NEW YORK, November 4 – I wanted to be a witness to history. That’s why I decided to fly 7,000 miles from my new home in Dubai to my old home in America.
I could have cast an absentee ballot in the American presidential election, of course – the United States Consulate is in the building next to where I live on Sheikh Zayed Road. But I flew back in order to vote in person. I flew back to see for myself what it would be like when Americans choose a new president after what’s arguably been the longest political campaign anywhere in modern times, one that started nearly two years ago. I did not fly back to make a political statement, even though I believe that in an election – any election – every vote counts, and I often wish that more Americans shared that belief and turned up at the polling booths.
I flew back just to be able to say, “I was there when it happened.”
Happen it will. Barack Hussein Obama most certainly will be elected the 44th president of the United States today, if the polls are right. That would make him America’s first president from Chicago. It would make him the fourth youngest man to become America’s chief executive, after Theodore Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton. And it would make him the first black man to reach the White House.
A black man in the White House? It is hard to imagine, let alone believe. Like Obama and his generation, I am young enough to be an active participant in the velocity of change of today’s world, the change brought about by globalization. This change has engendered a freer flow of ideas, capital, goods and services, and of capital, across increasingly porous borders. In such a world, the color of one’s skin counts less than the caliber of one’s mind; it matters less than the capacity of one’s professional abilities. Dubai and the United Arab Emirates bear ample testimony to that – which is why, perhaps even more than America, they are truly a crossroads of the emerging New World.
But, also like Barack Obama and his generation, I am also old enough to have known about the racial and cultural biases that long stained the American system. I do not mean to cavil: I am, after all, a beneficiary of what America has to offer – an open educational system, and a professional system predicated on meritocracy. It offers limitless opportunities for men and women with ambition, aspiration, and awareness that for those who dare and care, every social community and professional constituency in the United States welcomes the willingness of those who want to serve in the public interest. I am old enough to know that while capitalism may have fallen on hard times lately on account of the greed of a few, the pursuit of entrepreneurial gain has rarely been regarded as a malevolent exercise. Such enterprise in the public interest is common ground for the US and the UAE.
Still, the historical biases regarding race and culture linger in America. It’s not polite to acknowledge their existence, I suppose, let alone opine that presidential elections can be influenced by Neanderthal attitudes. That’s why it will be interesting to see what the voting figures will show once the balloting is analyzed. Will the black vote go overwhelmingly for Obama? Of course it will. And the white vote? It surely will have to, at least in substantial measure, if Obama is to be elected president. And the vote of the newly enfranchised immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa? Obama should be naturally their candidate, is it not?
And what if the Democrat fails to win against Republican John McCain, an otherwise honorable man whose running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska has injected not-so-subtle racist nuances into her campaign? Not going to happen. I, for one, like to think that, with this extraordinary election, America has finally overcome the burden of its highly charged racial past.
I like to think that Americans will have finally exorcized the ghosts of that past – that they will see in Obama not a man with a foreign-sounding name but as a man who, like countless others, was born and grew up in America, and who benefited from the best opportunities that the American system had to offer to everybody, and not only to the brightest and most privileged.
My enthusiasm and excitement for the election notwithstanding, that past was very much on my mind as I walked this morning to a school house next to my apartment building in Brooklyn. How could it not be? They say the past is prologue – and the future of America, demographically at least, will be that of a society even more diverse, even more multiracial and multiethnic than it is today.
The voting center that had been set up reflected America’s contemporary cultural diversity: white and black and brown volunteers from my neighborhood cheerfully but crisply supervised the crowds. It was just past dawn, but already the lines of voters almost snaked around the block. I was astonished. I had never seen such a turnout in my long years in America, covering elections as a journalist and voting in them, too. Were such scenes being replicated across this land of 300 million people? Were we all being inexorably pulled into the vortex of history?
“What do you think? Of course this is history,” said Kimble Warren, a courtly African-American neighbor and a retired court official, who stood patiently in line. “Can you recall any such day?”
In the event, it took more than an hour by the time we got to the desk where our names had been registered in a large book. Each voter was given a card for a booth.
It was one of two booths that had been set up. In it, a machine listed, side by side, the names of presidential nominees of both parties, along with those of local Congressional and other candidates. I pushed a lever in the direction of the candidates I preferred. When I’d completed the entire slate, I pulled a big red lever: it registered my full vote.
And that was that. I had come home to vote. I was seven-thousand miles from Dubai, after an 18-hour flight aboard Emirates Airline’s new double-decker A-380 – which included a four-hour delay in Dubai on account of a technical glitch, but a delay that was made bearable by a cordial airline staff that smoothly managed to mollify irritable passengers at the brand new Terminal Three.
Would my vote matter in the presidential election? Well, New York State is supposedly safe for Barack Obama. But my vote counted for me, for my own personal history. It was a bright sunny day in the city, the crowds at the voting center were clamoring to vote and they radiated hope. I was 7,000 miles from my new home in Dubai, I had cast my ballot for the candidate of my choice in the land of my old home, and now I await tomorrow.
What will that tomorrow be like? I know that tomorrow will be packed with hope and freighted with soaring spirits. What a wonderful message America is sending to the world. And I can say, “I was there when it happened.”
As I walked out of the voting center, my mobile phone rang. A voice said, “Look behind you.”
It was my 28-year-old son, Jaidev, who lives in his own apartment some distance from mine. He was waiting in line to vote. I hadn’t informed him that I would be flying to America for the election; I was going to surprise him with a celebratory dinner tonight. Now he, too, can say, “I was there when it happened.”