June 07, 2009

Voting in Lebanon; A Cultural Experience

Today were the parliamentary elections in Lebanon. Usually they spread the elections over four consecutive Sundays, but for some reason, this time it was done in one batch. I never voted in Lebanon, never saw the need for it, but since so many people in my surroundings were planning on casting their vote, I figured I’d give it a try. A type of participating journalism, so to speak.

And so, this morning, I proceeded to the polling station. There’s one next to my house, but you cannot just vote anywhere you want, you have to go to the district where you are registered. ‘My’ polling station was in a school in Hamra. The mood on the street was good.

When I walked into the school yard, my heart sank; there must have been over 500 women standing in front of the door. Where were the men? They voted somewhere else. There were no lines (who needs lines when you can shove your way inside?), and so I elbowed myself a good distance to the door.

But when I had worked my way halfway the crowd, I got stuck. I couldn’t move one more inch. As I am quite a bit taller than most Lebanese women, I stood out, and it didn’t take long before I was asked; “Are you christian? If you’re christian, you do not have to wait.”
I’m all for positive discrimination; and under a “move aside, ya shjamea, here comes a christian,” I was hailed to the door by the ladies, and left the 500 or-something muslim women behind me.
I must say, it left a slightly odd feeling, that based on your religion you receive an obvious preferential treatment, but as nobody else seemed to mind, in I went.

I thought that was it as far as crowds go, but inside the building, it was even worse. I was sent from room to room, floor to floor, as nobody could quite figure out where to place me. Roman catholic, does that go under ‘roum” (Greek orthodox), or was I a “marouni” (Lebanese version of catholicism) ? Apparently you vote according to you religion as well. But no roman catholic was to be found in my district. After some phone calls, someone figured out I had been placed on the sunni list, and thus, I was to vote with the muslim ladies, who I had so very elegantly left behind me in the courtyard.
Or so I thought.
Because once I got to the room in question, there was an immense crowd of women. And one door. With a policeman. And he’d let one lady in, as another lady went out. But for some reason or another, this process went very slowly. VERY slowly. Did I say it went slowly? From the other side however, more women arrived. It was hot, there was no AC, no fresh air, no chairs, no water, and the ladies kept coming in. And in. And in.
And before long, the grumbling started. The older ladies were the fiercest of all. They’d elbow their way, all the way from the back, to the front, in no time at all, all the while screaming about ‘amaliyeh (operation),marida’ (sick) and what not all. Women accompanying elderly ladies cunningly took advantage of that while shoving their geriatric relatives in front of them towards the door. And then came the pregnant ladies, and then the handicapped.

It was clear that a small revolution was brewing in this overheated menopausal crowd. Do not underestimate angry women. The fact that in the meantime, all the other rooms, where the greek-orthodox, and the maronites were voting, had nice, quiet line-ups, did not help much either to calm the angry mob.This poor guy had to do crowd control on his own. This is from inside the voting room; the angry mob is on the other side.

When another older lady was pushed towards the front by her daughter, all hell broke loose.

Angry women (lower the volume).

Ya zuma’a, we’re all old! We’ve been standing here for two hours now, what is this?’ Another woman yelled that they were old and pregnant too, and then the fighting started among each other. They insulted the police man, they insulted the people inside and they insulted the people next to them.

And in between I stood, with several other ladies, who thought it was very funny, and fired up the angry crowed some more with “Well said!”,You’re right! Totally unacceptable!” and “There you go, granny! You tell 'em.”

A colonel was sent in, trying to calm the crowd, but it was not to be. Stars and stripes did not impress the ladies. He tried to get away with some jokes, but that didn’t fool them either. So he gave up.

And then, finally, the soldier lost his cool. He was the only barrier between the hot and angry crowd and the voting room. He had been pushed and pushed and pushed as each woman tried to worm and wiggle her way in. “ENOUGH!” he shouted. “BACK UP! BACK UP!”

There was silence.

For like a split second.

And then they erupted again. It was a fantastic experience. Next elections, count me in!

Some two hours later, I had shoveled my way all the way to the door, leaving behind me a group of very disgruntled women. Sweaty and smelly, I finally was able to deliver my vote.Which totally ruined my manicure.


Ms. Tee said...

Many thanks for the post. Now I can imagine what it would have felt like had I been in Lebanon and voting. I can even smell it!

Pazuzu said...

i don't understand why voters were divided this way. it's ridiculous. in my district being the marouniye was the curse as we had to wait for about 3 hours. it was horrible. And these conditions mean that older women and people with special needs suffered most discrimination as no one wanted to let them pass.
I understand the bad logistical conditions, voting took place in one day and a lot of effort was put into the security of the elections outside the ballots.
But what is surprising to me is that women's sections were the worst!

amna said...

Your post describes exactly what i went through today (TARIK JADIDA) , also my first time and i was amazed by all these woman who would not budge even for the officer screaming and losing his temper, cursing all woman in the world. Glad u filmed it because i could not describe it with words.

Anonymous said...

hahaha what a cool post! We had elections here in Holland last week, what a boring experience it was! Still good we have Wilders, he's always has some a few nice oneliners, otherwise everbody would have fallen asleep. Beirut is a lot more fun! Y.

Ginette said...

Heaven! It seems to be a miracle, that commitment that push people still to vote.
In Europe, nobody would bother, I reckon.
Respect (and a lot of laughter too) from me.

Nora said...

Very interesting indeed! thanks for sharing!

Amina said...

thanks for sharing that experience... I was reminded of the first time I ever voted over a year ago..

Anonymous said...

Very descriptive article, thanks for sharing it!

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Anonymous said...

As an election observer, I can't but bring up a clarification. I have no doubt about your good intention but I am concerned that readers may mis-interpret your comment about "Christians receiving preferential treatment". The polling stations are divided by religion and the numbers are not equal in all regions. As a result, if you are a Muslim voting in a predominantly Christian area, you get whisked through the lines just as you were able to cut through yourself!
PS: I really like your spin on "did I mention it was slow"!!! all observers in ALL stations were hammered with questions about why the process was so low and recommendations about speeding it up... Who said there was no consensus in Lebanon? :)