Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Iraqi Election - From Someone There

Riverbend has a new post. If you don't know who she is, she writes a blog from Baghdad called Baghdad Burning. She is a good writer, and she is definitely worth reading. If you think CNN or Fox News knows what is going on in Iraq (or even Al Jazeera) you need to read Riverbend.

It was like an voting marathon for all of the news channels- everywhere you turned there was news of the elections. CNN, Euronews, BBC, Jazeera, Arabia, LBC… everyone was talking elections. The Arab news channels were focusing largely on voting abroad while CNN kept showing footage from the southern provinces and the northern ones.

I literally had chills going up and down my spine as I watched Abdul Aziz Al Hakeem of Iranian-inclined SCIRI dropping his ballot into a box. Behind him, giving moral support and her vote, was what I can only guess to be his wife. She was shrouded literally from head to foot and only her eyes peeped out of the endless sea of black. She stuffed her ballot in the box with black-gloved hands and submissively followed a very confident Hakeem. E. turned to me with a smile and a wink, “That might be you in a couple of years…” I promptly threw a sofa cushion at him.

Most of our acquaintances (Sunni and Shia) didn’t vote. My cousin, who is Shia, didn’t vote because he felt he didn’t really have ‘representation’ on the lists, as he called it. I laughed when he said that, “But you have your pick of at least 40 different Shia parties!” I teased, winking at his wife. I understood what he meant though. He’s a secular, educated, non-occupation Iraqi before he’s Sunni or Shia- he’s more concerned with having someone who wants to end the occupation than someone Shia.

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In spite of that, we’re all watching for the results carefully. When the ‘elected’ government takes control, will they set a timetable for American withdrawal? That would be a shocker considering none of the current parties would be able to remain in power without being forcefully backed by America with tanks and troops. We hear American politicians repeatedly saying that America will not withdraw until Iraq can secure itself. When will that happen? Our current National Guard or “Haress il Watani” are fondly called “Haress il Wathani” or “Infidel Guard” by people in the streets. On top of it all, to be one of them is considered such a disgrace by the general population that they have to wear masks so that none of them can be identified by neighbors and friends.

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Last week my cousin needed to visit the current Ministry of Higher Education.

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So I volunteered to go along with him because I had some questions of my own.

We headed for the building containing the ministry employees (but hardly ever containing the minister). It was small and cramped. Every 8 employees were stuck in the same room. The air was tense and heavy. We were greeted in the reception area by a bearded man who scanned us disapprovingly. “Da’awachi,” my cousin whispered under his breath, indicating the man was from the Da’awa Party. What could he do for us? Who did we want? We wanted to have some documents legalized by the ministry, I said loudly, trying to cover up my nervousness. He looked at me momentarily and then turned to the cousin pointedly. My cousin repeated why we were there and asked for directions. We were told to go to one of the rooms on the same floor and begin there.

“Please dress appropriately next time you come here.” The man said to me. I looked down at what I was wearing- black pants, a beige high-necked sweater and a knee-length black coat. Huh? I blushed furiously. He meant my head should be covered and I should be wearing a skirt. I don’t like being told what to wear and what not to wear by strange men. “I don’t work here- I don’t have to follow a dress code.” I answered coldly. The cousin didn’t like where the conversation was going, he angrily interceded, “We’re only here for an hour and it really isn’t your business.”

“It is my business.” Came the answer, “She should have some respect for the people who work here.” And the conversation ended. I looked around for the people I should be respecting. There were three or four women who were apparently ministry employees. Two of them were wearing long skirts, loose sweaters and headscarves and the third had gone all out and was wearing a complete “jubba” or robe-like garb topped with a black head scarf. My cousin and I turned to enter the room the receptionist had indicated and my eyes were stinging. No one could talk that way before the war and if they did, you didn’t have to listen. You could answer back. Now, you only answer back and make it an issue if you have some sort of death wish or just really, really like trouble.

Young females have the option of either just giving in to the pressure and dressing and acting ‘safely’- which means making everything longer and looser and preferably covering some of their head or constantly being defiant to what is becoming endemic in Iraq today. The problem with defiance is that it doesn’t just involve you personally, it involves anyone with you at that moment- usually a male relative. It means that there might be an exchange of ugly words or a fight and probably, after that, a detention in Abu Ghraib.

If it’s like this in Baghdad, I shudder to think what the other cities and provinces must be like. The Allawis and Pachichis of Iraq don’t sense it- their families are safely tucked away in Dubai and Amman, and the Hakeems and Jaffaris of Iraq promote it.

At the end of the day, it’s not about having a Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Arab in power. It’s about having someone who has Iraq’s best interests at heart- not America’s, not Iran’s, not Israel’s… It’s about needing someone who wants peace, prosperity, independence and above and beyond all, unity.

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