Postcard — April 7, 2014, 5:37 pm

A Day of Blue Fingers

Election Day in Afghanistan’s capital

Afghan men line up outside a polling station to cast their ballots in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. © AP Photo/Rahmatullah Nikzad

Afghan men line up outside a polling station to cast their ballots in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. © AP Photo/Rahmatullah Nikzad

On Saturday, as my family was getting ready to vote in Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial-council elections, my father made a request of a kind I hadn’t heard since Eid. “Spread yourselves out to different polling centers,” he said, concerned about the sorts of suicide bombings that have killed entire families in the past. “Don’t go together.”

The Taliban’s recent attacks across Afghanistan, along with bad memories of the fraud-ridden 2009 elections, had made for gloomy headlines in the international press ahead of last weekend’s vote. “Return of the Taliban,” ran Time magazine’s April 14 cover line. “[I]ncoming planes are half empty,” reported the New York Times, noting that international observers, usually a fixture of elections here, were keeping their distance. Among many Afghans, however, the Taliban’s stepped-up pre-election violence — particularly their murder last month of children and civilians in a Kabul hotel — had triggered a sense of defiance.

Before the polls opened, it was hard to gauge the strength of that defiance. A tremendous security presence — the government brought out everything it had, including trainees from the military academy — promised safety, but it might equally have scared people into staying home. Reports from the southern city of Kandahar, hard-hit with violence back in 2009, told of abandoned streets. But soon broadcast and social media were flooded with images of crowded voting facilities. In one photograph, women waited in line with plastic sheets held over their heads against the rain; in another, two children led their blind father into a polling station. Many Afghans, it seemed, had braved it all to vote.

I was the last in my family to cast a ballot. I stayed home for the first part of the day, watching the news on television and waiting for the others to return. My mother, who walks with the help of a cane on rainy days, went to pick up my grandmother so they could vote together. She realized when she got to the polling place that she’d forgotten her glasses. “It was easy to vote for a presidential candidate,” she said. The ballot had only eleven names on it, and three of the candidates had pulled out of the race before Election Day. “But the provincial council — I struggled to find who I wanted to vote for.” My mother searched for the name of a woman whose television ads had made an impression on her, but there were 457 candidates listed on the multipage ballot. After a few minutes she gave up and ticked the box next to the first woman she saw. “You’ll be party to any sin she commits,” my father joked over lunch.

When my turn came, I had two options: I could vote at the school I attended as a child or at the mosque where I pray on Fridays. I chose the mosque, which is closer to home, because the skies were dark with rain clouds. The line along the mosque wall was orderly. Behind me was a green-eyed old man who, along with his daughters, had tried two other polling stations before arriving here. Within forty-five minutes I’d made it to the mosque entrance, where I took off my sandals and submitted to a police pat-down. Inside, a handful of observers, some of them crouching against stone columns, watched the voters file in. An election worker checked my I.D. card and punched a hole in it, then examined my hands for signs that I’d already voted. Satisfied that I hadn’t, he cleaned my right index finger with a damp cloth and dipped it in a bottle of blue ink. Then he sprayed my thumb with a transparent liquid visible only under a UV flashlight. I took my two ballots and walked into a booth. Five minutes after entering the mosque, I was finished.

As I walked out, feeling the elation of a first-time voter, I discovered that my sandals were gone. The mosque’s muezzin, who was serving as a poll worker that day, loaned me his. “They should put up a sign explaining that it’s Election Day, not Friday prayer,” joked my brother, referring to the tendency of shoes — particularly nice shoes — to go missing at the mosque.

By the end of the day, after voting had been extended for an hour nationwide and extra ballots had been delivered to several provinces, between 7 and 7.5 million Afghans, approximately 60 percent of those eligible, had reportedly voted. “The Day of Blue Fingers,” read a headline in Afghanistan’s largest private newspaper, Hasht-e-Subh. “The moment fingers triumphed over fists,” the Afghan poet Abdul Samay Hamed was quoted as saying. The Interior Ministry had recorded 140 attacks or attempted attacks across the country, and in parts of rural Afghanistan (and even some districts very close to Kabul), the Taliban had spread threatening leaflets the night before, keeping voter turnout low, but there had been no dramatic lapses in security.

The counting of ballots began immediately after polling was closed. In the two centers I visited in northern Kabul, observers watched closely as election workers sorted the ballots into stacks, one for each candidate. One ballot I saw, clearly a protest vote, had a line drawn through all the names. In the morning, a tally of votes was taped to the door of each polling center.

In the two days since the vote, practically every Afghan on social media has become an amateur data analyst, posting graphs and charts with numbers and percentages from across the country, with some giving their favorite candidate as much as 90 percent of the vote in certain provinces. Videos and photographs of alleged fraud have also been circulating. Nevertheless, a sense of optimism persists, a renewed belief in the still fragile democratic process and a faith in the young security forces charged with protecting Afghanistan as foreign troops withdraw. It is a cautious optimism, though, dampened by the fear of another lengthy post-polling process in which candidates will bicker over the results.

Single Page

More from Mujib Mashal:

Postcard April 1, 2014, 12:43 pm

Push Poll

Registering to vote in Kabul

Personal and Otherwise March 27, 2014, 12:08 pm

Death at the Serena

Remembering Ahmad Sardar and his family

Postcard January 9, 2014, 5:49 pm

Dissociated Press

Headline news under the Taliban

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today