Thursday, September 15, 2005


Baghdad Summer Days

With summer drawing to a close, I feel I can write about summer in Baghdad with less steam in my words!

Is the world getting warmer as people keep telling us? I don’t know, but Baghdad certainly is! Baghdad summers were always excessively hot. Yet we are told that the second Abbasid Caliph al-Mansoor, who decided on this location for his capital 1240 years ago, chose it for its fair weather!

And yet there may be a grain of truth in this. Baghdad was much smaller. It was built on both sides of the Tigris in a location rich in orchards. Anyone who goes into an orchard in or around the Baghdad region can immediately sense a significant drop in temperature. It has to do with the dry nature of the air. Trees begin to act, through evaporation of moisture from their leaves, like natural air coolers.

This dryness of weather is a blessing. This is why some people in London, Rome or New York can die if the temperature reaches 40 (100 F), while in Baghdad the temperature can exceed 50 (120 F) in the shade… and people go about their normal business (apart from the fact that these people are practically indestructible!!)

We now know that the region of central Iraq, the valley of the two rivers (Mesopotamia) lies in a large depression. The desert is also quite close.

Traditionally, in the days before electricity, people had numerous ways of dealing with the intolerable heat. Noon siesta was one. Passive approach in architecture was another. I still remember thick, amazingly thick, external walls of old Baghdadi buildings, more than 1 meter wide… two walls of brick with more than a half a meter cavity filled with dried mud reinforced by straw, as an insulator; Very few, if any windows on the outside of the house, naturally for privacy but also to reduce heat gain; The rooms in the house face inward towards a small open yard, usually with a tree or two; Before cars, the residential areas did not have wide roads but very narrow alleyways (usually less than 2 meters wide) called ‘darboona’, to maximize the shade for people who walk outside.

In the summer, life after sunset used to be centered around the flat roof. It was sprinkled with water. Earthenware jugs were placed on the perimeter walls and let to sweat and cool their water.

In the sixties, noons in Baghdad were still intolerably hot. People avoided the noon sun. But life usually started to flow again in the afternoon.

The lunar year is about 10 days shorter than the solar one. Ramadan, the holy month of Muslim fasting shifts from year to year. Fortunately, Ramadan and fasting have been taking place in fairer times of the year. I remember times when Ramadan fell in summer months. That was a real test of faith! Even before all this religious revival, I used to be absolutely amazed by the devotion of poor laborers working in the noon sun (construction labor hours were, and still are 8am to 4 pm, with a one-hour break for lunch) in Ramadan, fasting all day at the same time and not drinking one drop of water until sunset!

There were also some jokes about it. One that I still remember had to do with someone who always talked ill about other people. His friends wagered 5 dinars if he could keep his mouth shut for a day. But they arranged for someone wearing a heavy coat to parade before him on purpose on a hot day. The man could not take that and yelled. “I will give you 10 dinars instead if you can see this @#$^&* and manage to keep your mouth shut!”

During the Iraq-Iran war, there were stories about soldiers amusing themselves by frying eggs on the metal work of their tanks and other vehicles!

And of course, I can tell you stories about elevated tempers!! It is perplexing that during these, hard two summers, people’s tempers are much less than those I know!

Breathing can feel like scorching your lungs! Going outside from a cool place may feel like opening an oven.

Water tanks are also kept on the flat rooftops. It can be a real test of endurance to take a shower at noon!

A wicked man once remarked that Iraqis do not have the fear of God in them because they already live in hell!!

I had a heat stroke sometime in 1980’s. I think it was my fault: too much enthusiasm in working on my farm and not enough respect for the summer noon sun! It left my temperature-regulating mechanism faulty so that to date I still suffer from excessive heat! Anyway, when I was ill, I started reading some medical books about it. An article mentioned something interesting. It appears that in some African country (or was it India?) they had a saying: "Only Englishmen and mad dogs go out in the noon sun". Well, I knew for certain that I was not an Englishman!

As elsewhere, to many people progress meant utter disregard to Mother Nature. Now, Baghdad like most other large metropolitans is a jungle of concrete and cars… and very hot indeed!

Sleeping on rooftops has largely been abandoned; too many stray bullets and shrapnel. I know of at least one fatal accident and three serious injuries that resulted from sleeping on the roof. In one of them a man was awoken in the middle of the night by a sting in one of his toes. Half asleep, he assumed that it must have been an insect, and went back to sleep, only to be woken up again by the pain and the wetness of the sheets!

It is rather difficult to convey the constant feeling of heat-exhaustion; the unbelievable amounts of water needed to compensate for all that sweat; the unending feeling of thirst; the anger of waking up in the middle of the night soaking wet; the annoyance of taking a shower before going out, changing into a new set of clothes only to have them soaking and wrinkled before leaving the house; the pain of touching metal with a temperature of 80 C (170 F); the constant feeling of shortness of breath; the agony of waiting for anything even for a few minutes under the noon sun; the agony of having a car break down in that heat; the fury of seeing loved ones red in the face, sweating and in pain, while there was nothing you could do about it.

So, with all those power cuts, you can imagine how happy and grateful all those poor inhabitants of Baghdad feel.

I still hate the summer noon in Baghdad.

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