The Breakfast Table

Election Day in Najaf

In Najaf everyone was happy to vote. The sun shone, the police stood around posing with their rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their shoulders; the Iraqi army manned sand barricades and razor-wire cordons, waving through official traffic only; and the streets in the old town—a bullet ricochet away from the shrine that saw most of the serious fighting last summer—were crisscrossed with colored tape funneling people to various local schools where polling centers had been set up.

Seventeen hundred voters were registered at the Barada Elementary School. At 7 a.m., when the polls opened, the waiting was orderly. The women were directed to the women’s voting rooms, the men to another side of the classroom. They were searched at the door and then shown in so that their ID could be checked against the registration list. The first woman, like all the women in Najaf, wore the black tent abaya, and she gave her name to the nice man who is usually a history teacher, behind the desk.

“Do you know how to read and write?” he asked her.

She said that she did not. She was holding a little plastic laminated card that had the number 169 and a candle on it, the symbol of the Shiite list, as a prompt.

“Do you have a relative nearby who can help you?”

“Yes, I have a brother and a sister who can read and write.”

“So, go and get someone who can help you.”

When she returned with her brother, she was given two ballot papers, one for the transitional national assembly and one for the local council, by a young woman wearing a full-face veil. She told them, “You see, you choose the boxes here, on this side, and here,” and then they went behind the cardboard ballot box to make her mark. Her brother filled in the ballot papers, they came out, and they folded the papers. They were shown which clear plastic ballot box to post them into, and her finger was dipped into a pot of indelible indigo ink.

A second woman came in.

“Do you know how to read and write?”

“Yes, I am a teacher.” And she went through the process.

A third woman gave her name and then thanked the officials profusely, holding up her hands to the almighty, “May God protect you, may Allah keep evil away from you!”

She said that she could not read or write and had no one to help her, so one of the diligent officials standing by, nervously attentive and polite, with his hands by his sides, showed her how to make her selection.

Soon, a steady stream of voters came through: register, stamp, tick, post, ink-dip. The classroom was filled with little balls of indigo-stained Kleenex, amid the fluttering abayas and the waving ballot papers, which were large because there were so many lists and parties and candidates.

“May God bless you and kill all the Baathies!” said one woman with a blue tattoo dot on the bridge of her nose as she came in.

“I cannot read or write! I just know I want the candle for the national and the palm tree [the symbol for SCIRI, a Shiite party] for the local council. Show me where the candle is!”

“You should get a relative to help you!”

“Oh, but you are like a son to me,” she told the official. “Just show me how to mark it.”

All was orderly, all was pleasant, everything in its place. The Najafis continued to vote all day, until almost everyone in the neighborhood had purple fingers. An old woman was wheeled in on a hand cart to vote, blind men were led by their families.

“I would vote even if the ballot box were mined with grenades,” said one cleric with a white turban, holding onto two tiny daughters who had their heads tightly bound in hijab. He had been harassed and arrested in the time of Saddam because his religious scholarship was considered threatening to the regime. In 2002, there was a referendum to reaffirm Saddam’s leadership in which voting was mandatory. He said he stayed away. “I would vote today, even if it cost my blood.”

A policeman came out of the polling station, and when he showed us his ink mark, we could see that one of his fingers was missing. It had been shot off during the uprising in 1991. He had been 15, a kid, but he went to the streets with his brother, “I was too young, but I believed strongly.” His father had spent most of the 1980s drafted into the war against Iran; the family saw no benefit from this, only a paltry salary and a neverending debt of service. This week he has been on duty for seven days, sleeping in a guard post, to secure the city.

Everyone was very diligent about the organization of the election.

At the end of the day, dusk fell and the polling stations closed at 5 p.m. The turnout had been more than 75 percent, and everyone was satisfied. The officials unwrapped brand new gas lanterns and lit candles because there was no electricity, and they counted the ballots into bundles of 25, and then sorted them according to party.

“There is one vote here.”

A candle fell off the desk.

“Be careful, be careful.”

“285! [Allawi’s list]”

“Just give me the number.”

“What is this one?”





The pile for the Shiite list grew in inches, the pile for Allawi grew more slowly. Flashlight beams played on the wall, and a kid played outside flapping an Iraqi flag. Party representatives came and saw that everything was in order. An independent monitor, usually an engineer in the oil ministry, said there had been nothing untoward during the day.

The votes would be counted and then the tally would be sent to the Central Euphrates Electoral Commission and then to Baghdad.