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The Delegate From Sadr City

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Ah, Remember the DNC? Before Hurricane Palin, before the GOP knives were drawn in Minneapolis, there were those halcyon days back in Denver when politics were about ideas and the future and people actually believed in things. If anyone wants to be reminded of the genuine efforts of someone who has a lot at stake in this election, please take a moment to read the endearing story about Majid Al-Bahadli, the only Iraqi-American delegate to the DNC.

You may be shocked to learn that not all stories from the convention were about tactics, or personalities, or disunity, or overcoming disunity, or yet more endless parsing of personalities and stagecraft. There were also stories about people who had worked hard for their candidates and who have the temerity to believe that the democratic process is about them. Majid is one of those people. The story is on the LA Weekly website, but since I have gotten complaints about the site's user unfriendliness, it's reproduced in full here:

2008-09-08-majid.jpg

THE DELEGATE

Majid Al-Bahadli came a long way to get to Denver.
Born near Basra, raised in Sadr City, refugeed after the 1991 uprising
against Saddam, married and naturalized in Seattle, Majid is the only
Iraqi delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

"I think
there are other Arabs, from Michigan and places like that," he says.
"But no one else is from Iraq. As far as I know, I'm the only one at
any Democratic convention. Or Republican convention. I'm the only one
ever!"

We're on the floor of the Pepsi Center on Monday, where
4,000 delegates, 15,000 journalists and god-knows-how-many DNC staff,
finance people, party bigwigs, hangers-on and fresh-faced,
yellow-vested volunteers will fill the room in the run up to Thursday's
epic nomination. Majid is an Obama delegate. This is impossible not to
know if you get anywhere near Majid, who rotates between self-designed
T-shirts that announce, IRAQI AMERICANS FOR OBAMA and IRAQ FOR OBAMA,
YES WE CAN!

"I first heard Obama speak in 2004 in Boston,"
Majid says of his American political awakening. "And after that, I was
just waiting for him to announce he would run in 2008."

When
that happened, Majid, who is 41 and has three kids, started canvassing
his neighborhood, standing in front of grocery stores, talking to
friends, talking to strangers, talking to anyone who would listen about
his fundamental belief in his candidate. "I don't have anything bad to
say about Hillary, but I know in my heart that Obama will change the
world."

For Majid, this is more than rhetoric. With his entire
extended family still in Baghdad, he has more at stake than almost
anyone else here.

"I talked to my brother, Khalid, before I
left. Everyone there is watching on CNN, Al Jazeera. Both conventions
mean a lot to them. Now, I am an American. I love it here. Issues like
health care and the economy are important to me, because they affect
millions of my new American family. But I have an Iraqi family too, and
they need security and safety immediately. Their lives are the ones
that will change. Or stay the same, with McCain."

The
convention is called to order, and the Washington delegation feels the
moment. They wave signs, holler, dance to the interstitial music
between speakers (oddest segue: "Addicted to Love" after BillClinton's
speech Wed­nes­day). One guy wears a button-and-sticker headdress
making a none-too-subtle argument: McCAIN IS INSANE. Almost everyone
within a 20-foot radius wears a blue button with OBAMA FOR CHANGE in
English, Arabic and Hebrew -- all Majid's work.

"That's how I got started," he says, "with the buttons!"

In
the months before the state's February 8 caucus, Majid bought a button
maker, created dozens of designs and churned out thousands of buttons.
"People started ordering them from everywhere, even abroad. I gave them
to people at synagogues and mosques. Now, you have Arabs wearing Hebrew
and Jews wearing Arabic. That's how much Obama's message resonates with
people."

Majid's success is also derived from his infectious
enthusiasm. When Majid made his case for Obama at his local public
library on February 8, his fellow caucus-goers were so moved by his
heartfelt statement and personal history that they surprised him with a
nomination as a precinct delegate. In a year of intense competition for
delegate positions, it's not easy to get to the convention, especially
in Washington state, where three stages of caucusing winnow thousands
of precinct-level hopefuls to fewer than 80 delegates. The three-month
process turned out to be a campaign of its own, an exercise in
democracy that most Americans don't even realize is possible, and one
well-suited to Majid, who loves people as much as they love him. At the
final stage, Majid had 30 seconds to tell 1,100 people why he should go
to Denver. When the votes were counted, he had convinced 900 of them, a
landslide victory.

"Eighty seven percent!" he exclaims, recalling the shock, "of all the votes!"

When
I point out that this is almost as much as Saddam Hussein used to get,
Majid says, "It's no joke! Where I come from, it was one ballot and one
name. You guys don't know what you have here with democracy. Half the
country doesn't participate! I don't get it. You vote for who you want
and have no fear of being killed. This is an incredible luxury."

Majid
has been appointed to the tallying committee, meaning he will play a
procedural role in voicing his state's votes. "I can't wait," he says,
"to see all the names there, and next to mine I will mark the box for
Obama!"


The Washington delegation is staying
in the Hyatt
Regency Tech Center hotel in an office park 15 miles south of Denver.
Tonight, they've all gathered for a reception in the Plaza Room on the
13th floor. A congresswoman is speaking to a packed room. A buffet is
stacked with a dozen types of desserts. No journalists are here,
because journalists don't party with delegates. They party with each
other, and they're too busy trying to wrangle their way into the many
glitzy shindigs around town. Apparently, the Vanity Fair/Google
party on Thursday is the week's hottest ticket. I've already gotten
inside one of those affairs and been reminded how shatteringly
anticlimactic they are. If you want to stand in line for some jaded
hobnobbing surrounded by a-holes, you don't need to wait four years and
fly to Denver. You can do that in Hollywood. Up in the Hyatt Tech's
Plaza Room, I realize, it's much more fun spending time with the people
who might actually get Obama elected. Like Majid, who seems to be the
unofficial mayor of his delegation.

"What's up habibi?" asks one of the many well-wishers who frequently interrupts us. He's covered in Majid's buttons.

"Hey!
Glad to see you here!" Majid says. That was Gus, an at-large aspirant
who didn't make it onto the delegation. "But he did make it to Denver,
I see," Majid says. "And that's great. Because history will be made
here."

As proof, Majid cites the sunset. "Did you see it the
other day?" Megilp clouds, shafts of light over jagged silhouettes -- it
looked like a William Turner painting over the Rockies. After all the
hand-wringing before the convention -- Is Obama on the ropes? Will Swift
Boat politics work again? -- the sky seemed like a natural reminder of
Obama's promise: Tomorrow, hope. That's what everyone in this room
thinks, by the sound of the chatter over atmospheric phenomena,
including the appearance of a giant rainbow over the city. "A full
rainbow!" Majid declares, wide-eyed. "The whole arc. I have never seen
such a thing in my life. That's when I knew: Things would be okay."

Majid
keeps saying he can't believe he's here. But then he tells me how he's
always been political, even in Iraq, where being political was
dangerous. "My family always told me speak your mind," he says. "Behind
closed doors, they whispered about the government." In the midst of an
ecstatic celebration of the democratic process, Majid reminds me of the
reality of growing up in a security state run by murderers. During the
Saddam years, 17 of his relatives were killed or arrested. "Some have
never been found. When I was 13," he recalls, "my uncle and cousins
were executed or imprisoned because they fought against Saddam."

That
was in 1980, a year after Hussein came to power. In 1991, when Majid
was 23, Hussein invaded Kuwait. "Two weeks after the cease-fire, Bush's
father encouraged us to rise up against Saddam, so we did." We all know
how that one ended. "The Americans, still on Iraqi soil, let Hussein
slaughter 150,000 people," Majid says, "many times the number who died
in the war." In Baghdad, Majid had heeded the call and organized his
Shiite neighborhood in the uprising. "I took up arms, so now I was
marked. The police hunted me for days, but luckily I escaped to Saudi
Arabia."

Like thousands of other refugees from the uprising,
Majid was misclassified as a POW and sat in the Saudi desert for five
years. "We were treated like dogs!" he remembers. No -- not like dogs. I
love dogs. Worse than dogs! Five years. I gave my youth to George H.W.
Bush."

In Arabic, Bahadala means someone who's had a
hard life and must overcome obstacles. Majid is not sure if that's
where his family name, Al-Bahadli, comes from, but he admits that it
accurately describes his life. Even in the camp, where there was no
recourse, Majid's political instincts were active. He organized a
hunger strike to protest camp conditions. He taught the other prisoners
English, because he knew such knowledge would increase their chances of
asylum. And he lifted their spirits with his eternal optimism, which
was finally vindicated when Majid's refugee status was recognized in
1996 and he came to the United States.

"And that's when we
met," says his wife, Diana. She's here to offer spousal support. "I've
been behind it from the beginning," she says. "The buttons, the
stickers, the long hours -- that's his way. Truth is, there's no
stopping him."

Diana knows from experience. She met Majid when
he was working at a gas station. He kept asking her out. She kept
saying no. Undaunted, Majid eventually realized that Diana was learning
Arabic, and that was his way in. They were married two and a half years
later. Coincidentally, Majid's best friend is another Iraqi, also named
Majid, and he married Diana's best friend, Nina, who is also here in
Denver. "What amazes me about Diana's Majid," Nina says, "is that if I
were in his position -- a refugee from Iraq in America at this time --
I'd keep my head down. My husband, like most of the Iraqi community,
doesn't want to stick out. This kind of politics doesn't come natural
to them."

It does to Majid. Once nudged into the delegate race,
Majid redoubled his effort, working full-time for Obama. "You don't
make it into the delegation just because people like you," says Suzi
Levine, another delegate from Majid's district. "You have to help the
campaign."

Majid transformed from enthusiastic and garrulous
citizen into rubber-meets-the-road organizer. Armed with his homemade
paraphernalia and unique voice, Majid showed up at festivals, block
parties, local fairs. He stood in front of grocery stores. He stood on
street corners. He went to Oregon.

"If you met me in the past
six months," Majid says, "I talked to you about Obama." He registered
voters, hung signs and talked to skeptics. "I don't argue. I don't call
anyone stupid. No. That is not the way. You are honest. You talk to
people openly." This is how Majid says he made many conversions, as
many as two or three a week. "It's almost exhausting to watch him,"
Nina says. "He can go forever. I don't think he's slept much since
February."

Majid's recent career as a one-man organizational
machine was a big help when he clinched the delegation seat. "Delegates
have to pay for themselves to get to Denver, and my family is like the
rest of the American families, with kids and concerns about the
economy. We don't have extra money." What Majid does have is hundreds
of new friends and supporters, enough to raise the cost of his entire
trip through donations. Majid's experience, Nina says, is like a
microcosm of the campaign. "And it's been absolutely thrilling to watch
him living Obama's message," she says.

 

"Are you ready to vote, Washington?"

A
roar comes back from the state's spot at the Pepsi Center. It's
Wednesday morning, the day of the roll call. The theatrically named
Jackson Ravens, the delegation's executive director, is gathering his
talliers to record Washington's official vote and turn it over to the
DNC.

"Actually," he says, "we were supposed to do this at
breakfast and get it done early. But you only live once, and we wanted
to do it right here, on the floor."

Clipboard in hand, Majid is
beside himself with excitement. He's glad to be discharging his
official duties rather than doing on-camera interviews. In the past few
days, several media outlets got wind of his story, and to his dismay,
they were less interested in his experience as an Iraqi-American
delegate than the self-perpetuating narrative surrounding the supposed
intransigence of Hillary supporters and the PUMA PAC, which technically
stands for People United Means Action, but means Party Unity My Ass.
"They keep asking me things like, 'Why did Obama pick Biden and not
Hillary?'" he says. "Even the Arabic-language media wanted me to
criticize Obama. I told them what I see, which is that everyone is
voting for Obama, and they say the interview is over."

For his
part, Majid tells me that he cried like a baby during Hillary's speech.
And he cries again a few hours later, when Hillary makes her dramatic
appearance to end the roll call and release her delegates to Obama.
"That's when I realized this will really happen," he says. "And I think
about my family back home and what it could mean to them."

Amid
the frenzy of the convention, where the operatic drama of this year's
campaign will reach a climax that will be parsed in fractured, frenetic
detail by a continuous news cycle, it's easy to forget that the
election isn't about dueling personalities, or jockeying advisers, or
cross-tabulated tracking polls, or PUMAs, or what inane questions Wolf
Blitzer asks some paid liar from the GOP about all of the above. What
happens in November has real consequences for millions of people, and
Majid is a living reminder of the people whose fate hangs in the
balance. Last night, I caught a few minutes of Generation Kill on
TV. So did Majid. He had to turn it off. He can't handle it, he says,
because it's too close to home. From the mixed emotions of the Marines
to the "real, regional accents" of the Iraqis -- "I know what this means
in real life," he says. "It's not just television."

As an
Iraqi-American, Majid always felt torn about the war. "At the
beginning," he says, "I was excited to see Saddam fall." But he was
always afraid of the aftermath. "I had a feeling," he says, "that it
would turn out wrong."

Six years into the war, Majid has
sympathy for the American solders -- "just kids, scared like anyone
else" -- who lose their lives. "And for what purpose?" And he grieves
for his friends and family back home. "I know many people who have been
killed," he says. "I told my family to stop giving me the news."

Imagine,
he says, you know someone from growing up. A classmate. A cousin. You
remember them as a child. You can recall a summer day when they were
smiling. You have beautiful moments in the past with them. And then you
find them hanging from a bridge. Or they are floating, headless, in the
river. Try to understand for a moment what this is like. "And then you
will know," Majid says, "why I am here."

For nearly half of
Majid's 12 years in the U.S., he says, he's felt the anguish of having
"my two families at war." As an American, he thought the war was a bad
idea. "Is this in our interest?" he asked. "No. Will it catch al Qaeda?
No. Will it improve the economy? No. We lost money, military power and
dignity. We lost our influence in the world. And we have to get it
back."

It's a powerful enough comment about the American Idea
that Majid can talk about his new country in the first-person plural
and really mean it. Majid earned that "we" the hard way. Or, as Nina
puts it, "Nobody can lecture Majid about freedom."

That's why
Majid is so moved at every turn, including the basic certification of
the vote. "When Michelle Obama said she was surprised to be on the
stage," Majid says, "I knew what she meant. I cried then too. There are
simply no words for my surprise to be here, having a voice in changing
my country."

And Majid knows there is still a long road ahead.
"When I get back home," Majid says, "we go right back to work. This is
my only vacation this year."

Before the DNC, Majid worked nine
or 10 hours a day. Now he plans on as many as 16 hours a day. "And
maybe," he adds, "when Obama is elected -- then it's time to sleep."