For many, September 14 was your regular Tuesday with its heavy work load. For others it was the day when minor elections were taking place in several US states. But for me it was a milestone. It was the day I got out of my car, all dressed-up (in a grey suit and red- stripped shirt), and walked to the entrance of my neighborhood elementary school (to the sound of someone yelling “Kagan for Senate”). I walked through the long hallways and reached the operation center, where I cast my first ballot, ever, as an American citizen.
The election was the primary for the state of Maryland, and I, as an American citizen and Maryland resident, had a say in it. Yes, my lone vote could actually determine who runs this state. When I got to the registration desk the people asked for my name and asked me to confirm my party. I proudly said “Democrat.” I felt empowered to be vocal about my party affiliation, especially since where I was born, belonging to a party was not something to shout over rooftops. The word party, or Hizib in Arabic, had a bad connotation in the Middle East. It signaled membership in opposition groups, a la Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party. Party members were mostly seen as fringe that posed an imminent threat to the regime.
Here in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, though, it is a totally different experience. Everyone is encouraged to belong to a party to such an extent that in some states, not belonging to a party means you don’t have full voting rights in certain primaries.
When my registration was verified I was taken to the electronic voting booth by an older Asian woman. I explained to her that this was my first time voting and that I might need help figuring out how to use the machine. She told me: “Let me call my husband. He’s better at these things.” Very cute, I thought. Her husband, a senior as well, was very helpful. He showed me how to use the electronic registration card and how to eventually cast my ballot. What struck me was the fact that the man, just like me, had accented American English. Here we were: a foreign-born Asian-American man helping an Arab-American woman vote for the first time in the primary elections in the state of Maryland. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is what I call a lesson in democracy.
After I was done, I returned my electronic registration card and was given a sticker that said in both English and Spanish: “I voted/Yo vote.” I stuck it on my suitcoat and left the room. I know this might sound cliché, but I was overwhelmed. Two years after taking my oath in Baltimore I finally feel that my American citizenship has been consummated. Travelling with a US passport is only part of it. You truly come full circle as a citizen of this great county when you cast your first ballot.
I remember when Obama was running for president I was still a green card holder and couldn’t cast my ballot. On the day of the elections I was going absolutely nuts. I couldn’t focus at work and kept checking voting results online. I paced back and forth around the office like a total maniac. Eventually, I walked into my colleague’s office, who seemed really consumed by whatever work she was doing. I asked her: “Michelle, how can you do this? I’m going crazy here and you’re acting like today is just another day.” She responded: “Natasha, I voted this morning. I did my part. I feel relaxed.” That was when I realized what I was missing.
The only other time I’ve voted was in Jordan in 2003 during the parliamentary elections. I was a bit peeved because for some reason I was registered to vote in the town where my parents were born and not in the town where we resided at that time. I was not sure how the election rules worked back then but I didn’t feel that my vote would actually impact my daily existence. My vote was not going to make any difference in fixing local issues, like the constant lack of clean water or bumpy streets in our neighborhood. I did vote eventually, though, so that I could say: “I voted.”
Here, saying, “I voted,” has a totally different meaning. My vote did actually make a difference. The incumbent governor I voted for actually won the primary (Go O’Malley!). I will make sure to vote for him in the mid-term elections in November against his republican opponent.
All that said, I’ m not totally giving up hope of having a transparent, effective democratic process in the country where I was born. Unlike the early 2000’s, I see more awareness about upcoming elections in Jordan with more civic societies spreading awareness and encouraging potential voters to engage in public debates. Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections might be different this time. At least people are discussing them via Twitter. Now, that’s something.
During my lunch break yesterday, I decided to take a walk about in Lafayette Park, next to the White House, to get away from my computer screen. As usual, there was a demonstration; same old, same old. However, this time the demonstration was organized by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) and it was about Camp Ashraf. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Camp Ashraf so when I saw the demonstrators I was intrigued. I stood with them and listened to their protest.
It turns out that Camp Ashraf is a famous political prisoner camp from the time of the Shah. According to Wikipedia, Camp Ashraf is currently an Iranian refugee camp in Iraq guarded by the United States military. Here is a bit more:
Ashraf is the seat of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) or People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), PMOI members in Iraq. It was in 1986 that the PMOI came to Iraq. The camp houses members of the PMOI who are regarded by coalition forces as protected people under the Geneva Conventions. This recognition was due to the neutrality and co-operation of the residents of Ashraf, before, during and after the war. The US General and commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Ray Odierno, referred specifically to this positive cooperation from the residents of Camp Ashraf.
Putting my interest in the demonstration aside, the demonstrators were noisy, I have to admit. They had speakers, drums, and played loud Iranian music. After I had learned enough about their story I decided to walk back to the office. On my way back, I saw other Washingtonians on their lunch breaks. Some were eating sandwiches, others reading magazines, and some played chess in the park. Life in the park seemed normal as could be despite the intensity of the demonstration just steps away. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life continues in Washington as normally as can be, despite the intense politics that keeps this city ticking.
The news about the shooting of musicians in downtown Amman (in Arabic) was disturbing to me on so many levels, but mostly because it hit close to home. My sister was one of the musicians who took part in the concert last night. Luckily she did not witness the carnage as she decided not to take the bus home, but instead she left the concert with her friends “to get something to eat”. Her colleagues on the other hand took the bus designated to take the musicians back home and saw an enraged man shoot four Lebanese musicians who were playing alongside the musicians of the orchestra of the National Music Conservatory (NMC).
I read about the news online while I was in my office in Washington, DC a bit after 6:00 PM. My heart sank when I read that the attack targeted the NMC musicians and I called my parents immediately. My sister picked up the phone saying “I’m okay.” She explained that not only she took part in the event but that my parents were among the audience.
What a shameful act, really. Why would anyone attack musicians of all people?
According to Reuters:
A third security source said he thought the attacker had suspected the Lebanese musicians were Israelis. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has traditionally angered some in Jordan, where anti-Israeli feelings run high.
What a shame and how idiotic? As if killing innocent civilians can ever be justified! Pathetic! I’m really tired of this constant mayhem. My heart goes to those who were affected by this horrendous act and I pray for a speedy recovery for the injured.
The Washington Post ran an editorial today entitled "Mr. Obama’s Middle East" in which they opined that Obama "doesn’t see the region much differently than President Bush does."
This editorial comes right after Obama’s speech to the Jewish lobbyist group AIPAC earlier in the week during which he said, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided." His speech also revealed him to be hawkish about Iran.
For those that have not been following the latest developments, Obama’s speech angered many in the Arab world, especially Palestinians. After the interview, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told Al Jazeera Thursday: "This is the worst thing to happen to us since 1967 … he has given ammunition to extremists across the region. What really disappoints me is that someone like Barack Obama, who runs a campaign on the theme of change — when it comes to AIPAC and what’s needed to be said differently about the Palestinian state — he fails.”
The Post argues:
Mr. Obama opened his general election campaign this week with a major speech on Middle East policy, the substantive strategy he outlined was, in many respects, not very much different from that of the Bush administration — or that of Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That’s not a bad thing; rather, it’s a demonstration that there is a strong bipartisan consensus about America’s vital interests in the Middle East and that the sensible options for defending them are relatively limited.”
As I said before on this blog, I think Obama is charismatic but I never completely bought his message of "change." At least when it comes to the Middle East, it doesn’t seem he will bring any tangible change. When I endorsed Clinton, my friends and readers of this blog were unimpressed. A comment from reader Arabi put it like this:
Actually to put it differently, its not Hillary that is hated in the Arab world, its Hillary that hates the Arab world. Hillary was viewed positively for a long time until she made her choice and instead of trying to be an honest broker (as possible as that is given the influence of the Jewish community) like Bill did, she chose to [alienate] herself from many including the Palestinians. It does not surprise me though that you would support her. At the end of the day, the Jewish community will buy Obama as well (already started to).
I’m currently halfway through Obama’s biography Dreams from My Father, and I’m enjoying it. If my citizenship application is finalized before November, I would vote for him over McCain. However, I do not foresee any radical change if he becomes president, especially when it comes to the Middle East. Actually, I still believe Hillary would have been a better choice. But ah well, the people chose and they chose Obama. I need to get over it and move on. Anyway, let’s see what the future holds. Meanwhile, my friend Dan is ecstatic.
Reader ‘Dunkin’ asked me my thoughts on the Rachel Ray – Dunkin Donuts controversy. I have been talking about this issue extensively with my coworkers lately, so I’ll just reiterate myself here. I’m extremely disappointed that Dunkin Donuts backed down and listen to a misguided blogger, who is obviously oblivious to Arab and Muslim culture and diversity.
My grandfather, Saliba (whose name means ‘cross’ in Arabic), wore his Kuffayeh almost his entire life. He never took it off. When he used to go to church, he used to take off the rope circlet, which is placed atop the Kuffayeh (iqal), as a sign of respect.
The Kuffayeh is part of the national dress of a whole nation. It is a shame that it is portrayed in this light by a misguided and (I hate to say it) bigoted blogger who referred to the Kuffayeh as "the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad." It is unfortunately true that the Kuffayeh was worn by extremists during some of their actions but the acts of a minority should not stain the rich and diverse culture of an entire population.
Ms Malkin, my grandfather, Saliba, along with my uncles and cousins have nothing to do with what you referred to as "murderous Palestinian jihad," so you are way off base here. And it is a shame that Dunkin Donuts complied to these bigoted remarks by an ignorant yet influential blogger.
Here is a quick update to my last post. Compass Direct, which broke the story about the ongoing deportations of Christians in Jordan, ran a follow-up today that I personally found extremely heart-wrenching. Here is a highlight from the article:
While it was unclear what the government considered false in the report, the fact of deportations of Christians was further verified as authorities on February 10 expelled an Egyptian pastor with the Assemblies of God church in Madaba – one of five evangelical denominations registered with the government.
Married to a Jordanian citizen and the father of two children, Sadeq Abdel Nour was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken to the port city of Aqaba. There he was placed on a ferry to Egypt. The previous week an Egyptian pastor from a Baptist church in Zarqa was arrested, held for three days and also returned to Egypt by ship from the port city of Aqaba. The pastor, 43, is married to a Jordanian woman and the father of three children.
If these pastors were working for legally registered churches why would you deport them in such a humiliating manner? The response of Acting Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh to the initial Compass Direct article was: "The authorities have deported a number of people who entered the country under the pretext of performing voluntary work but were spotted carrying out missionary activities."
Was this really the case in the issue of Sadeq Abdel Nour? I wonder.
Frankly, I find these to be dark times for Christians in Jordan. There are obviously discrepancies between what the Jordanian government is saying and what’s actually happening on the ground. The government needs to be more transparent. Handcuffing, blindfolding and deporting a pastor with no explanation should not happen in Jordan or any country that claims to respect basic human rights. I’m angry and disappointed.