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     Volume 5 Issue 84 | March 3, 2006 |

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Voting for Beginners

Mustafa Zaman

In the city of Mousol, I, Abdul Malik, stand in the queue. I will vote today. For whom I do not know. It is yet to be decided. The lucky man will have to wait till reach the ballot box. Meanwhile, I am proud to be in the queue.

"Hey! You, what's in your bag?" The shout makes me nervous. These Americans are big. They are loud too. In my bag I have some discarded office files and a loaf of bread, but I am too scared to reveal my possessions. But soldiers, especially US soldiers, never give up in the middle of their queries. He comes forward and gives my bag a look of distaste. My bag is made of thick cotton and looks a bit soiled. But it belongs to me and I'm here to resist all criticism thrown at its direction. What is it to others that it has not been washed for months? I do not care. Why should anybody else?

All soldiers are unrelenting. This one is no exception. He comes closer to sniff his target and detect a wrongdoing. He takes the bag in his hands while its long strap remains looped around my shoulder. Sudden weight loss makes me want to guard against the change. I shiver, but the soldier is uninfluenced by my feeling. He tests the softness of the bread with his intruding right hand. It is very soft, you bread molester! I shout out loud in my mind. My aunt Shaharat has baked it. There is no reason for him to know? Does he even care? I will not tell him the secret of its softness. He will never know what a good baker my aunt is.

As the soldier walks away to his next victim, the queue moves forward a bit. It lurches to be precise. But I am a resolute man, or so my father had taught me to think of myself as. The American journalist that interviewed me in live telecast told me that I had the quality and the courage to be in the limelight. Yet, here I am, standing in the queue wanting to vote someone into office who will run the country -- the land of my birth.

At present my claim to the limelight is being slowly murdered by the sun that is beginning to singe my skin. The heat rages on. If the morning was a scorcher, noon is becoming a burning cauldron. And I am having this face of mine botched in the heat, a face that can imitate any expression of the popular silver screen idols of my land. I just didn't have the luck to be picked by a director of international fame. The only role I was chosen to play was one of a bellhop at a local hotel. That too was in an obscure movie that no one had gone to see. It was done in black and white with a storyline fit for people in mourning. Who has the eye for such movies nowadays! Who would tolerate the tyranny of black and white these days? Certainly not me!

For me there are no lucky patches in sight. Abdul Malek needs a push, a tourist from Holland rightly summed up my situation. He understood me. By spending a day with me he could grasp my dreams. The Dane spoke of my fate as do psychics. He said I was destined for bigger things and he put forward the consoling word. Abdul Malek needs a push, he concluded.

That push never came; no, not in my direction. It is like an unrequited love; I am waiting without knowing whether it would come or not. It may never come, I am aware of life lost in unfulfilled dreams. I need to walk out of such tragic circumstances. Even before that, I need to bring things to normality. I need to vote.

IN my city there are people who walk sideways. They are Marichikas, meaning mirage, whom the Americans love to call Marichikanas. It is widely believed that Marichikanas walk sideways when no one is watching. They have white horses hidden in their houses. They can cross the most treacherous desert, while riding on these marble white animals. And the lethal smile that they have can kill people. Nobody lived to tell how the killer smile looked. Many had fallen victims, but nobody ever had the chance to see the bodies. Stories abound that people were dying of getting too friendly with the Marichikanas. But what do I care! I have no business looking at other peoples teeth. I am contented while waiting to exercise my franchise.

At noon, another soldier eyes me up and down with suspicion. This second American turns away sparing me from the dishonour of frisking. He is taller than his predecessor. He is more confident in his judgment too. He does not even so much as touch the bag I am so possessive about, let alone scramble for the softness of the bread. He must have taken me for a Marichikana. I feel lucky. At the expense of the Marichikanas I am spared. I know most things are happening here at Mousul at the expense of the Marichikanas

In the mid-day stupor things start to get unreal. The queue that seems not to be getting any shorter moves like a lurching anaconda, -- thick, heavy, and slow. Who knows how many Marichikanas have joined us in the queue to sabotage the voting! There must be more than a handful. I know, believe me. These are a clever lot. With some effort, they can hide their identities and walk normally. Do not think the heat has got to me. I am accustomed to heat; most of my countrymen are. But I am not so sure about the Marichikanas. The intermittent lurches that the queue has been experiencing are enough proof of their presence. After all, they walk sideways behind our back. They must be having trouble in this standstill situation. And the sun is not helping either.

AT this point, as I turn my head to look behind my back, I see a tall bearded man in a long kurta crossing the street right around the corner. As he approaches me I get ready for the confrontation. From a closer range his gait looks familiar. At last as we face each other, I realise that he is the first cousin of my aunt Saharat. What made me not recognise him earlier, I do not know? It must be the heat that is finally wreaking havoc with my sense of understanding.

His name is Ainul, and he owns a grocery store in the heart of Mousul. As he blurts out something to me, I see his lips move but fail to pick up the sounds. His animated face seems puzzling. I realise that hearing is as important as seeing. He repeats his words and suddenly it all starts to become normal, I hear him loud and clear.

At first I thought he has brought bad news. I know all bad news gets repeated over and over again. His calm and solemnity too have only confirmed my suspicion. But as I quickly come to my senses, I hear him telling me that my aunt Saharat asked me to vote for the Baath party associate Rous Abdullah. I do not know what to say, I never even heard of the man. I am not someone who gave serious thought to matters of politics. But I am not nonpolitical either, as I believe in the duty of voting for someone who cared for the land and its people. The word "care" is important to me.

One who does get my approval, I am all for him. No one should come between this conviction and the act of voting. As I was thinking this, I remember how aunt Saharat took care of me since I was a little kid, since the death of my mother. She has a place in my heart as well as in between my conviction and the final act of voting. Though I know that my right to franchise is at stakes, I am exercising it to express my wish or even belief. It is I who must act without intervention by a third party.

Things really did get off to a good start in the morning, or so I thought. But since then it was all about waiting, about being intervened by soldiers, then by a request from aunt Saharat. And at present I am dithering at the tail of the lurching line of voters that stretches so long after me that, it makes me realise that I am not standing at the tail. I also come to notice that my position is clearly hard to determine. The queue bends at the corner of the street and disappears behind the abandoned shell-shattered national bank building. I cannot make out from my position the length of the line!

How long is the queue? I need to know this badly as the radish coloured afternoon approaches. In the evening I've got things to take care of. I need to go visit an old friend whom I met yesterday after three long years.

About the length of the line -- "I don't know; it is long" -- says Nadir. His reply has lack of interest written in blockbuster movie sized promotional advert. But I must find out, as I do not yet know how all these voters will have the time to exercise their rights. I know it's wrong to fret over such matter that clearly the matter doesn't fall into my jurisdiction. But I cannot stop worrying. All these people who are gathered here can never simply turn back and leave. It would be a national, or may be even an international catastrophe. We do not need more of that. It is a good thing that even the garrulous ones are keeping quiet while standing in the queue.

Meanwhile, my head starts to spin. I envisage a catastrophe while in the queue. But others seem impervious to such trepidations. As I am unable to look at the faces in front, I steal a glance at the faces behind me. I feel as if all expressions were wiped off their faces. They look listless, and what worries me most is that they are unaware of it. They are caught in their most volatile moments while standing in the queue, or so it seems to me. They look as if the fear of good or bad consequences never visits them. They are, it seems to me, free of all such emotional tangles. It must be the handy work of the Marichikanas; the Amaricans might have insights into the matter. The Marichikanas are dangerous people, for them everything is possible. In our part of the world everything is possible.

It was only yesterday that news circulated about the disastrous opening of an art exhibition. An artist blew up a car and declared it his work. He titled it "untitled." And he got shot by the government regiment as they took the event for real and opened fire. The artist is now struggling with death in a hospital bed. Ask him to call this his art, he will never agree. Such is the temperament of the people of this sun-scorched country.

We have a long history of exaggerated emotions. Our intellect too has been pushed to the extremes. It is just in the last week that a couple got married while listening to an audio record of Baghdad being bombarded by the allied forces. The wedding guests called it a "musical soiree". Newspapers disagreed the next morning. There are more to add, and each one is as incredible as the stories associated with the Marichikanas.

AT present I am bored to the teeth, and I want to see the end to this stalemate. I take a bold step; I step out of the queue. I need to examine the procedure. Near the booth, there are soldiers blocking my way. For them I cannot even see the door leading to the booth. I must see the procedure, I vent my desire. But no one is here to lend ears. I am willing to push the barricade of the soldiers to try my luck, but I know it will have immediate backlash.

While I am weighing the danger and the possibility of getting through the barricade in my mind, a soldier grabs hold of me. I am a small man; I could never muster the urge to resist anyone even in uglier situations. But the soldier knows his craft. He pulls me by the bicep of my left hand uttering Americans that no one understands in this part of the world. He drags me away from the queue. He keeps dragging me by my hand and only stops when we reach near an abandoned lane. Then he gives me a strong ill-intentioned shove and I, losing my balance, tip and fall. He then asks me to get lost. I understand this bit even though my knowledge of American is limited. Enraged and all fours on the tarmac, I curse the soldier. As I get up and try to walk towards the queue, he stands tower-like on my path.

We face each other. Now it is between him and me. He is tall, dark and handsome, -- like a movie star -- glowing in the radish coloured light of the departing sun. Compared to him I do not have much in the look department, but I have the urge to vote and to become someone. Why should a soldier block my way, why should he look this good, as good as a matinee idol, I cannot make out! And why should he be coming between me and my conviction, I could not make my cranium think it through. But I know there is no escape; now it all boils down to one thing, now it is between him and me.

I ponder the possibility of him getting back-up from his team. As for me, I am left to my own means; I will have to rely on what little capacity I have. Then suddenly, while I am still locked in the bout of browbeating -- he, looking down at me, I, looking up from my height -- the vision of the bag and the bread sparks my imagination. Keeping my gaze fixed on the soldier, I slowly dip my right hand into the bag and bring out the bread with a sudden jerk. He loses his cool and makes a quick move to aim his Automatic rifle at my skull and shouts, "Drop it." He repeats his request several times. I don't relent; I offer him the bread. He is taken by surprise. I genuinely want him to take the bread and eat it. But he refuses to calm down or even change his attitude towards me. He shouts the usual shouts that we do not understand at this part of the world. And then again he asks me to "get lost."

My overstretched right arm holds no meaning for him. Realising his mistake, he slowly walks away from the scene. And to me his departure looks more like a footage from a romantic movie. I realise that it is his slow nonchalant gait and the slanting red rays of the sun that make it look like so.

Meanwhile, I am left alone with a loaf of bread in my clutch while standing in the mouth of a desolate lane. The softness of the bread remains unknown to the soldier. Aunt Saharat's art of meticulously preparing the dough remains unknown to him too. I feel sad; I feel dejected. The urge to vote, or even to see my old friend, starts to fade. I try hard to keep all my desires alive, I start working on them in my mind.

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