The Delegate From Sadr City
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.”
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