Thursday, June 24, 2010

Electricity Revolution

Next to me on the couch is a plastic bag filled with samoon, the eye-shaped Iraqi bread that Umm Muhammad brings every morning—warm and soft. Now it is hardened from sitting in the hot sun all day. There’s a baseball bat resting nearby—put there by Carmen, a foreign correspondent and our housemate, who uses it to smack the flat bread over the front yard wall. On the other side, it lands with a soft thud, momentarily enveloped in a burst of dust. Even though Jadriya is the most exclusive area of Baghdad—it’s where President Jalal Talabani lives—the streets are dirt and littered with trash.

And the electricity is out, again.

From my seat on the living room couch that’s been moved outside, I can’t see the children playing on the street beyond the wall, but I can hear them—their shouts muffled by the constant hum of generators. “Generator city,” our colleague, Hatam, calls Baghdad.

It’s a rarity these days, but as I’m hanging out under the starless sky, three lights—red, yellow, green—begin to glow on the fuse box. That means city power is back. That means it’s OK to fire up the air conditioning. Any sense of excitement is tempered by the inevitable disappointment that will soon follow.

When we arrived in Baghdad almost three weeks ago, we enjoyed city electricity twenty-two hours a day. But as the mercury rises, so do the country’s power shortages. And they’re more than just an annoyance (I spent most of the night sleeping outside in the swinging chair below); they have the potential to wreak havoc with the external hard drives we use for editing. This morning, Kevin spent more than two hours trying to digitize the same fifteen minute clip. “The idea of editing here is a joke,” he tells me—responding to a "great idea" I had a few days ago.

Despite billions of dollars that have been spent to fix the power grid since 2003, officials are making the hard to swallow argument that Iraqis should be patient and wait at least another two years for a solution. Unable to find refuge from the searing summer heat (and often paying for electricity they can never enjoy), Iraqis are hot and pissed off. They're taking to the streets in what have become violent protests in some of the country's larger cities. One demonstrator calls it “an electricity revolution.”

No matter how often I hear this refrain, it bears repeating: Why can’t a country with the world’s third-largest oil reserves keep power plants running and provide basic services? Iraqis are demanding answers from the government–which itself is a source of simmering unrest. How well, they ask, is their democracy really working? Some signs: Riot police hit demonstrators in Nasiriyah with high powered water hoses a couple days ago, and since the election more than three months ago, there’s still no government in place as wrangling continues over who will become prime minister and who will be assigned to other key cabinet positions.

The idea of coming home to escape the problems that exist around you is a foreign concept here. My front yard living room is 117 degrees by 9am. But at least I can power up the generator and get the sluggish fans turning. The majority of Iraqis do not have this option. They can’t afford generators, and there isn’t enough electricity each day to keep meats from thawing and milk from turning sour.

Seven years after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, the words “mission accomplished” are still difficult to utter. A senior official in Iraq’s defense ministry who has close ties to the U.S. told me in an interview yesterday, “Maybe it was better with Saddam. At least then we had power.” Are we really going to leave this country longing for Saddam?

As I’m typing just now, an Iraqi colleague walked up to my desk. “Guess what?” he said laughing. “Now we don’t have water!”

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