Friday, December 23, 2011

Voting night (12/22 Thursday)

Voting in Egypt takes a little more effort sometimes.

I accompany my friend Hatem to go vote in Bulaq, a working class neighborhood. Hatem even warned me that the area is “very, very, very shaabee” meaning ghetto-like. Having visited Bulaq frequently before, I am unfazed.

Hatem is an aspiring actor who will join part of an Egyptian TV series next year. Having voted once already, Hatem is returning this time to vote in the run-offs between the candidates.

We take a tuk-tuk for about half an hour through heavy traffic. The driver, a young man in his late 20s, makes only 80LE ($13) daily. He spends 15LE on gas and maintenance, 25 LE on food, 20LE on his son’s education, 10 LE on cigarettes, and the rest for his family’s daily use. The next day, he begins at zero again.

Couple of times, we get stuck in a rut and our driver jumps out to push or pull the tuk-tuk in various directions. Though he appears thin, his arms are quite strong. I compliment him: “you are much stronger than me. I am weak.” Later, Hatem tells me that this compliment delighted him.

At one point, he bangs the dashboard when another car nearly hits us. I can tell this man is full of fire.

He blasts the music. The loudspeakers are right behind our ears. It feels like an earthquake going through my eardrums. I joke with him and say that the music is not loud enough and that he should turn it up. Unfortunately, he thinks I’m serious and complies.

The driver tells me that he is pleased with the elections and believes that there will be accountability in the new system. “When we vote, the politicians will know our pain. So, that they know that we need to clean the streets or build new roads.”
When we arrive at the school house entrance, several soldiers stand vigil at the doorway with brown AK-47s. Two clerks with uniforms and name tags around their necks greet me. They inquire about my identity.


Hatem explains that I am his friend. I try to insert some humor, saying, “Hatem is with me.” Initially, the clerks are reluctant to allow me entry and the soldiers tell me I need to wait by the door while Hatem votes.

As soon as I tell them that I am Chinese, their frowns turn into smiles. I explain that I am from China, the same place where their clothing is made in. I point to the soldier’s AK-47 and say, “and the same place that produced your gun!” After a minute or so, they let me in without checking my bag, which contained a camera. Or my person, which contained a digital recorder.

We climb the stairs to the 4th floor. There, in a small schoolroom are a handful of clerks. Hatem enters. I hesitate at first, but then enter the room. They welcome me and we chat for a few minutes. The first gentleman offers me a seat and then an orange. When I tell him I am Chinese, his face lights up. “Oh China! Old civilization. 5,000 years old!”

I agree with him, saying that it is just like Egypt.

I remain in my seat, not wanting to appear threatening in any way. I ask him a few questions about the voting process; he explains that the votes are delivered to a central place for tabulation and then reported to the media. He is optimistic about the immediate future.

Downstairs, before we climb into our tuk-tuk again, I thank the election clerks and the soldiers. The head clerk asked me with tongue-in-cheek, “You didn’t see any fraud here, did you?”

“No, of course not. Thank you so much for allowing me entry. I saw and learned a lot tonight and know more about the new voting system. May God be kind to you.”

On our way back home, the Tuk-Tuk driver engages Hatem in a long and full conversation. Once he delivers us to our destination, Hatem fills me in on their talk. At Hatem’s encouraging, I thank the driver with the new phrase, “May God protect you.”

Hatem is impressed by our driver, believing him to be both a possible criminal and also a colorful character.

“He knows the locations of drug dens, burglar hideouts and whorehouses. In fact, one time, the police asked him to become an informant, but he refused that and said he had pride. Another time, he took his sick brother to the hospital, but he did not receive treatment until it was too late and he died right then and there. So, the driver returned later and stabbed the doctor in the back of the head with a knife. He fled and didn’t know what happened to the doctor.”

I’m glad I complimented the driver when I did.

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