Umm Abdellah is doing something she hasn’t done in four decades. She’s using a kerosene stove, known in Syria as a “babbor,” to cope with the lack of electricity or gas.
In Syria rocketing fuel prices and shortages make it impossible for poorer citizens to buy fuel to keep themselves warm on winter nights or cook their food. At the same time ongoing power cuts have made many older locals feel they are back in the 1980s.
To get by, many families have fished out their old primus stoves from the basement or attic to use as an alternative source of power.
“The good old days are over,” Umm Abdellah says. “Gas [stoves] are now a luxury for us. Only the rich people can afford it now as its price has become too high.”
Umm Abdellah uses her babbor to cook food, heat water and – occasionally – to keep warm. But the potential drawbacks are serious. “The babbor gives off harmful smoke … potentially toxic gases,” she complains. “Additionally, it could explode unexpectedly as properly distilled paraffin is no longer available,” she says.
For this reason she limits the use of the stove to her home court – the place she thinks an accidental explosion would be least damaging. “There have been stories of people being mutilated by burns caused by stoves exploding. I am always careful when I’m cooking or heating water. I always keep a watchful eye as it’s very dangerous to children.”
She adds that 40 years ago the primus stove was widely used before the introduction of gas in the area of Atareb in the western Aleppo countryside, where she lives. But she warns “the primus stove is difficult to use as the flames often get blocked and the burner needs regular cleaning, causing the flames to be uneven.”
Anyone visiting Atareb would see that primus stoves are now much in demand. Maintenance shops are always busy and people line up to buy one. Prices, which start at 3,000 Syrian pounds ($15), depend on the quality – whether it is made of brass or has just been brass-painted.
Many of the stoves sold have faulty paraffin canisters or paraffin mixed with water, which means that citizens have resorted to using diesel mixed with salt as a successful substitute for botched primus stove canisters.
Abu Mohammad, a doctor in Aleppo, says the most widespread hazard is the harmful gases emitted when diesel or paraffin is burnt. Many people develop respiratory diseases. Other hazards include the high risk of explosion and mutilation due to burning.
However, he adds that the average Syrian’s hands are tied. Power and gas are unavailable. He says, “We blame the temporary government as it was supposed to provide us with natural gas from neighboring countries.”
One shop that sells and fixes babbors is located in the downtown area of Atareb. Most of its clientele belong to the lower and middle classes. The technician who fixes the stoves doesn’t wear any special safety gear. In this business, safety depends on one’s experience and skill. At the onset of winter, five to ten primus stoves are sold each day.
Shop owner Abu Khaled says, “[the use of] primus stoves is common now in Syria after gas became unavailable or, if available, very expensive. It costs 9,000 Syrian pounds ($45) [to buy a gas bottle].”
He adds, “In truth, I never thought I’d go back to maintaining primus stoves … but nothing is out of the question these days. In Syria, we have no power, no gas, no diesel, no nothing.”