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January 30, 2005
An Israeli rediscovers his Iraqi roots
By Shahar Smooha
AMMAN - There was nothing surprising about the stunned looks I got last Friday as I stood at the entrance to the girls school in Swafiyeh, handed the guards and the representative of the Iraqi elections committee an Israeli passport and declared my wish to register to vote in the elections to the Iraqi parliament, which would begin in Jordan exactly a week later.
The elections official asked to see some document attesting to my connection to Iraq and the belittling look on his face was replaced by one of sincere astonishment when I gave him my grandparents' 1951 laissez-passez. After pointing out my father's name on the yellowing certificate and presenting a signed and notarized translation of a document proving I am his son, the mustachioed Iraqi ordered me to wait. He disappeared into the big building with my passport and the Smooha family's most precious document, leaving me with the guards at the entrance.
A scant five minutes later it was my turn to be surprised. The mustachioed one, smiling broadly, appeared at the edge of the school's inner courtyard, instructed the guards in Arabic to let me in, and then turned to me in English: "Welcome. Please follow me." When I strode with him into one of the classrooms manned by Iraqi elections officials, another surprise awaited me.
The four women and young man seated behind small desks had been apprised of the Israeli's approach and they were waiting for me, all smiling.
With a warmheartedness I had never encountered anywhere I had gone to tend to my bureaucratic matters, they told me to sit down, perused my grandparents' transit papers, stamped "Exiting without possibility of return," and were surprised that the only thing I know how o say in Iraqi Arabic is "How are you?" Three minutes later I was back on my feet, an Iraqi voter card in my shirt pocket alongside my Israeli passport. "See you next week, think hard about who to vote for," one of the women said as I left the room.
On Friday, after a week of digesting my new Iraqi identity - thanks to the Iraqi elections committee's decision to allow every Iraqi-born adult or their children over age 18 to vote, regardless of sex, religion or nationality - I returned to the Amman girls school. This time I only needed to bring my voter card and some form of ID, and once again the process was fast, efficient and cordial. One of the women I dealt with a week earlier examined the documents, told me quietly that she had wondered whether I would indeed come vote and then directed me with a smile to another table.
There a mustachioed and grave-looking man was seated who made me dip my finger in a sponge swimming in a puddle of indelible ink. In my naivete, I presumed this was the first stage of voting by fingerprint, but the Iraqis corrected my mistake with a smile usually reserved for the feeble-minded: coloring the finger with the black muck that will come off "in another month, maybe more," was merely intended to prevent repeat voting.
Once the Swafiyeh ink-blotter was pleased with the blackening of my finger, he presented me with a voting form the size of a poster and sent me behind a low divider. I had decided two days earlier who I would vote for, but then, alone behind the divider, I was genuinely distressed for the first time: The enormous form contained 111 names of the lists competing in the elections, all written in Arabic whereas I, unfortunately, can read only Hebrew and English.
I signaled to a member of the polling station committee and asked him for translation help. He asked that I whisper in his ear the name of the party for which I want to cast my ballot and after I did so, he wrote its name in Arabic on my card. Afterward, aware that attempting to locate the party's name on the long list would try the patience of the voters waiting in line, he pointed to the title on the voting form. I compared his handwritten note to the inscription on the poster, checked the box next to the party's name and dropped the folded poster into the transparent ballot box.
When I left the room, fairly excited, some of the Iraqi officials greeted me and the ink-blotter smiled for the first time. In the taxi ride back to the border crossing near Beit She'an, after a meal of mixed-grill and hummus at an Iraqi restaurant in Amman, everything seemed like a particularly hallucinatory dream. Only my black finger reminds me what a celebration of democracy I took part in a few hours ago.