I looked down at my finished ballot with relief. After looking up all the crazily-worded initiatives and unknown local politicians I had to pass judgment on for the current election I’d finally finished casting my vote and I was ready to fax it back to the Pinellas County elections office.
This morning I headed out to place my vote. Our bowaab, on his way to report something else in the building, showed me to the Central Telephone Exchange here in Zamalek. It’s on 26th of July street, a big old building behind a wall and an open gate.
When we entered through the gate we stopped at the booth to the left of the main doors to ask where I should go to send a fax. We got the directions: ground floor, on the left. Like an old-fashioned post office the ground floor in this building was actually up a few steps. The large door led into an antechamber that looked very like the American Express office in that old Audrey Hepburn and Carey grant film, “Charade.”
Once the bowaab confirmed we were in the right place he left to take care of the other errand while I stared around the room. Facing me opposite the door was a long marble counter with a glass panel separating customers from workers. Along two walls were numbered telephone booths, each with a tall stool and a heavy old-fashioned pay phone inside. The booths had grey carpeting on the walls with wood paneling above that, topped by a yellow bulb. (It seriously looked just like this.)
The wood paneling was echoed in various decorative touches around the hall, a reminder of a more stylish era. The red non-quite-velvet curtains were faded and dusty but in my mind’s eye I could see what they once were. A framed picture of Hosni Mubarak, also looking as though nobody’d passed a damp cloth over it in a while, hung from above the marble counter, watching the proceedings.
When we arrived ther were three people back behind the counter but only the woman sitting in the very center window appeared to be doing anything. The entire time I was there she was plastered to a phone, carrying on conversations similtaneously with the people approaching her window, her work colleagues sitting at the desk behind her, and the person on the other end of the phone.
Phone Lady asked if I spoke any Arabic, I replied a very small amount. She motioned me to sit in the row of plastic chairs under one of the windows along the side of the room. People came in clutching thick receipt books and were all directed by Phone Lady over to the one row of chairs where I was sitting. Some chose nevertheless to hover in front of the window trying to convince the woman or one of her colleagues to pay attention to them.
Finally I was summoned to the counter. I was never sure whether she was adressing me or the person on the other end of the phone, or more to the point when she asked me a question and then immediately began speaking into the phone again whether I was expected to answer even though she was talking. Eventually we got all the paperwork sorted and my fax went through, hurray! I collected the various receipts she shoved at me under the window in the glass, paid my fee and exited the building feeling moderately triumphant.
Then I realized I’d forgotten to put my voter registration number on the ballot certification form. Just when I thought I’d actually made some progress!
(Update: five minutes after posting this I got an e-mail confirmation from the elections office that my ballot had arrived and will be counted, to my considerable relief!)