NAJAF, Iraq—Najaf was quiet today, not sinister quiet like Baghdad with its deserted streets, blocked roads, and itchy checkpoints, but the quiet happiness of a holiday afternoon right before another holiday. There were no helicopter rotors, no percussive booms of thudding mortars and bombs, like Baghdad, no gunfire. Today was the Shiite festival of Eid Ghadir, a commemoration of the day when the prophet blessed Imam Ali and, according to Shiite lore, named him as his successor. Yesterday, at Friday prayer, much was made of the coincidence of this celebration coming the day before the election. It was divine affirmation of appointment. The Shiites in Najaf, unlike many residents of the Sunni triangle and Baghdad, are thrilled to be voting tomorrow. They very much hope that after all this time they'll get their due: a political majority.
"All of Najaf will vote," said Hamza Mohammed Ali. "And all of Najaf will vote for the candle [the party logo of the Shiite list]. We Shiites feel as if it is the day of our true birth."
He stood in front of the water stand that he had erected to refresh pilgrims coming to the shrine today and constituents coming to vote tomorrow. The stand was garlanded with tinsel and pink plastic flowers and decorated with trays of colored candles and portraits of Imam Ali (with a green headscarf and heroic eyebrows). Next to it were election posters and a loitering small boy fingering a plastic pistol. The neighborhood was idling in the streets, boys playing dominos and football, kicking smashed bricks about. Police gathered in knots at every intersection, dangling their Kalashnikovs like an extra limb. Election officials and volunteers kept guard over the carefully prepared polling stations.
"Hopefully all Iraq will be like this," said one policeman. "This election is by the will of Allah." I asked him and his colleagues if they were going to vote tomorrow, and they answered, like a chant, with vigor: "INSHALLAH!"
I confess that after the cynicism and civil war talk in the capital, this brought a lump to my throat.
The white cloth banner proclaiming a polling station reads: "Elections are the wedding feast of the new Iraq—The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq," and there is a little drawing of two stick people with ballot papers in their hands, holding up their arms for joy. The polling stations are in schools that smell of fresh paint, whitewash, and chalk. Colored ribbons that look like celebration bunting have been strung up to organize people into lines outside. Red arrows have been taped to the walls to show people where to go, posters taped inside classrooms to show them what to do, and cardboard booths erected to give voters some privacy when they tick the box.
Look up from the wall, from the rubbly streets, the filthy ditches, the sparrows clustered on the garbage heaps, up clear against the blue winter sky white with sunlight, and you will see a concrete building with wooden scaffolding—signs of reconstruction after the fighting in August—the dome of a mosque next door, a leaning TV aerial, and the mesh of electricity wires. It is almost a snapshot metaphor. Further along the street is a black rag flag tied to a broken street lamp.
Tomorrow, and time, will tell.