Never throw a photo at an Italian immigration official

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The Independent Online
I AM approaching a strange personal anniversary. Ten years ago this month I was, for the first and - so far - the only time in my life, arrested and slung in jail.

To most foreign correspondents, this peculiar honour falls in distant, inhospitable countries where tyrannical regimes consider freedom of speech a luxury their people cannot yet afford. To me, it happened in Italy, and for the most preposterous of reasons.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit the puny offence for which I was detained at the pleasure of the Italian Republic. Indeed I probably wouldn't choose to recall the episode at all, except that it speaks volumes about the bureaucratic craziness and random cruelty of which the Italian system, both then and now, is sometimes capable.

The reason I was arrested, interrogated, roughed about, held in custody for 24 hours, and hauled before a criminal tribunal until my case was finally thrown out to guffaws of disbelief from the judge, was because I had thrown two photographs down on a table.

Serious stuff, huh? The whole affair took place at the Rome Questura, the police headquarters where all foreigners who plan to spend more than three months in Italy are obliged to apply for a singularly useless piece of paper called a permesso di soggiorno, or permit to stay.

The foreigners' division of the Questura is a bureaucratic nightmare, a seething mass of frustrated humanity where Kurdish refugees, Filipino nuns and African students run up against a wall of chaotic indifference, if not outright hostility. The office is open in the mornings only, and people start queueing as early as five o'clock in the hope of at least getting to an official's desk before closing time. It usually takes two or three visits to complete the task, since the rules are phenomenally complicated and subject to sudden change.

The waiting room is cramped and the reception distinctly chilly. Elderly people and mothers with young children are forced to hang about for hours, squeezed into corners with standing room only. I once saw an Indian man ask for a chair for his highly pregnant wife, only to see a comfortably seated duty officer half turn the other way and mutter how these foreigners think they own the place.

Most journalists never see this spectacle of bureaucratic fear and loathing because they are allowed to pick up their permessi di soggiorno by special appointment on Saturday mornings. But 10 years ago I was a student and had to suffer like the rest. As it turned out, I didn't actually need to be at the Questura at all that day, but could have waited a month to receive a document from the Education Ministry to speed the whole process up.

Unfortunately nobody let me know this useful information - or at least not until I had been standing in line for six hours. Twice I was sent to the back because I had filled in part of the form incorrectly and the officer at the front felt like being mean. On the third attempt I was successful, and was about to walk away with my permesso when the policeman serving me discovered I was going to be working as a teacher in the state system and was missing the requisite document.

He promptly took back the form and tore it up, preserving only the two passport photos attached, which he handed back to me with a triumphant snarl. After a brief protest, to which he responded by ordering me out of the Questura, I threw down the photos in front of him and turned to march off. I didn't get very far. He grabbed me, started punching me, and dragged me off through a side door by my hair.

At this point things got really unpleasant. I was charged with insulting a public official - an offence that dates back to Fascist times, as indeed does the whole gamut of legislation on the admission of foreigners into Italy.

I was led to a cell full of frightened foreigners, most of them illegal Third World workers picked up either at random or following a tip-off from hostile former employers. One by one they were called for interrogation. Through the wall I could hear them being screamed at and then hit. Many of them returned to the cell bruised and in tears. One young man who started shouting incoherently about how his friends in the Mafia were going to take revenge for him had blood trickling off his battered face and arms.

I was eventually escorted, without interrogation, to a solitary cell for the night. It was my bad luck that I was carrying a fat wad of cash, which I had withdrawn to pay the deposit and first month's rent on a flat. At first my captors threatened to bring a second charge of theft, but then contented themselves by making off with half of my money.

The next morning I was whisked off to the law courts across town, where I briefly shared a cell with a burly middle-aged Italian. "What are you here for, then?" I asked.

"I killed someone. And you?"

"Me?" I stammered. "I threw a couple of photos on a table."

"Oh," he said blankly. "You know, I think you'll be all right."

And I was. After all, I was white, European, and on a cultural exchange programme organised by the Italian government. The judge dismissed the case in two seconds flat, while the court recorder offered me lemonade and biscuits. All was suddenly right with the world, so much so that when I eventually returned to the Questura to get my permesso di soggiorno, I was treated like a long-lost friend.

There have been some improvements at the Questura in the intervening decade. The place iscleaner, information is clearly posted on the walls, and an electronic numbering system has considerably reduced the pain of queueing. But the bureaucratic tangles remain.

According to John Murphy, an English chartered accountant who publishes an invaluable magazine about the maelstrom of rules on foreigners in Italy called The Informer, one of the reasons for the often irrational unhelpfulness of the Questura is the sheer weight of contradictory laws, ministerial circulars and edicts. "Questura workers tend not to be graduates in either consumer assistance or corporate communication ... and the Italian state tends to complicate anything that could be made simple."

Too right. If you think my story is bad, imagine what it is like for the Iranian opposition activist in exile told that he has to return home every year to reapply for a visa. Or the foreign teachers at the university who find they can't get paid until they have a contract, can't have a contract without a permesso di soggiorno, but can't have a permesso di soggiorno without a contract.

The only recourse in such situations is the time-honoured raccomandazione, or helping hand from a senior official. Italy's saving grace is that it is generally a very tolerant country and understands to perfection how to bend its own rules. Life for a European is usually pretty straightforward, and a Third World national can generally get by with the right friends. But every now and again, sunny Italy disappears under a dark cloud of archaic rules and bureaucratic nightmares.

Alan Watkins is on holiday