Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Summer in Iraq

Summer in Iraq: Worst climate change experience?

Beneath the Heat and Abaya and a Flak Jacket Too

It was August 2004 in Najaf, in southern Iraq.

Off to the west past the edge of town, the desert shimmered like a sea. In the streets, mud brick and cinder block magnified the heat. I was too busy to check the temperature, but at midafternoon, it was likely heading toward 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Like virtually all women in Najaf, a city of Islamic scholarship and a revered Shiite shrine, I was wearing an abaya.

The weighty, two-ply tent of black polyester balanced on the crown of my head and fell to my toes. I gripped it under my chin to keep it closed.

Underneath, I wore long pants, long sleeves, and hijab: a scarf wound snugly around my head and neck. That would have been plenty, but in between the respectable clothes and the abaya, I was also wearing a flak jacket.

My colleagues and I were in Najaf to cover a battle between American occupying troops and Shiite insurgents. For that, the dress code included the high-collared vest, made of thick nylon with heavy, bulletproof chest plates.

We scurried, panting, across open spaces, avoiding gunfire but risking heatstroke.

Already addled, we forgot to beckon passers-by into the shade before launching into interviews.

Beneath the abaya, my clothes were soaked through. My notes, written with the felt tip pen I had absent-mindedly brought instead of a ballpoint, blurred into purple smears.

It was my hardest experience reporting in Iraq’s heat, and it was a function of both climate and conflict. That combination has tortured Iraqis for decades during the long summers, bringing on what many describe as a kind of heat-induced temporary insanity.

A day out in peak Iraqi heat leaves you feeling as if the force of gravity has multiplied and thirsty with a panic akin to suffocation.

But the bigger problem – thanks to chronic power shortages wrought by a series of wars – comes when the home you return to is not much cooler.

That is when, after a few weeks, you start yelling for no apparent reason – at relatives, or animals, or politicians, or God.

I asked Sa’ad al-Izzi, who back in 2004 worked with me for The Boston Globe, and was with me that day in Najaf, to describe this feeling.

Born and raised in Baghdad, Saad gave an example from the rule of Saddam Hussein, before he was deposed by the American invasion in 2003.

“At night, there is always the roof of the house, which the people of Baghdad have retreated to for decades if not centuries – that is, presuming there is a breeze,” Mr. Izzi wrote in an email. “But when there was a still heat, then the Iraqis used to turn up to the sky and shout, ‘Now what — you became his brother?’”

“You” is God and “he” is Mr. Hussein, who started the rationing of power after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf war.

Similar curses have since been leveled at Paul Bremer III, the United States occupation chief, who failed to restore electrical capacity lost to looting as American troops stood by.

And today’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. And his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki.

At recent demonstrations over the power shortages, protesters have made clear that all share a measure of blame for their sweaty misery.

Ask Iraqis to describe the heat, and you get a stock set of similes: Like fire. Like a hairdryer. Like hell.

For people here, it is the proverbial water they swim in; something not described but endured.

But Mr. Izzi waxes descriptive, from the distance of Maryland, where he now lives. He insists, only half joking, that he cannot tolerate the heat even there — because Iraq’s traumatized him.

In Iraq, the moment the power goes off, the house turns into a baking oven, explained Mr. Izzi, who appropriately enough was a refrigerator salesman until 2003, when the abrupt nationwide change of plans diverted him to journalism.

The heat “creeps to you and starts strangling you,” he said. And because the tap water is often scorching hot, a shower may be “out of the question.”

If you do get a shower, you will never get dry,” he continued. “The water on you will just turn to sweat. Some people wipe the tile floor with water to cool it down. But then the water would evaporate, turning the house into a sauna.”

I remember that heat, from the weeks I lived with little power after the American invasion – and that was only until May.

If you are a foreigner, you may also make the amateur mistake of leaving a window open, which only invites a hot wind, and if a sandstorm passes overnight, a coat of dust throughout the room.

But now, it has been more than a decade since foreign journalists established a beachhead here.

Publishers’ money has been spent on air-conditioners and, more crucially, generator subscriptions costly enough to power them even when the grid is down.

The ability to get cool on demand is a commodity – one I share only with the wealthiest or most powerful Iraqis.

(Even they can be listless by August. “The red-hot weather is prohibiting any sensible conversation,” typed Mouwaffak Rubaie, a member of Parliament, as we both kept putting off an interview about complex security matters. It was a text chat, but I could almost hear a sigh.)

I now wear the hijab or abaya only rarely.

Years ago, when foreigners were being hunted by kidnappers, I wore it to blend in (though I doubt anyone in Najaf that day mistook us — heading the wrong way, toward the battle — for normal Iraqis).

Now, with that threat greatly abated – knock on wood – I pin on a tight hijab only for religious settings, or places that are dangerous or uncharted.

But I keep my whole body loosely covered, and might drape a scarf over my head. As people in the region have always known, coverings trap cooling sweat, and slow dehydration, not to mention sunburn.

I am lucky enough to retreat to a high-ceilinged room in an old Baghdadi villa, shared by several news organizations. The patterned tile floors are cool to the touch. Two large air-conditioners roar ferociously, bringing to our office the global, age-old struggle in which men turn them up too high.

So actually, I love the Baghdad evening, like a cozy bath.

When I mentioned that I was heading to write on the terrace, even my A.C.-happy colleague Omar Al-Jawoshy advised, “Yes – it’s lovely.”

And it is. The whitish glare of the sky has softened to a hazy blue.

The birds that come at sunset are lazily swooping around the bougainvillea. The air itself has the pleasant feel of a stone that radiates heat after the sun has faded. It is 115 degrees.

Note: Last week, Iran experienced an effective heat of 70 Celsius, not 50 or 60.




November 2022

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