Eight vs. 8 Million

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on February 3, 2005

(by Nibras Kazimi, NYSun.com) – Eight suicide bombers targeted polling stations in Iraq on Sunday, yet 8 million Iraqis chose to vote anyway. Wow. There is just no other way to put it. And to all those who are saying that we should not over-hype what happened and keep euphoria in check, well, shut up. Iraqis in Iraq are hyped-up and euphoric; they are drunk on their own joy and the courage they found within themselves to defy terror and choose life.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a Sunni Arab, had told me a week ago that he won’t be voting out of conviction. On Election Day, he had this to say, “I voted. Today was not about Sunnis and Shias, it was about those who want a better life versus those who think that life is cheap.”

It was an astounding feat of valor and determination on the part of Iraqis who allowed their legs to carry them in the face of death and mutilation towards a fate of their own choosing. I personally was confounded: What happened? How did it all change from an atmosphere of fear to a celebration of bravery?

The story coming out of Baghdad, where likely voters faced the worst likely scenarios, was how a small band of young men and women embarked early in the morning to vote for the first time in their lives. The Arab press, notably Al-Jazeera, was brimming with glee as they reported the early violence in a game-announcer’s pitch. Even Jane Arraf of CNN was snickering at the emptiness and confusion of the early hours in Baquba. It seemed like the specter of early exit-poll figures giving John Kerry the lead in the last American election, accompanied with the euphoria of the anti-Bushites around the world. But those young Iraqi men and women went a step further; they returned with stained fingers and encouraged their families, neighbors, and friends to stand tall, walk into the sunshine, and head out to vote. Cell phones were inundated with text messages of “Did you vote yet?”

Steadily, the giddiness of defiance and the adrenaline rush of liberty spread like a contagion in Baghdad. Caution was thrown to the gusts of explosions. And they came out in numbers I would have never imagined. My own neighborhood of Hayy Al-Jihad, which hugs the airport highway and is one of the bastions of Baghdad-based terrorists, came out. The citizens of Abu Ghraib, another hot spot, walked 22 miles to Al-Hurriya sector in order to get a chance to be heard. And boy, were they heard. Al Jazeera took on the airs of a funerary procession and even jarred CNN anchors were moved by the “quiet smiles” of a brave nation.

It was a quiet revolution, and will go down in history as one of the most poignant manifestations of liberty ever. A right index finger stained with indigo became a symbol of a deafening yell for freedom. On January 30, 2005, the Iraqi nation scored a victory for the human spirit, and uplifted all mankind in the process. They are standing proud and self-assured. Surely, even the cynics can now see the light.

A nation was reborn that day. National consciousness is forged in the furnace of a shared and anxious experience. Iraqis, facing the beheaders and the rearguard of tyranny, were united in a national showdown with the forces of mayhem and hopelessness and voted for a shared, democratic destiny. The poor and huddled Iraqi “masses,” the same types of hopeful people who came to America as immigrants seeking a better life, had a deep and intrinsic understanding of what an election is all about, and what responsibilities and sacrifices are inherent in a piece of paper that is called one’s citizenship.

Some critics are sneering and decrying how others are waxing poetical about the whole event. But some of the quotations coming out of Iraqi voters are simply and incidentally poetic. Listen to this broken-English quote from an ex-pat Iraqi voter as published in the New York Times: “I wanted to keep the paper in my hand for long time. First thing I imagined how much the paper cost us as a country and a people. It cost us a million people’s deaths. Now we get the victory, just now when we elect our representatives. I want to touch the victory. I didn’t want to leave it.”

Some weirdo, identified by the Washington Post as “Nivras Kazim” – voting at a Maryland suburb polling station – shouted “something in Arabic so loud that all activity in the room briefly halted. Kazim later translated: ‘Damn Saddam, damn Zarqawi, damn the Baathists!’ “

And I can tell you that “Nivras” felt victorious! I can also tell that “Nivras” didn’t vote along sectarian lines or for other nonpolitical affiliations. He didn’t even vote for his own mother, who was running on one of the many slates. Furthermore, he made the mistake of telling his mother that, and hence earned many long years of guilt-inducing castigations at the family dinner table.

“Nivras” also believes that turnout was around 80% of eligible voters since the estimated number of voters is based on the food-ration system. He avows that the numbers of food-ration cards are phony baloney. The system was rife with forgery in the 1990s and there are as many as 1.5 million fake names on these cards. During the sanctions era, many families understandably bribed the officials in charge of food dispensation in order to get more monthly provisions to sell on the black-market and purchase other foods not provided by the state. Only a proper nationwide population census and correlation with the food-ration numbers can either vindicate him or make him eat his words.

The same can be said about the numbers of Iraqi ex-pats in America and Europe. For some obscure reason, the numbers were amplified to ridiculous proportions and set sky-high expectations. According to these numbers, 280,000 Iraqis in America are eligible to vote, and by some extrapolation, the total numbers would hover around half a million. That is simply untrue. The American-based Iraqis who voted account for more than 50% of those eligible to cast their ballots in only five centers dispersed over a large country. The same is true at the European centers and in Australia. That is simply impressive. The proportional numbers were much smaller in dictatorial environments like Jordan, Syria, and Iran, where the enthusiasm for voting was sapped by politically sterile circumstances.

The numbers of those running in the elections were as monumental as those who voted. There were7,500 candidates running on more than 100 slates. Twenty-six of these slates carried one form of the word “democracy” or another in their titles. A close evaluation of the candidates would disclose that at least 1,000 Sunni Arabs were in the running. There were several competing lists for specific and small minorities like the Christians or Yezidis. Every shade of political opinion, from defunct Arab Nationalism to defunct Communism, threw in its lot. Heck, there were even two competing monarchist slates. A minimum of 25% of the seats in the new assembly are reserved for women, but because of how the slates were drawn up, they may actually get an even larger share. This dizzying array of choice reflects an informed and viable political elite that has taken its first steps from the vacuum of totalitarianism to the lush landscape of a vibrant and boisterous democracy.

And God bless the hearts of President Bush and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the two individuals who should be credited most with this momentous election. Bush is the man! He saw the revolution coming and knew that it shall be televised. His stubborn message of democracy has trounced the tyrants and the terrorists, and the whole Arab and Islamic world saw the power of freedom unleashed through satellite TV coverage. Mr. Sistani is just a player! Now that he is done with shepherding a better future for the Iraqis, he has set his sights on his native country of Iran. Mr. Sistani employed the tradition of clerical double-speak, called hischa in the alleyways of Najaf, and apologized and agonized over not participating in the vote since he himself does not carry Iraqi nationality, and thus sent a powerful message to tens of millions of fellow Iranians who revere him. Mr. Sistani will be to democratic change in neighboring Iran what the Polish pope was to the Polish Solidarity movement.

But the best comment I have heard from this whole miraculous day came from the subculture of idle Iraqi males who sit around all day in cafes and imbibe hashish. They came up with a cost saving formula for this and future elections: Since tallying the votes requires persons with a lot of time on their hands, Saddam Hussein and his locked-up henchmen should do the job. Can you imagine a more surreal or sophisticated punishment?

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com, and since a recently published newspaper account, he has adopted “Nivras Kazim” as a stage-name.

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.