Postcard — April 1, 2014, 12:43 pm

Push Poll

Registering to vote in Kabul

Lining up for voter-registration cards outside a school in northern Kabul. © Mujib Mushal

Lining up for voter-registration cards outside a school in northern Kabul. © Mujib Mushal

The line, against the wall of a girl’s high school in northern Kabul, did not budge for nearly an hour. Eventually I gave up, making my way to the front and asking the young man who was crouched there (as he had been for at least five hours) what time I should come the following day to be sure to get my voter-registration card. “At dawn,” he said. “Come pray the morning prayer here and then wait.”

My friend Qiam and I woke up early the next morning, packed some coffee, apple juice, and energy bars, and drove back to the school, one of three registration sites in the city. When we arrived — at 5:15, nearly three hours before the gates were scheduled to open — already there were about thirty people ahead of us in the men’s side of the line. The crowd behind us grew steadily with the arrival of prospective voters bused in by provincial-council candidates.

For the first couple hours, the mood was good. A policeman kept the line organized, and though people complained, they did so with a certain pride. “I waited till four in the afternoon yesterday. Just as my turn arrived, they said official hours were over, come back tomorrow,” said one man. “I called home to ask for some lunch,” said another veteran of the previous day. “All they sent was rice pudding.” Soon, though, the line began lengthening in front of us as well as behind. Qiam and I tried in vain to get the attention of the policeman, who had gone to his booth to eat breakfast. “Say there’s a suicide bomber — that’ll get his attention,” someone joked.

As the April 5 elections approach and the time allotted for political campaigning — two months for the presidency, one for the provincial councils — comes to a close, there’s been a surge of interest in voter cards. Since registration began last May, nearly 3.8 million new voters across the country have applied — largely because, for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2001, the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, is not on the ticket, meaning the race is more or less wide open. This surge has brought the total number of voting cards issued since the first post-Taliban election, held in 2004, to more than 21 million, nearly double Afghanistan’s population of eligible voters. Electoral fraud has been a major concern for years, and this time is no different. (In 2009, about 1 million votes were discarded as fraudulent. In one case, a former electoral official told me, poll workers tabulating votes reportedly opened a box to find the shoe of an overzealous ballot-stuffer.)

Just before eight A.M., police started patting people down and allowing them inside the school compound. The line stalled for a further two hours as dozens of government officials, members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and other influential people were escorted to the front, many emerging with their cards within minutes. The waiting crowd’s irritation was palpable, but at this point the fun was not entirely lost. A young engineer wearing a black suit and a purple shirt and tie disclosed to the people around him that he had been a failed candidate for provincial council the last time around.

“How many votes did you get, Mr. Representative?” someone teased.

“Seventeen hundred and forty-three,” replied the engineer. “But my family didn’t know that I was a candidate — the votes would have been much more if I had told them.”

“And where is your voting card, Mr. Representative?”

“An MP friend of mine took it for his registration and never gave it back to me, the bastard,” said the engineer. (Electoral law requires prospective candidates to present a certain number of voter cards from supporters in order to qualify.) Another hour later, the phone of the man in front of me began playing the theme song from Valley of the Wolves, a popular Turkish soap opera dubbed in Dari. “Can you Bluetooth that ringtone to me?” said Mr. Representative over my shoulder. “I may not get a voter card, but at least I’ll get a ringtone and save myself ten afghanis [about twenty cents].”

As lunchtime drew near and our line still failed to make progress, the anger overflowed. Elderly men tried to rush the classroom where the cards were being issued. “I am old and sick. I can’t stand in line anymore,” said a frail, turbaned man without a single tooth in his lower jaw. “If you’re sick, go be first in line at the hospital,” replied a young man. One of the election workers escorted a mullah to the door of the classroom. Usually clergy are accorded enormous respect in Afghanistan, but this morning the crowd was not having it. “Soldiers give blood,” shouted one person, referring to the dozens of uniformed men who had cut the line. “What does the mullah give?” The mullah entered silently, his head bowed. When he emerged with his voter card, another chant was started: “The unjust mullah! The unjust mullah!” He walked quickly out of the school.

At 11:50 A.M., after more than six hours of waiting and just before the three clerks inside the classroom went on their hour-long lunch break, Qiam and I got our cards. Frustration and exhaustion — partially of our doing, since we’d waited until election eve to register — overshadowed our excitement. Not that the run-up to the elections has been all that politically exciting anyway. None of the presidential candidates seems prepared to address the challenges Afghanistan will face in its first transition of power since Karzai took office. Some fail to realize the enormity of those challenges; others are simply too divisive. Still, the crowd at the school seemed intent on affirming what Afghanistan has lacked in recent decades — democratic continuity — even in the face of lackluster candidates and Taliban fearmongering.

My friends registering on the women’s side later reported that the female security officer at the gate had told each person she frisked that police had intelligence on a possible suicide attack — which was either true or a way of discouraging people from waiting. But as far as my friends could see, no one left without a voter card.

Share
Single Page

More from Mujib Mashal:

Postcard April 7, 2014, 5:37 pm

A Day of Blue Fingers

Election Day in Afghanistan’s capital

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

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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

$1,500

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.

An eight-foot minke whale washed ashore on the Thames, the third beaching of a dead whale on the river in two months.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today