Taking all conditions into account, the Weather Channel calculated that the peak day in Baghdad this summer felt like 159 degrees.
BAGHDAD — At noon, the light bouncing off the hot concrete seems to bleach everything, like an overexposed photograph. Standing for more than a minute in the sun sets off a full-body sweat.
Even after sunset, as the temperature coasts down from 122 degrees to perhaps 108, Baghdad’s heat can seem like a living thing. It clings to every contour of the body, squeezing tight.
Iraq has been hot even by its own standards. Taking all conditions into account, the Weather Channel calculated that the peak day in Baghdad this summer felt like 159 degrees. It was a data point most likely of little use to outsiders unable to imagine even 122 degrees, and of little comfort to Iraqis living in it.
They have taken to the streets all around the country, protesting in central squares and blaming government corruption for the chronic electricity shortages that shut down air coolers and fans all but a few hours a day. In Samawa, south of Baghdad, protesters surrounded the governor’s house Sunday evening and demanded that he resign.
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Perhaps recalling that Iraqis have overthrown two governments in midsummer — in 1958 and 1968 — Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned that without quick fixes the government will face “revolutionary sentiments.”
Iraqis refer to this month as “blazing August” — it rhymes in Arabic, “ab al-lahab” — and they spend it doing as little as possible. Much of what they do do is find ways to cool down.
On and around Rasheed Street in central Baghdad on Saturday afternoon, the few who ventured out on foot stuck to shaded sidewalks under the pillared arcades of weathered Ottoman buildings.
People darted onto the white-hot street only to dodge obstacles, like a stuck donkey cart, a line of shoppers waiting to buy 4-foot-long blocks of ice, or a fully clothed man taking a shower rigged up outside a cellphone shop belonging to Ziad Abdelhalim. He had set it up as an act of charity but also as a lure for customers.
“Clients pass by just to use it,” said Abdelhalim, 42, wet from dunking his own head in the stream.
He said it was especially popular during Ramadan, which fell in June and July this year. The holy month’s daily fast prohibits the observant from drinking water all day, but not from splashing in it.
“We have two rivers — lots of water,” he said, gesturing toward the Tigris, a couple of blocks away, and the Euphrates farther west.
In fact, the rivers that made Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization are threatened by drought and upstream water disputes. Yet water bills are so low that the cost is negligible for Iraqis, who in times like these often resort to taking three or four showers a day.
That is, if they are lucky. If their pipes and water tanks are in the sun, then their tap water is, as one Iraqi put it, “a mixture of hot and boiling hot.”
Not far from Abdelhalim’s shower, a merchant took industrial-size rods of ice from a freezer and sawed them to order. Some customers planned to put them in their water tanks to make showers bearable. Others said they would use the ice for drinks, or simply sit around a big block of it, the way they huddle in winter by kerosene heaters.
A few doors down, water spattered on the sidewalk. A little girl in a pink tank top, shorts and glittering gold sandals was pouring it from a tin cup onto her chest. Then she slumped lazily against her father, Haytham Qahtan.
He sat at a small wooden table outside a food shop and stroked her arm, which glistened with sweat. On offer was traditional food that Iraqis eat even in summer: boiled sheep’s heads on enormous platters of rice, with hot tea.
Qahtan, 36, makes a living driving a motorized rickshaw, its open cab only partly shaded. Recently, he said, he got stuck in a traffic jam, boiling in the sun, only to have his vehicle break down. He ended up having to pay a traffic ticket worth more than his day’s wages.
The money is critical. He pays $100 a month for generator power when the state grid is down, which lately is all but five or six hours a day. Not all Iraqis can treat themselves to a generator, and most of those, like Qahtan, can afford enough electricity to sustain only one simple air cooler or fan. Real air-conditioning is out of the question. And because Qahtan has only a small apartment, not a house, his family cannot resort to the centuries-old Iraqi summertime habit of sleeping on the roof.
After weeks of this, he said, he is on edge, chain-smoking and drinking tea to stay calm. Every day, he joked, he drinks 32 cups. But he still finds himself getting enraged at his family for small things — like the day before, when his daughter, Malak, 6, flipped on one too many switches for the generator to handle. The power went out, the repairman had to be called, and Qahtan blew up.
“I lost my mind,” he said.
The heat, of course, is not new to Iraqis. In the Iraqi novel “The Palm Tree and the Neighbors,” one character declares that his countrymen have no fear of hell because “we are so used to it.”
What is relatively new is the modernization and war that in a couple of generations have turned a city of low houses and brick-walled gardens into an expanse of concrete-block apartments and concrete blast walls, requiring artificial cooling from an unreliable electrical grid.
Overhead on Rasheed Street, spiderwebs of spaghettilike wires testified to decades of electrical improvisation. Long rickety from years of sanctions and mismanagement, the power grid was gutted after the United States invaded in 2003 and failed to prevent the looting of infrastructure. Insurgent attacks, which have not stopped since, continue to do damage.
“The invasion took Iraq back 20 or 30 years,” Abdelhalim said, adding that the current government was little better than U.S. occupation.
“This government will not be moved by protests,” he said. “Only by force.”