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Credit: Murtaja Lateef
Souk al-Shorja, Baghdad’s oldest market, summer 2023.

During a brief visit to Iraq in the heat of summer 2023, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared, “The era of global boiling has indeed begun.” It was an assertion that no Baghdadi would dispute. In the Iraqi capital, summers extend over seven months, characterized by a hot, arid climate with intense sunlight and temperatures that can exceed 50°C (122°F). The weather is not just a backdrop for the city’s inhabitants. It is a fundamental aspect of their existence, a matter of concern, attention, occupation, and idleness that affects the entire organization of social life and lead to the politicization of their situation.


In Baghdad, spring has almost disappeared, taking with it the characteristic sense of gentleness. The inhabitants only have a few weeks’ respite between winter and the dreaded summer. Before they’ve really had a chance to enjoy the fine weather, the heat engulfs the town and suffering sets in. Mohammed, a friend in his 30s who has never left the capital, explains why he hates this period so much: “Everything becomes more complicated. When you go out, you quickly feel very hot; by 9 a.m., you’re already sweating profusely. You can’t enjoy anything. You can’t take a leisurely stroll, take your time.”

The discomfort felt by Mohammed is common to all inhabitants. High temperatures affect, first, the body. The organism tires to deploy thermoregulatory mechanisms to combat the aggressive heat. Bodies drip sweat, clothes soak up and stick. The mixture of perspiration, pollution, and city dust forms an unpleasant layer on the skin, making people feel permanently dirty and smelly. At the same time, they have the impression of suffocating. This sensation of lack of air is caused by the acceleration of breathing, as the organism, entirely focused on maintaining a normal body temperature, consumes more energy to carry out this vital action. When it is overwhelmed, heat-related pathologies emerge. Every year, hundreds of Baghdad residents—especially the most vulnerable such as pregnant women, the elderly, young children, and people with chronic illnesses—suffer from headaches, dizziness, malaise, swollen and painful legs, cramps, dehydration, and sunstroke, which can even lead to death.

In these conditions of physical fatigue, people have to make extra effort to carry out everyday activities. The outside turns into an inhospitable zone, as Mohammed points out, and it is difficult to move around the city during the day or have to stand in the sun. With few green spaces, dense concrete urbanization, and high levels of air pollution, Baghdad boasts dozens of heat islands. Even inside the home, heat is inescapable, as most building materials offer poor insulation.

The sleep deficit accumulated over the course of disturbed nights and the fatigue caused by the heat during the day reduce people’s ability to concentrate and therefore be productive. Mustafa, another friend from the capital in his early 20s, can’t stand the state he’s in during the summer: “I just want to lie down and do nothing. Like everyone else, I’m exhausted even before starting the day.” As he emphasizes, the heat imposes a slower pace, which is perceived by many inhabitants as a waste of time. Their daily lives are already saturated with social obligations, and the Iraqi context forces them to multiply activities in order to survive or open up prospects for the future. To keep going through the summer, they have to redouble courage.

Social relations are also affected. Everyone lacks patience. You need to get straight to the point and not get lost in endless dithering. Mohammed, who prefers to laugh about it, describes with amusement the atmosphere in the city during the summer: “Communication becomes very difficult. Everyone’s stressed, and arguments can start in an instant. Especially on the road, you see drivers shouting at each other over nothing.” The expression harra ouffny (literally “leave me alone, it’s too hot”) perfectly sums up the mood of the population.

Makeshift Solutions

The dissolution of the seasonal cycle disturbs the organism and the rhythms of life, but Baghdadians will tell you that they have gotten used to a summer of suffering. Everyone has found ways to remedy the weather-related problems that affect them. Through a variety of makeshift solutions, they have learned to live with the heat, in order to reestablish at least some continuity in their everyday activities.

Cooling systems are becoming an essential household accessory. Just a few years ago, ceiling fans and simple air coolers (moubarridah) were sufficient to make rooms comfortable, but today, high temperatures render them ineffective, as the former just blows hot air and the latter just replaces cool air with warm vapor. As Mohammed indicates, “Now, families will do everything to install split air conditioners [siplette].” These air-to-air heat pumps are more energy-efficient than water cooling systems. A thriving market has developed, offering entry-level units for around US$150, but the price remains too high for most modest households. Without access to this new device, people stick to air coolers and must endure associated inconveniences: after months of inactivity, the device emits a moldy smell and a burst of humidity “that sticks you to the chair,” as Mohammed remembers.

The refrigerator is another essential element of domestic life. Exposed to heat, everything degrades rapidly. Therefore, people place food, medicines, creams, makeup, and cigarettes inside it. But perhaps most importantly, the appliance ensures access to cold water. During hot periods, everyone remains vigilant about staying hydrated. Air-conditioning and refrigerators make the heat bearable, making them both literal and symbolic representations of comfort—so much so that future fathers-in-law make a point of ensuring their presence in the home of a future son-in-law.

In addition to this equipment, people will take multiple showers to temporarily lower their body temperature and get rid of the layer of sweat and dust that forms on the skin each time they go out. But in a country where the public water supply system regularly malfunctions, even this ordinary practice is troubled by high temperatures. To cope with intermittent supplies, people store water in rooftop tanks. Under the blazing sun, these tanks turn into natural kettles, pouring out scalding water. Showers are therefore only possible when the network distributes cold water. Or, depending on the layout of the home, the water from the tank can be mixed with the water from the boiler, which remains cool since it never needs to be switched on at this time.

Outside, it’s harder to protect yourself from the heat. Shopkeepers are the first to be affected. In stores, some have installed water coolers, while others use fans, sometimes cleverly fitted with wet cloth. Sidewalk and roadside vendors, meanwhile, have set up umbrellas, and in the busiest streets, and it’s not uncommon to see makeshift misting systems.

Credit: Murtaja Lateef
Al-Sinak Street, summer 2023.

At the sun’s zenith, it is almost unbearable to move around. Inhabitants have little room for adaptation: they change the time of activities that can be moved and/or opt for less-tiring means of transport. Each trip is subject to a valuation between the distance to be covered and the importance of the journey to optimize outings and keep energy costs to a minimum. For example, shopping trips or visits to loved ones tend to be made early in the morning or at the end of the day. The same applies to all those who carry out physical work outdoors, such as construction workers who operate at night. Walking is exhausting. In the hottest hours, some sidewalks are deserted. Those who used to get around on foot have to make do with the few bus routes, tuk-tuk or cabs, even if this puts a strain on the budgets of the more modest families.

The car remains the preferred means of transport for the majority of the population. Air-conditioning, an option that everyone pursues, makes journeys more bearable, but only if people opt for recent models. Otherwise, as the hours pass in traffic jams, the air conditioner, with a mocking gesture, starts blowing hot air, reminding drivers that any respite is only short-lived. At the same time, everyone must be careful not to park their cars in direct sunlight without protection. If they do, the cabin turns into an oven, the steering wheel and seats into a brazier, and the integrated touch screens are prone to malfunction.

Credit: Mustafa
Dashboard of Mustafa’s car (55°C/131°F), summer 2023.

All these adjustments are sometimes not enough to make the heat tolerable every day. In many cases, people unwillingly choose to restrict their movements to those that are necessary, especially for work. High temperatures force people to stay at home, withdrawing them from the city and generally limiting interaction. Mustafa deplores the fact that, at this time of year, he sees fewer of his friends and plays less soccer. The state itself seems overwhelmed by the problem and chooses to immobilize the inhabitants. When temperatures rise above 50°C, the government grants public holidays.

Lastly, to limit disturbances, people’s daily lives are punctuated by gestures to preserve, maintain, or repair anything that the heat might affect. Maintaining a form of continuity also calls for anticipation and preparation. Before summer arrives, many people carry out maintenance on air conditioners and cars; they check that their various accessories—fans, protective covers, anything that can provide shade—are ready or otherwise purchase new ones. At the end of every season, damaged things are repaired for the following year, such as the tar joints on the roofs, which regularly melt under the sun’s rays.


As Mohammed explains to me, commenting on the day’s weather often serves as an introduction to conversations. But, very quickly, complaining about the heat leads to criticism of the government and the political class. Even if the population manages to put up with the long summer months by dint of bricolage, they consider these solutions unsatisfactory and not sustainable in the long term. They give an extension to the troubles they encounter. Residents link the city’s habitability to the American occupation, the war that accompanied it, and the destruction it wrought. They also associate it with the inability of successive governments to reestablish continuity of services, blaming state corruption, the control of certain sectors by militia organizations, and Iranian interference. For them, global warming and how it affects them points to a political problem of governance and management.

Summer reveals the fragility of infrastructure. During this time, the failure of the water, electricity, and traffic networks is even more acute for Baghdad residents. While waiting for the overall situation to improve, outsourced intermediate solutions have developed. All year, electricity is distributed intermittently. But in the summer, when consumption rises sharply with the use of air-conditioning, the electricity network is even less able to cover the demand of the city’s nearly 8 million inhabitants. In addition, the network’s poor condition leads to numerous short-circuits and fires, which take several days to repair.

So, to restore continuous access, a parallel electrical generator supply business has emerged. Neighborhoods are now equipped with dozens of them, and all homes are connected to them, as a combination of the public network and private generators is the only solution available. But this collective response to the intermittency problem represents a significant cost in household budgets. Generator owners obtain fuel from the state at a preferential rate, but still charge users an exorbitant amount for electricity—up to $15 per ampere in the summer, when most families need at least five amperes per month to operate an air conditioner and other electronic devices. So monthly bills can reach $100, which means that the most modest people have to find other places to cut their household expenses, such as with care or food costs. Unfortunately, there is no way to negotiate lower electricity prices. As Mustafa explains to me, the electricity trade is not exempt from the control of the militias, who often seek to take advantage of the failure of the state to impose their pretensions of neighborhood administration and make money. Moreover, they make a point of preserving their monopoly by prohibiting all forms of competition. For example, one of Mustafa’s friends had to give up the idea of setting up in the market after one of them threatened to blow up his house.

Numerous studies by academics, local and international nongovernmental organizations, and UN agencies are proposing wide-ranging projects to rehabilitate the city, reduce the heat, and make daily life more livable for its inhabitants, but they face various implementation problems. Only a few compensatory initiatives manage to be carried out. For example, several Iraqi NGOs run tree-planting programs in the city in order to provide a little relief from the heat. However, as the relevant authorities do not set up any monitoring system for these actions in public spaces, particularly for watering the plants, the initiatives remain confined to specific areas, usually schools or collectively managed sites. The new government has also tried to address heat issues with new public infrastructure. For example, not long ago, numerous checkpoints, concrete walls, and barriers were removed and several roads reopened and rebuilt in an attempt to ease traffic flow. But these limited efforts do not address the “real” problems facing most Iraqis. Mohammed perfectly sums up the feeling shared by many: “They’ve put up streetlamps and electric festoons everywhere in the posh districts! That’s great, but will the outages stop where I live? Hell, no!”

While waiting for better alternatives and genuine government initiatives, residents of Baghdad have no choice but to continue relying on their modest makeshift solutions. Yet their efforts to mitigate heat-related troubles often blow back on them. By solving certain temporary problems, they also contribute to maintaining them and creating new ones. Dense circulation, air-conditioning, electric generators, water pumps, and other appliances produce heat and constant noise and olfactory pollution, making the situation even more harmful for residents.

Certainly, money can buy comfort, but always through individual stopgaps, and for now, without leverage to reshape the city and collectively improve the situation. The demands for the right to a dignified life voiced by the Tishreen revolution were violently repressed and did not lead to the changes the protestors had hoped for. However, collective mobilization is not without consequences. It undeniably raises the threat of future recidivism on the political class, which can only be avoided if it succeeds in liberating the daily lives of its inhabitants from the constraints that congest them.


Juliette Duclos-Valois

Juliette Duclos-Valois holds a PhD in anthropology from EHESS (Paris), where she is currently a postdoctoral researcher as part of the ANR IMAGIN-E project. She is also affiliated with the CETOBaC and CéSor research centers. Her research focuses on (im)mobility, the everyday, habitability and uncertainty in contexts of conflict and climatic stress. She has been conducting research in Iraq for ten years.

Cite as

Duclos-Valois, Juliette. 2024. “Under the Baghdad Sun.” Anthropology News website, February 7, 2024.