a touch crosser.
The guard peered again at our stampless passports, got up from his desk and took them with him to converse with a colleague at another station. Some muttering ensued.
He came back. “This no right. You should have stamp.”
“LOOK,” I said, hoping that the crossness masked the utter terror I felt, whilst running a mental checklist of people who’d be able to call terribly good human rights lawyers who’d rescue us at the drop of a hat, à la Bridge.
“Yes,” PG chimed in, slowly, loudly, clearly and firmly. “This is not our fault – we were just following instructions.” Ah, if ever there was an English get-out, it’s that: the ‘reverence for authority’ card . “If there is a problem, could we speak to someone else. Your colleague told us what to do, and you’re going to make us miss our flight.”
The guard took another look at our passports, and looked up at us. Behind us was a long queue of people, and in front of him stood two stroppy English women, getting increasingly vociferous.
He exhaled heavily.
“Pffft… Go, then. But next time…” He eyed us carefully as we snatched the passports back from his grip and ran as fast as is possible in flip-flops to the relative safety of the departure lounge.
Revolutions notwithstanding, I don’t think there’ll be a next time, somehow.