In Baghdad, electricity is rare delight

Child: “Mother, mother! Daddy was electrocuted!”Mother: “We have power?” Popular Iraqi joke MCT-It was October, but still too hot to sleep inside, so the eight members of the Faekh family climbed onto the roof of their house for another night of torment. It wasn’t just the nagging fear of a bomb on their road and the thumping passage of U.S. helicopters. It wasn’t just the clatter and exhaust from generators all over the neighborhood. It was impossible to sleep well when they had to keep constant watch on a light by the front gate, a light that wasn’t even on. Then, suddenly, it was. “God bless Prophet Muhammad,” said the mother, Akhbal. She and her teenage daughter, Abeer, leaped up. No matter that it was after 2 a.m. The power was on and so was the race to harness it. They had an hour to wash clothes and iron them so that Akhbal’s husband, Haidar, and the six children could be presentable at work and school. It was the second of two hours of electricity they get each day from the state-run power grid. Four and a half years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it’s never certain when the power will arrive, just that one electrified hour will come in the morning, another at night. U.S. reconstruction officials say that on average, electricity is available 10 hours a day, but Akhbal, a small woman whose face is worn beyond her 48 years, doesn’t know anyone who gets close to that much. Before the war, Baghdadis got 16 to 24 hours of power a day, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. Brookings said that in September they got 7.6. “Six hours even, that would be mercy from God,” Akhbal said. In Baghdad, whether you’re awake or asleep, electricity seeps into nearly every moment of life, because of its absence, its sudden appearance or the noise and smoke as thousands of private generators create it. There’s almost nowhere in the city to escape that rattling chorus. The noise underpins most conversations, conversations that often are about electricity. “They give more to the neighborhoods with trouble because they think everyone will go inside and watch TV,” one rumor goes. “No, they give them less for punishment,” comes the reply. City blocks often have two or three small operators running generators that power dozens of homes and shops for a few hours a day. Tangles of hundreds of multi-colored wires from the generators to customers are lashed haphazardly to every available pole and sometimes even trees: an electrician’s nightmare. Some homeowners can afford their own generators, often $100 Chinese models that last only a season or so and add a higher-pitched note to the neighborhood clatter. Most, though, live like the Faekhs, squeezing their budgets by doing things such as eating less meat so that they can buy a trickle of power _ 5 amperes _ from a neighborhood generator for a few hours a day, and waiting for state power before they can use larger appliances. Then there’s the $5 they spend each day to buy ice for drinks. As Akhbal and Abeer rose in the darkness to pounce on the washing and ironing, up and down the street their neighbors were alerted by their own signal lights or small, plug-in bells sold for the purpose. They leapt out of beds in gardens and on rooftops and dashed to appliances, washing clothes, ironing and baking bread. (c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.