Monday, June 23, 2008

Portrait #26: The top dog in Majlis A-Sha'ab

Yesterday I attended the opening for an official event. It was one of those meetings in which all formal rules of Arab protocol were respected. The highest-ranking attendee was "Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab" - the president of the National Parliament, and he seemed like a nice enough guy - an amazing feat considering the aura that surrounded him. Here's how it went down.

I was told to arrive at 9:30 for a 10:00 start, but apparently some people - including members of Parliament - were told to arrive for a 9:30 start. However, the planners all knew that the event would be starting at 10:30. So around 10:00, the room was perhaps 1/3 full, with an assortment of influential women from NGOs, the General Women's Union, and Parliament (the theme of the event had to with gender).

Around 10:20, though, the room started to fill up with dozens and dozens of somewhat less important-looking people. Come 10:30, it was standing-room only, and the loud chatty roomful of people started to quiet down as if on cue.

Exactly at 10:35, the room was completely silent, and in walked a procession of five people who were wearing power suits and didn't seem to know the meaning of a smile. They marched up to a table with five chairs, five microphones, five folders and five cups of water, and sat down. Then a man with the most deep and resonant voice I have ever heard walked up to the podium next to the important-people-table. He gave a quick greeting which introduced the theme of this gathering, then proceeded to thank in extensive prose the Ra'iz Majlis Al-Shaab, who is apparently also both a doctor and an engineer, for his illustrious presence. The man sitting in the centre seat of the table nodded. Then the MC did the same in much briefer form with the four women also at the table.

The MC then called up the important people one-by-one to give opening speeches. He started with the head of the organisation sponsoring the event - in other words, the hostess. Then a woman whose title I have now forgotten. Then the head of the Women's Union. Then the head of a government ministry. Each of these individuals spoke for five minutes, one of which was spent thanking the Ra'iz Majlis Al-Sha'ab for his presence and greeting him respectfully. He nodded each time he was honoured and seemed to be paying attention to the entirety of the open remarks.

Then the MC called up the illustrious man himself. He gave a nice enough speech - I can't remember what it was about (must have been too in awe of his presence to really pay close attention), but he said something about the progress the National Parliament has been making toward greater women's engagement and empowerment. Everyone listened carefully, and the few photographers in the room clicked away on their cameras. Then he too sat down again.

The MC, who is some kind of radio talk show host - with that kind of voice, what else could he be? - then invited everyone to a short break before the actual meetings began.

Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab left pretty much immediately. The head of a government ministry also disappeared. The other three important women stayed around to socialise during the break and seemed prepared to stay for the meeting, too. During the break, I met a woman who works for Parliament, in communications or speechwriting, and she said that she and the rest of the staff would now be leaving, too. Sure enough, when the break was over, all those people who had entered the room at 10:20 were gone, leaving only the keynote speaker and her loyal first two rows of attentive audience - which did include several women members of parliament and other influential women. But apparently the majority of the audience had been the entourage for Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab and they had to go back to work.

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