I always have the best of intentions when it comes to more regular blog posting, but somehow weeks swiftly pass by while I am attending to daily mundanities and the keyboard is left, barely touched. So once again, apologies for the absence.
Since much has been going on locally I am at loss on where to start, but let me first account a few of the 'crises' with immediate effect on day-to-day activities of Iraqis.
The weather has been a bit extreme these last two weeks with Baghdad recently experiencing -2 Celsius degrees (that's 28 Fahrenheit, I think) which is at least 6 degrees lower than December averages of the last few years. We actually had hail a few nights ago which is a rarity over here. The abrupt change in temperature coincided, much to our misfortune, with a severe nation-wide fuel shortage (probably the worst since April 2003) and significantly decreased electricity hours.
Last week we had a total blackout lasting two days, before that we used to get 6 hours of 'scheduled' electricity, meaning one and a half hours of power for every four without. At the moment, it has slightly improved to two hours for every four totalling 8 hours a day with recent promises from the Minister of Electricity to increase the electricity hours to 12 per day very soon as a New Year gift for Iraqis. Jolly! The same minister who, just three weeks ago, advised Iraqi citizens, with a straight face, to go buy electric generators instead of relying on his ministry.
Purchasing a generator is fine advice if an Iraqi family has not already done so, but apparently they would also need an extra amount of petrol in order to supply at least a few hours of light during the darker hours of day, as only a fool (zawj or
ghasheem) would use the generator during the day under the circumstances. In this case, the good minister refers us to the Minister of Oil (if he is not abroad) since these extra details are entirely out of the realm of his expertise and jurisdiction.
The Oil Minister simply dismisses the matter altogether and flatly denies any kind of fuel shortage with a surprised "What are you talking about?" look on his face, claiming that the ministry continues to provide the stations daily and has enough reserves for the entire country but that the irregular power supply to oil refineries sometimes causes delays which brings us back to the minister of electricity again. And so, a vicious cycle of blame shifting has become characteristic of most governmental officials. Well, that and the endless shuttle trips abroad.
But to be fair, that has improved as well. Now you can get your 30 litres of gasoline (not one drop over 30 is allowed) in just 3 hours, as opposed to 6-12 hours just two weeks ago with queues at petrol stations extending for miles. This was a result of mobilising National Guards to control the stations instead of the police. They started by enforcing the odd number/even number registration plates schedule (one day for vehicles with odd numbers and the next for those with even numbers).
The black market, on the other hand, continues to prosper. At one point the police were brought in to control the chaos at the stations, they inevitably ended up selling black market fuel from their police car trunks in no time. A 3-5 thousand Dinars bribe to the guard in charge of the station gates would some times earn you a favourable position in the queue or even to skip it, of course that is if you have the nerve to refuel your vehicle while pretending not to hear the colourful curses hurled at you from the direction of people that have been waiting for hours in the queue. Usually it's best done by avoiding eye contact and leaving hurriedly, as one smug look at the wrong person can get you quite hurt.
Another clever yet lowly trick is to send a female family member to fill up the tank, since women have a seperate, much shorter queue line. This used to work even if there was no queue for women, as your typical unsuspecting and chivalrous Iraqi male would gladly offer his front position for a lady. This method didn't last long though and nowadays women are allowed to refuel only if the car is actually registered to a woman.
It is also not uncommon to trade your position in the queue with someone far behind for an appropriate price which gets higher the closer you are to the station. This has become a profitable business for a few, and an effortless one for that. After all, you can find all the services you can imagine at the queue, tea stands, cigarettes, soda drinks, tasty Felafel and boiled egg sandwiches, hot chick peas, beans or turnips, beer (at certain hidden locations), even people renting out pillows and blankets in case you need to spend the night waiting in the queue.
The Oil Ministry proposed distributing large fuel tankers to several areas of Baghdad as a temporary measure to alleviate the crisis but since the suggestion is a bit risky it hasn't been implemented yet. A more long term solution would be to open up at least ten new stations in the capital and I doubt the ministry lacks the ability to achieve this because I have witnessed a dozen new stations on the road from Baghdad to Basrah over the last 10 months, most of which are left unused.
Liquid gas and kerosene have also been rare. Iraqis use an awful lot of kerosene during the colder seasons for their heaters. The most popular kind is the Aladdin (Alaa' Al-Din) heater originally introduced to Iraq by the British during the first half of the last century, also used as a stove for cooking. Its irresistable appeal to Iraqis is that the kettle and teapot can be kept on it for hours and hours, thus you can have tea or hot water any time of the day. As a rule, any heater that can't be used to brew tea with is not really a heater. Incidentally, my grandmother was complaining the other day because the new kerosene heater we brought for her wasn't designed for a kettle to be placed on.
The thing I dread most these days is washing my face or shaving in the morning. Tap water is freezing cold because of the short electricity hours. Water heaters over here are usually electric but a few have heaters that run on gas or kerosene. As a result, you have to fight with other family members in order to take a bath since everyone in the house seems to want one after the 2 hours of electricity while the water is still hot. Or you can devise a schedule since every little thing is scheduled these days. A small fun fact by the way, Iraqis call the water heater a geezer which is derived from geyser.
Both of our telephone lines have been dead for weeks but this is a local problem in our neighbourhood, probably as a result of rain or a roadside bomb or something of the sort. One of the lines mysteriously started operating again some days ago but then it went dead. Somehow even the promise of a handsome bribe hasn't succeeded in encouraging phone operators to come and fix the problem, usually just the scent of money is enough to bring the right people to pave your street if you feel like it. It isn't really a good sign when an outright bribe doesn't work.
I'm back to using Internet cafes since the phone isn't working, so sorry if I am behind in responding to emails.
As to the mobile phone network, specifically that of Baghdad, horrible doesn't even start to describe it. The service is totally unavailable during the day and only seems to work after midnight. All you get is 'network busy', 'unknown error', 'weak signal', 'service unavailable' and things like that. Most of the time if you are trying to call someone your voice just echoes back to you. Of course there is an array of other problems with the service but Orascom should at least ensure that subscribers can effectively call each other.
A mobile phone is extremely invaluable because it is the only way you can locate a family member if there is trouble somewhere in the capital. Nabil's school is very far from our neighbourhood and if he runs late for some unpredictable reason we can be reassured about his safety by calling him, the same for others. A few days ago I was holed up till dark at my old college because of roadblocks following an attack on an American patrol. I couldn't call home because there was no signal the whole time I was there. When I returned home I found them crazy with fright.
The Kuwaiti MTC Atheer network in southern Iraq is much more reliable, even though I saw many people in Basrah complaining of the service as usual. MTC recently announced that they would soon be available in Baghdad, in fact MTC subscribers in the south can already use their service while in Baghdad whereas Orascom/Iraqna subscribers can't make use of the service outside the capital. I haven't heard anything in regard to the northern network but it looks like it's going smoothly.
Nokia phones are the most popular in Baghdad, especially the 6600 model. Iraqis have already nicknamed it dabdoob (fat) because of its peculiar size and shape. The classic, cheap 1100 model is called taabuga (brick) because of its durability. Some people claim they have ran over it in cars, dropped it from the roof, or attempted to smash it with a hammer and yet it still worked.
At first, I predicted that phone cameras would cause a firestorm as it did in other Arab countries (phone cameras are illegal in Saudi Arabia) but there was nothing of the sort. They are, however, prohibited in governmental departments for security reasons.
A one minute local call costs 12 cents while costs for international calls are higher and vary depending on the country you are calling. Prepaid cards are valid for 40 days after which you would have to refill your subscription in order to use the phone. If you fail to refill for a certain number of days your account would be cancelled and you would have to buy another SIM card.
'Phonejacking' is not an uncommon practice these days. Similar to carjacking, a criminal would force you to give up your prized phone at gunpoint.
More 'crises' soon.