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They Drove 22 Hours for a Defining Moment

Times Staff Writer

The waning moon hangs low above the modest mosque as the members of the caravan make their final preparations. Marwa Sadik, 19, watches her mother attach an Iraqi flag to the family’s red minivan and steps in to help the older woman explain the passion that fuels the grueling trip ahead.

They will travel nearly 1,200 miles this day through fog and rain, wind and hail, in a 13-van convoy that stretches like an out-of-control slinky moving down Interstate 5 through three states.

It is 6:55 a.m. Friday, and they are heading off to participate in Iraq’s first free election in more than 50 years. But the only polling place in the western United States is at the officers’ club at the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine.

Their exercise in prayer, pain and perseverance, somber and celebratory in equal measure, will eventually take the group nearly 22 hours, one way. But it is a trip they make gratefully, fully aware of the much more severe voting hardships in their homeland.

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“Last month they kidnapped my uncle from his house in Baghdad,” Sadik says about the insurgents, her breath a white plume in the inky morning. “He escaped from them. He is safe, but he’s still worried. He can’t go out. He can’t work. He’s depressed. He has four kids. The situation is really bad.

“But he’s going to vote,” says Sadik, whose family came from Baghdad via Syria to Seattle three years ago because her mother wanted the children to have an education, medicines, a future. “He’s really excited to vote, so he can live safe with his children. Especially now, after what happened to him. He really wants a better life.”

And if he is willing to risk his life to cast a ballot, then her family is willing to make the journey to Irvine.

Sadik and her family also are excited. Friday was for driving. Saturday for voting. And today, before hitting I-5 again for the long trip back home? “We’re going to go to Disneyland.”

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Fajr, the Dawn Prayer

“When you have the first election in the history of Iraq, you want to be a part of it. For me, honestly, if I don’t take part, I give up on my own people and tell the terrorists over there, ‘you won,’ ” says Muhamed Qatrani.

He is squinting in the glare of television lights that cast this working class neighborhood in an unnatural glow as he talks about the trip he has feverishly arranged. The minivans scheduled for a 7 a.m. departure have just begun to line up on 108th Street. But first comes prayer.

About 14 million in Iraq are eligible to go to the polls today to elect a transitional national assembly, the first step in the creation of a democracy. The assembly will draft a new constitution and choose a president and two vice presidents. About 280,000 Iraqi expatriates -- more than 26,000 in the U.S. -- have registered in 14 nations to vote in balloting that began Friday.

Since U.S. polling places in five states were announced this month, these fervent fans of democracy have become Seattle’s hometown heroes. More than 100 already have driven to Irvine once to register for Iraq’s out-of-country voting. By the time they return to Seattle, they will have logged nearly 4,800 miles in the pursuit of democracy.

The co-founder of Seattle’s Iraqi Community Center, Qatrani spent days trying to persuade election authorities to set up a polling place closer to the Emerald City. He’d raise the money to defray the costs, he promised. He’d find volunteers to staff the effort. He’d even find a proper venue.

When that didn’t work, he rented minivans, lots of minivans. The very minivans that now stand ready, draped in Iraqi and American flags, decorated with campaign posters, stuffed with food and bursting with hope.

But before the departure, the hundred or more travelers first head into their white, clapboard mosque, a tract house turned place of worship. The voting is for their country; this time is for their souls.

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Muslims pray five times daily, beginning with Fajr, the dawn prayer, followed by Zuhr, the afternoon prayer, Asr in the late afternoon, Maghrib at sunset and Isha, when the sky is completely dark.

“The prayer keeps you aware all the time,” says one of the men. “You cannot pray and do bad things.”

Zuhr, the Afternoon Prayer

The directions from the mosque to the Anaheim hotel where the travelers hoped to spend Friday night were laughable in their simplicity. Qatrani handed them out at a pre-trip meeting. “Head south on I-5 from Seattle. Take the Harbor Boulevard exit in Orange County,” the directions read.

But the trip isn’t as simple as it sounds. In Washington, there is fog. And logging trucks and steel bridges like erector sets over full creeks. Three hours after setting out, the caravan crosses the Columbia River, moving through the flat expanses of Oregon farmland with the peculiar stutter step of an unruly convoy: Speed up and brake. Speed up and brake.

The rain hits at 11:20 a.m. An hour later, south of Eugene, the vans pull off at the Gettings Creek rest stop. First comes the ritual cleansing, or wudu, in the blue concrete restrooms. The men then roll out their prayer rugs on the slick sidewalk, take off their shoes, pile wallets and cigarettes neatly beside them and raise their hands to their ears and begin.

Allahu akbar. “God is Great.” Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim. “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.”

The men finish. The women take their turn. The children, freed from the vans’ captivity, race around on the damp grass, talking about the movies they’ve seen via on-board DVD players. A llama and its owners stroll by. An orange-haired woman stares, curious, before heading into the women’s room. Prayers are finished. Lunch is shared. The convoy hits the road again.

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Ghanem al-Nassar, 38, navigates through traffic in a silver van, trying to explain what it means to drive for nearly 22 hours in order to exercise a privilege many Americans take for granted, and talking about how hard it is to vote when many candidates will not make their names public for fear of attack.

A painter by trade, Al-Nassar is, like most men on this trip, a Shiite Muslim from southern Iraq who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War. When Hussein stayed in power, Al-Nassar fled the country in 1991. They have not been back.

Al-Nassar left behind his parents, four brothers and four sisters when he fled Basra. He talked to them before heading to Irvine. They plan to vote regardless of the danger. He warned them not to go to the polls together, in case something happens. “God willing, nothing will happen,” he says.

“Which one is easier?” Al-Nassar asks. “You put your life on the line [to vote in Iraq] and someone crazy will blow them up, or drive 2,000 miles with your friends?”

Maghrib, the Sunset Prayer

Just before 6 p.m., the caravan begins to trickle into a rest stop at the head of Lake Shasta. On the plus side, the rain has stopped, and Oregon is in the rearview mirror. On the minus side, after nearly 11 hours of driving the voters are less than halfway to their destination.

A silver Ford pickup blares Patsy Cline: “I fall to pieces.... " Faisal al-Hamad, 42, lays a flattened cardboard box on the wet sidewalk before rolling out his prayer rug and beginning to pray. The soles of his feet gleam, pale, in the streetlight.

The women fire up propane stoves to make strong, sweet tea, begin dinner preparations, attend to children who are beside themselves with fatigue and captivity. At this point, an end to the trip is nowhere in sight, and it is natural to wonder about the wisdom of driving to the polls.

The reason they are doing it is simple, explains Tanya al Ghizi, a cardiology nurse: Money. The men and women who are traveling to Irvine have more time than money -- and they don’t have that much time.

“Most of these Iraqi women don’t work, and the husband is the sole breadwinner,” she says. “The men aren’t that educated and many have $10-an-hour jobs. They need the money. Their employers aren’t that supportive. A couple of [my husband’s] friends were told to find other jobs” if they took too much time off to go vote.

Al Ghizi’s husband, Abbas, spent two years in jail in Iraq before leaving for Kuwait in 1986. He hasn’t seen his family since. A generally happy man who is thrilled to be voting, he will talk about anything but what happened in jail.

“A lot of bad things happened to people in jail,” he said, and that’s about it. “They were hurting people all the time.”

Why vote? “I’m doing this for my people,” he responds. “To be fully free, we need the right president. I’ve been in this country 13 years. I can do whatever I want. I want my people just like me. I can do something. I can buy something. I can vote for anybody.”

On Arrival, the Vote

Normally about noon, the Shiites who filled the minivans from Seattle to Irvine would be on their prayer rugs, shoes off, heads bowed, deep in their midday devotions. But this is no normal day, and the vans are queued up outside the former base, waiting for security to clear them for entrance.

An hour later, they are standing in line waiting to vote. Despite having had just two hours of sleep, they are giddy with happiness, embracing old friends and soaking up the atmosphere, eyeing the colorful Kurds in native dress, the young men waving Iraqi flags, poll workers cheering at each vote cast.

Qatrani gets his ballot at 2:07 p.m. and sticks an index finger into the purple ink pot, a security measure to ensure that no expatriate votes twice. He holds the inky digit up with a smile. He steps behind a cardboard screen, and it’s over in a moment. He stuffs his ballot into the plastic box and kisses his wife.

“Hopefully, we will see you in Iraq,” a poll worker tells the grinning man. “Inshallah, inshallah,” Qatrani responds, “God willing, God willing.”

“I feel very happy, I feel very fortunate,” he says, holding his daughter, Fatima, in his arms. “I’m so excited since I left Seattle. I never thought that it would be this wonderful.”

He talks about fleeing Basra in 1991, about walking to the Kuwaiti border with just the identification in his pocket, praying that he would avoid the land mines that pocked the countryside he loved so dearly, “afraid that I would be captured by Saddam Hussein’s guards. Finally, I am here 14 years later.

“I hope everyone goes to vote,” he continues. “I hope it will strengthen the country and things will get better,” he says. “I hope for the best.”

Inshallah, God willing.


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