How to stay cool without air conditioning: Middle East tips to beat the summer heat

As temperatures across Europe hit record highs, The National's Middle East reporters share tips on how to stay cool

An Iraqi man cool himself off in a spray of water during a sweltering hot day at the Al-Khilani square in central Baghdad, Iraq, 19 July 2022.  Baghdad suffers a heatwave as temperatures rose to more than 50 degrees Celsius, amid an acute shortage of electricity.   EPA / AHMED JALIL
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Europe is sweltering under a heatwave and many are casting around for any way to stay cool in countries not used to the kinds of temperatures more common in the Middle East than England.

Here The National's correspondents from Beirut to Baghdad offer tips on how to stay cool when there's no air conditioning ― given they're used to keeping their cool despite power cuts, fuel shortages and crumbling infrastructure.

Hamza Hendawi: Cairo, 38ºC

Take a cold shower to get your body temperature down, strip down to the bare essentials and lie on your back on a tiled floor close to a window that’s facing away from the sun.

Because it’s often hotter indoors than it is outdoors (without air conditioning, of course), go out to a public park. In Cairo, the hotter it gets the more on edge people are ― tempers fray quickly and heated arguments are common, but it’s too hot for things to get physical very often.

Poor and middle-class Cairenes flock to Nile-side boulevards to get a breeze in the evening. The pavements of most of Cairo’s many Nile bridges are filled with evening strollers and hawkers selling them soft drinks or, strangely, hot black sweet tea.

The parks, few and far between in the city of 20 million people, are thronged by families who take a long picnic in the evenings.

Those with deep pockets escape to the upmarket North Coast where temperatures are typically lower than in Cairo, swimming pools are in abundance in their gated communities and the golden sands and pristine blue waters of the Mediterranean are welcoming.

When stuck in sprawling Cairo in the summer, I go to my city centre country club and sit under a mature tree that offers deep shade, where I can sip an iced coffee or fresh juice.

Erin Clare Brown: Tunis, 39ºC

Boys swimming in the Mediterranean at the Kheireddine Bridge near the northern Tunisian town of La Goulette, about 12 kilometres east of Tunis. AFP

While most European homes do not have the tiled floors or open courtyards that keep many Tunisian homes cool in the summer, there's one thing we do have in common, greenery.

Throughout the Arab world, the country is known as "Tunisia the green", and all those trees help keep you cool in the hot climate.

So rather than hiding inside with the blinds drawn and a fan whirling, take a towel (maybe even a damp towel you stashed in the freezer for a bit), some watermelon and a big bottle of cool water outside and park yourself under a tree in the afternoon.

When temperatures climb above 40ºC, Tunisians head for their other hot-weather refuge, the water.

If you can’t get yourself to a beach, try looking for a nearby pond or creek for a bit of wild swimming to cool you down and keep you refreshed.

Tunisians also take care to keep their pets — and the street cats and dogs that are regular fixtures in every neighbourhood — cool, by putting out water dishes in shady areas of the street for passing pups and kitties to stay hydrated.

Early morning walks with your furry friends will help you both get your exercise before the sweltering heat sets in. If you do have to take your pup out for a break mid-afternoon, dip their paws in water before you go out and stick to the shady side of the street to avoid burns.

Sinan Mahmoud: Baghdad, 48ºC

When Iraq’s sweltering summer comes and temperatures in some places stay above 50ºC for weeks (and there are frequent power failures meaning no AC or fans), cold watermelon is the best friend of Iraqis.

There’s nothing like cold watermelon to beat the scorching heat in a summer without AC.

It's placed in the fridge to let it cool down a little before eating or drinking the juice ― unlike any other fruit, watermelon contains at least 90 per cent water, which makes it ideal to quench your thirst.

With Iraq's extreme temperatures, people get creative to cool off.

Misting fans and showers are set up on pavements in outdoor markets, while street vendors selling ice cream, cold drinks or (of course) watermelon are seen on every corner in the city.

Some Iraqis take a dip in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In some areas, mainly in the south, families place ice blocks in front of fans to blast cool air.

My final piece of advice is to keep ice cream handy.

Nada Homsi: Beirut, 31ºC

Tourists take a selfie in front of Raouche Rock as the sun sets over the Mediterranean in Beirut. AP

Lebanon is struggling to provide any mains power at all and blackouts are common. While old traditional stone buildings can be good for staying cool, in Beirut’s concrete blocks the temperature rises fast.

My advice is to close all the doors to one room and use seveal battery-powered fans ― mine turn on automatically when the electricity cuts out and, if placed strategically, will circulate air around the room.

Then lie down on the tiles, because they stay cool in the hot summer.

We also freeze a watermelon ― it's delicious and will keep you cool. Cut the melon into squares and put them in the freezer overnight (assuming you have the electricity). For extra flavour, pair it with a traditional salty white Akkawi cheese.

The key is to stay hydrated ― I like to make a mint lemonade slushy with crushed ice.

Night time can be tough, but don’t underestimate the value of an open window.

Open all the windows to get the air moving around the house, letting through the occasional cool breeze. The downside, however, is the mosquitos.

James Haines-Young: Abu Dhabi, 40ºC

Pedestrians on Hamdan Street in central Abu Dhabi on a hot and gusty day. Victor Besa / The National

Other than the obvious ― find somewhere with AC and stay there ― in Abu Dhabi you just try to avoid going out too much in the daytime. If you do, move slowly and try to stick to the shade, although it doesn’t really feel as if it makes that much difference.

This week the weather has been OK because although the temperature might be about 40ºC, the humidity is only about 50 per cent.

When the temperature is more than 40ºC and the humidity tops 80 per cent, the only answer is to learn to live indoors.

You dash from building to building when you have to move around and for about three months you just accept the fact that you’ll start perspiring profusely as soon as you step outside.

You simply have to embrace indoor living ― find hobbies you can do inside, join a gym, shop in malls and crank up the AC.

And carry a spare T-shirt in case you do get caught outside and end up arriving looking like you just showered.

Updated: August 05, 2022, 5:08 AM
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