An oil lamp is a friend of the family and a companion over the generations. It is not known exactly when the first oil lamp was made, but indications are that ancient Iraqis were the first to think of illuminating their caves by fire.
"Lala" is a colloquial Iraqi name for oil lamps that
first appeared during the 1940s, fell into disuse during the 1950s and 1960s,
then reappeared in force as a result of the recurring electricity crises.
Al-Hajj Abu Muhammad and Al-Hajja Ghaliya Badr talked about evening discussion gatherings by the light of the lala and the gas lamp. The new Iraqi generation also talks about the lala as their constant companion during the second Gulf War, and its prominent position in various corners of the Iraqi home, as if it were reluctant to leave in view of the electrical crises.
Abu Muhammad: I was born in 1939, and from the 1940s on, we had a variety of oil lamps and lalas, and did not have any electricity. Later, they supplied us with gas lanterns. In the beginning, we relied on the lala, and lived that way for 10 or 15 years, after which they installed light bulbs. They installed lampposts and fitted them with light bulbs that they would light up at eight in the evening, or around seven; we didn't have any watches, but it was around sunset that they lit the bulbs.
In our homes we used the lala and the other oil lamps. My father told us when I was still a child that he was going to bring us a gas lantern, that uses spirits. You light the spirits and then start pumping until the gas mantle turns red, then white, as it lights up the house. We would play by this light; we had nowhere else to play. We had fun, as did the visiting neighbors. At night, they would hang the lamp and lala up on the flat roof, and sit there receiving and returning visits from the neighbors.
Khamail: The late-evening conversations would take place by lala-light, between family members and friends?
Abu Muhammad: Yes, we used to place the lalas and sit around, singing and celebrating, and participating in wedding processions; all by the light of the lala.
Khamail: How do you conduct a wedding procession by lala-light?
Abu Muhammad: We would carry the lalas and the gas lanterns up over our heads, while he [the groom] leads his bride and we shout our chants, until we reach their home. After that we would leave. They would serve us food; we would eat, they would go inside, and we would have nothing more to do with them. The bridal couple would go, leaving the bride's and groom's parents and families gathered together with all of the neighbors. Yes, they gathered by the light of the lalas; we had no electricity.
Khamail: Do you remember a particular event that involved the lala?
Abu Muhammad: One day I was passing by the bread-baking oven, where they had placed the lalas. I accidentally hit one with my hand and ended up burning my hand. My father berated me, but I complained that they had misplaced the lala, since it should be hanging by a nail on the wall. He said that they too wanted to sit around its light while they drank their tea. I told him that they already had one for that, and then I ran off to my aunt's house.
Khamail: How many lalas are there in each home?
Abu Muhammad: At least four lalas. The house would consist of an inner courtyard, and a single room in which we all slept. Later, my father built us a second small room that they used for sleeping, while we slept on this side of the house. Everything else was done in the courtyard: cooking, and heating water for the bath.
Just Like Old Times
Khamail: When you used to gather after sunset, around the lala, what were your topics of conversation?
Abu Muhammad: They would talk about old times, saying that they used to belittle and denigrate them, and we would ask: "Who?" They would answer: "The Ottomans. This was during the era of the Ottomans." "What have we got to do with the Ottomans; we're living in these times now: the 1940s. Those times are past."
Khamail: Do you find that events of the 1940s are similar to the events of today? With regard to the electricity cuts?
Abu Muhammad: We didn't know then who to turn to, to ask for electricity, or for other things. We just didn't know. Now we are aware of where to go, to point out that we are without electricity.
Khamail: But our situation today is the same; we are still lighting the lalas the whole day.
Abu Muhammad: It's the same as today; if there's no generator, or the electricity is off, we light the lala or the lamp.
Khamail: That means the situations are similar.
Abu Muhammad: It's exactly the same as it was before. Even our government officials used to be provided with very big gas lanterns, so that they could go home, or to the palace. [Historical Iraqi political figures such as] Nuri al-Said, and others. Salih Jabur, all of them. Even the palace, which they now call the White Palace, was also without electricity. They would hang big lanterns there.
Lighting The Family Tent
From the same generation, Al-Hajja Ghaliya Badr remembers how the lala used to light up the goatskin tents she used to live in during the old days, and how the family used to gather around it.
Ghaliya Badr: In the afternoon we would wipe and clean the lala, and fill it with kerosene and install its wick. We would then walk to the crop field, harvest the crop, and then return home at night. I would then grind flour, after replacing the wick and filling the lala with kerosene. And so on, every time the wick was consumed we would insert a new one. It would then be fine, providing light for the whole home without smoke or anything.
Khamail: How many of you were in the family?
Ghaliya Badr: There was my father and my mother, and more than 20 other people.
Khamail: How many lalas did you have
Ghaliya Badr: Just one. We were Arabs, in one goatskin tent, and we had our domesticated animals.
Khamail: You would light the single lala and sit around it?
Ghaliya Badr: Yes, we would place the lala on a tin sheet. When we finished our dinner and were done, we would then put it out.
Khamail: When you sat around the lala, what did you talk about?
Ghaliya Badr: We would talk about, for example our flour, our dates. Where were we going to get more and what else did we need?
There is another generation that is unfamiliar with the lala of the 1940s, but came to know it during the Iraq-Kuwait war when the electric power stations were bombed.
(Unidentified speaker): We became aware of the lala in 1991 when the Kuwait war was launched by the coalition against Iraq, when electricity was cut off as a result of the power-generating stations being bombed. Lalas at that time cost a few dinars. I remember that an oil lamp which we bought from the Al-Hurriyah area at that time cost around 30 dinars.
But the difference between the lala of 1991 and today's lala [of 2007], is that kerosene was available at that time, and Iraqi families were able to obtain it quite easily, in spite of its price. Now, however, neither kerosene nor money is available.
Khamail: Does that mean that the lala is turned off now?
(speaker): We are obtaining kerosene, but at exorbitant prices. We're told that we get kerosene with our ration cards, but if you go to the fuel station you will find that there is no kerosene. Kerosene is available as a means of neighbors helping each other out. For example, I go to my neighbor and he goes to his neighbor, and so on from one to the next.
Khamail: In the 1990's when you used to sit around the lala at night, what did you talk about, and what topics made the rounds among you, or did you discuss political events of the time?
(speaker): They were topical discussions, each according to its time. Most were political discussions; Iraq was under sanctions, and the leadership at that time did not find a successful way of leading the country to the shore of safety.
Khamail: Nowadays, how do you pass your time with the lala?
(speaker): The family gathers with some of the neighbors and we talk about events of the day. Some of us have line connections to generators, but these are interrupted sometimes due to the shortage of diesel fuel. The children play among themselves, either chess or dominoes; some complete their studying by the light of the lala.
Not Enough Light
One of the bizarre uses of the lala during the past two decades is in the case of health problems that no family members have been able to avoid. Um Saja, for example, has suffered deteriorating eyesight from the light of the lala, as is the case with her children.
Um Saja: Frankly, I'm 54 years old. Since my childhood and during my long life, I have never had to use a lala; we always had electricity, and were comfortable, thank God. But we have now seen the lala; we have returned to the old times; we are backward. The lala, of course, is a problem because its glass flute is very fragile; it is made so that it breaks easily, and I have to buy one every day.
My sons and daughters attend school, and you know that their studying is quite limited; their eyes become tired after only a couple of hours of studying.
Frankly, my worshipping has been reduced, because you know that one does not finish one's work before evening, when one wants to read the Koran. But it is dark, and I cannot read by lala-light, which pains my eyes. The next day we ask about the latest news, because we have no electricity. With a generator, if you pull in 5 amps, at 10 or 12 dinars, how much does it end up costing?
Khamail: When you sit around the lala, what do you talk about?
Um Saja: Our morale is very low, because one likes to move around the house; sometimes you want to go to the kitchen and must take it with you. There are those who are studying, so I have to provide three or four lalas. But as I told you, the glass does not last one day.
History Of The 'Lala'
The Lala came to Iraq during the 1940s, after Iraqis had been using bottles with wicks to light their surroundings. Abu Ghazwan, the owner of a shop that sells lalas, explains:
Abu Ghazwan: The lala came to Iraq in and around the 1940s. Before that, people used bottles into which they inserted wicks. They knew nothing about the lala, and they considered it an item of civilization.
Khamail: Where did you get them? Where did you import them from? Or were they manufactured locally?
Abu Ghazwan: Some are made locally, and some come in through Syria or through Iran. In most cases now, they are coming in through Iran. Locally made ones are readily available.
Khamail: Where are they made? In what kind of factories?
Abu Ghazwan: They are mostly made in factories in the Jamila area; in areas dedicated to their production. They don't require anything complicated. They are essentially made of a simple metal, and need a wick, but it is essential that the glass flute be available.
Khamail: Why have the prices of lalas gone up, in comparison to earlier periods?
Abu Ghazwan: There is no electricity. People have no choice, because they have students who need to study, things to do, and because of the shortage of fuel for the generators.
Khamail: How many lalas do you sell per day?
Abu Ghazwan: Two or three cartons per day.
Khamail: That's a large number. What is the reason?
Abu Ghazwan: People buy them; they break easily since they're not very sturdy. And if things don't break, that means factories have to shut down.
Khamail: What do you see as the difference between the old-time lalas of the 1940s and those of today in 2007?
Abu Ghazwan: They used to be more sturdy. The ones today, as soon as you insert the wick, smoke begins to emerge in large quantities.
Khamail: How are the prices?
Abu Ghazwan: Prices are good -- not expensive -- between 1,500 and a thousand-and-something [dinars, 1,270 = $1]; not extraordinary prices, since they're not solidly made in a way that would justify a higher price.
Khamail: When you pass through Baghdad's streets and alleyways at night, you'll see a subdued light through the windows. This weak light probably indicates that lalas are shining there, burning without recompense to provide others with the hope of an end to an alley that has no end.