Here we are in the first days of 2006. What does the ‘6’ symbolize? How about- 6 hours of no electricity for every one hour of electricity? Or… 6 hours of waiting in line for gasoline that is three times as expensive as it was in 2005? Or an average of six explosions per day near our area alone?
The beginning of the new year isn’t a promising one. Prices seem to have shot up on everything from fuels like kerosene and cooking gas, to tomatoes. A typical conversation with Abu Ammar our local fruit/vegetable vendor goes something like this:
R: “Oh nice lemons today Abu Ammar… give us a kilo.”
Abu A: “They are Syrian. You should see the tomatoes- if you think these are nice, take a look at those.”
R: “Hmmm… they do look good. Two kilos of those. How much will that be?”
Abu A: “That will be 3600 dinars.”
R (feigning shock and awe): “3600 dinars! What? That is almost double what we paid a week ago… why?”
Abu A (feigning sorrow and regret): “Habibti… you know what my supplier has to go through to bring me these vegetables? The cost of gasoline has gone up! I swear on the life of my mother that I’m only profiting 50 dinars per kilo…”
R: “Your mother is dead, isn’t she?”
Abu A: “Yes yes- but you know how valuable the dear woman was to me – may Allah have mercy on her – and on us all! The dogs in the government are going to kill us with these prices…”
R (sighing heavily): “You voted for the dogs last year Abu Ammar…”
Abu A: “Shhh… don’t call them dogs- it’s not proper. Anyway, it’s not their fault- the Americans are making them do it… my Allah curse them and their children…”
R (with eyes rolling) and Abu A (in unison): “… and their children’s children.”
A few days ago, the cousin took me to buy a pack of recordable CDs. The price had gone up a whole dollar, which may seem a pittance to the average American or European, but it must be remembered that many Iraqis make as little as $100 a month and complete families are expected to survive on that.
“B. why has the price of these lousy CDs gone up so much???” I demanded from the shop owner who is also a friend, “Don’t tell me your supplier has also pushed the prices up on you because of the gasoline shortage?” I asked sarcastically. No- supplies cost the same for him- he has not needed to stock up yet. But this is how he explained it: his car takes 60 liters of gasoline. It needs to be refueled every 2-3 days. The official price of gasoline was 50 Iraqi dinars before, so it cost him around 3000 dinars to fill up his car, which was nearly two dollars. Now it costs 9000 Iraqi dinars IF he fills it up at a gas station and not using black market gasoline which will cost him around 15,000 dinars- five times the former price- and this every two to three days. He also has to purchase extra gasoline for the shop generator which needs to be working almost constantly, now that electricity is about four hours daily. “Now how am I supposed to cover that increase in my costs if I don’t sell CDs at a higher price?”
People buy black market gasoline because for many, waiting in line five, six, seven… ten hours isn’t an option. We’ve worked out a sort of agreement amongst 4 or 5 houses in the neighborhood. According to a schedule (which is somewhat complicated and involves license plate numbers, number of children per family, etc.), one of us spends the day filling up the car and then the gasoline is distributed between the four or five involved neighbors.
The process of extracting the gasoline from the car itself once it is back at the house was a rather disgusting and unhealthy one up until nearly a year ago. A hose was inserted into the gasoline tank and one of they unlucky neighbors would suck on it until the first surge of gasoline came flowing out. Now, thanks to both local and Chinese ingenuity, we have miniature gasoline pumps to suck out the gasoline. “The man who invented these,” My cousin once declared emotionally, holding the pump up like a trophy, “deserves a Nobel Prize in… something or another.”
I know for most of the world, highly priced gasoline is a common concern. For Iraqis, it represents how the situation is deteriorating. Gasoline and kerosene were literally cheaper than bottled water prior to the war. It’s incredibly frustrating that while the price of petrol is at a high, one of the worlds leading oil-producing countries isn’t producing enough to cover its own needs.
There is talk of major mismanagement and theft in the Oil Ministry. Chalabi took over several days ago and a friend who works in the ministry says the takeover is a joke. “You know how they used to check our handbags when we first walked into the ministry?” She asked the day after Chalabi crowned himself Oil Emperor, “Now WE check our handbags after we leave the ministry- you know- to see if Chalabi stole anything.”
I guess the Iraqis who thought the US was going to turn Iraq into another America weren’t really far from the mark- we too now enjoy inane leaders, shady elections, a shaky economy, large-scale unemployment and soaring gas prices.
Goodbye 2005- the year of SCIRI, fraudulent elections, secret torture chambers, car bombs, white phosphorous, assassinations, sectarianism and fundamentalism … you will not be missed.
Let us see what 2006 has in store for us.