Iraq: The Alcohol Smugglers
Kurds deliver contraband liquor to Iran
BY Karzan Sherabayani
August 20, 2007
A native of Kirkuk, Karzan Sherabayani went to live in Italy in 1980, where he created his own Kurdish theater company. He learned film and television production at Tele Europa and trained to become an actor. In 1992, Sherabayani moved to England. After living in exile for 25 years, he returned to Kirkuk three times in 2005. From these visits, he produced and directed the feature-length documentary Return to Kirkuk about his experiences. So far this year, he has produced three documentaries, including "Wrongful Death," "Forced Repatriation," and this story about alcohol smuggling.
With Iraq mired in a chaotic civil war, those who can get out are doing so. According to the latest United Nations figures, 50,000 Iraqis a month are now leaving their country. Those who remain try to survive any way they can, like the resourceful Kurdish smugglers in this week's Rough Cut.
Our regular reporter Karzan Sherabayani returned to Iraqi Kurdistan early this year to bring us another story of how life is deteriorating in his homeland. On this trip, he traveled to the mountains along the Iraq-Iran border, where a fruitful, albeit illicit, trade is thriving.
If you recall, Sherabayani is a Kurdish exile living in Britain. In previous reports for us he revealed the escalating violence on the streets of Kirkuk after spending a day with the city's beleaguered police chief; and reported on what's at stake economically for the Kurds, as they sit on some of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Sherabayani is an actor turned documentary filmmaker and his former profession has given him an easygoing charm on camera that lets him push aside formality and quickly get to the heart of what is ailing his fellow Kurds.
In the opening scene we see a trail of horses wending its way through the Kurdish mountains during a fierce snowstorm. The animals are loaded with boxes of alcohol destined for Iran. Sherabayani reports that more than $2.5 million worth of liquor a day is transported this way in a smuggling operation run almost exclusively by enterprising Kurds on both sides of the border. Trade has been going on this way for centuries, Sherabayani says, but today's payload has a distinctly modern ring. Bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label, Absolut vodka, French cognac and Italian wine rattle their way hourly into the Islamic Republic, where alcohol has been banned since the Islamic Revolution nearly three decades ago.
And smuggling is no easy job. "They [the Iranian border guards] started shooting at me," one young Iranian Kurd tells Sherabayani (many of the smugglers are still in their teens). "I tried to escape, but ended up stepping on a landmine. Both my horses were killed, and I was badly injured."
When Sherabayani arrives at the makeshift trading camp, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, he is told that the previous night 16 horses were killed while making the crossing into Iran. Even smugglers who are too poor to buy a horse and must walk the two hours to the border can earn $10 a trip. That's a lot for a marginalized Kurd living in Iran, we're told. It's also about the cost of two beers at any of the clandestine drinking clubs across Tehran, where young, elite Iranians gather to embrace a Western lifestyle condemned by their government. With 60 percent of Iran's population under the age of 35, it's no surprise there's such a lucrative trade in illegal alcohol and other frowned upon imports, such as Western pop music and designer fashion labels.
When Sherabayani asks one young Kurd, bundled up against the cold, who he thinks is consuming all this alcohol, he replies, "Everyone drinks it. They all love it. Even the Mullahs," he says, to the amusement of his fellow smugglers. "They're the first."
So much for probity, let alone prohibition.
-- Jackie Bennion
All Iranians have suffered through the Islamic Repulic, their laws. The Kurds are not suffereing because they are Kurds, they are suffering because they are seen as Iranians under the Islamic Republic, this means everyone must abide by "their" Islamic Laws. If it's possible for the Kurds to separate themselves from the country, to escape from suffering like everyone else in Iran, heck I would want it too! I'm with you, but if we all stick together (as humans), and get rid of this tyranny that's hurting us all, one way or another, it will be better for all of us.
Dr. Mani - Toronto, Canada
Although the Kurds are part of the Indo-Iranian family tree, this can not deny them their right of freedom and self-determination. Over 2500 years of Persian empire and Islamic-Shia tyrannies there was not even one single Kurdish government member or minister allowed to be part of the political system! If you open your eyes properly and make your mind free of stupidity, Kurdistan exists with over half a million square kilometer area with a population of 60 million. No matter whether we like it or not, Kurds have a right of their own government -- either in one great Kurdistan or as a federal state as part of their neighboring countries. But the goal for Middle Easterners should be a kind of a Middle East Union in which all the citizens are equal and there is no artificial border existing. The same as EU. It will come one day for sure.
What surprised me most about the story was the fact that this was taking place at all. Most people, myself included, probably thought that there was no alcohol at all anywhere in the Middle East. The region has a reputation for being a strictly religious place, so to find out that alcohol is so widely available in Iraq was a surprise. What was also a new fact to me was the magnitude of the trade. This wasn't just a few guys going back and forward across the border, this was a full-blown retail operation complete with camps, designated routes, and horses. One report estimates that roughly 200 horses cross the border on any given night (Ahmed). There are also other contraband items traded along these same routes such as cigarettes, banned in the Islamic Republic as well. When you consider the youth of the population, and the desire to participate in the Western lifestyle, this is a trade is most likely not going to dye down anytime soon.
Sad that guys can't get a real job but smuggel this poison to a country which does not accept it. On the other hand i feel sorry that thay try to poisen a country wich are fine without alcohol
Charlie - Chantilly, VA
I found it very interesting that a country and a religion that do not allow alcohol, seem to be turning a blind eye to these smugglers. How else can you explain the market and thus the incentive of the Kurds to conduct this smuggling. The fact that the Kurds are doing this does not surprise me, since they don't recognize the borders and laws of Iran or Iraq. At least they are doing something to support themselves and their families. Maybe it's not legal, but then again that's relative considering that there seem to be high ranking officials in Iran who are involved. I was also amazed at the volume of alcohol being carried, as well as the profits.
I don't understand why Iran would make drinking illegal because the government could make a lot of money off of it.
I was amazed to find out that such smuggling was going on for such a long time and that clearly since it was such a lucrative business the people over in Iran who are forbidden to consume alcohol were clearly doing it anyways. Otherwise there would be no business in the smuggling of alcohol. The men risk their lives to smuggle the alcohol but see very little profit from the endevour, at least from my perspective, as receiving 10 dollars does not seem like a lot, but for them it may be worth the risk, or simply they have no other choice and this is their only way of survival. I was also amazed to see the selection of alcohol that was available to them, it seemed like they had pretty much everything you could want. Also hearing about the risks involved and how some of the men had been shot or even stepped on land mines while escaping it clearly is a dangerous path, but like most of them said, this is the only way for them to survive.
It is surprising to know that about $2.5 million worth of alcohol is smuggled to Iran every day. I think this is an exaggerated figure. Where does all this alcohol go? It is unbelievable that a county can consume all this alcohol every day. However, I think that if the Kurds are allowed to have their own county, they will be busy improving their country and stop smuggling alcohol through the Iranian boarders.
I think the Kurds are making a way of living according with their conditions. Nobody is in the position to criticize them even when they are doing something illegal. I'm not promote or support illegal activities but this is something that is common around the world, especially in countries with double moral like Iran when shows one face to the world but internally is something else.Iran is definitely going to suffer a huge change in couple years when the new young generation takes over, sooner or later they are going to win this battle.
S.K. - South Riding, Virginia
This gives us a glimpse into extreme situations where money is over matter. These men earn only $10 a day but it may go a long way
for them. I was surprised to know that the smuggling of alcohol has been going on for a century. In an Islamic country, the consumption of anything
alcoholic is forbidden even if it is a mere ingredient in a food, it is still prohibited. Not only is it interesting to see how the alcohol gets to the Iran border but it would have been interesting to also see how it gets to the stores and distributors inside Iran. That must be just as dangerous.
Laura D'Angelo - Reston, VA
Worldwide, Black markets for goods and services flourish as demand and supply increase. In areas of undeveloped commerce and few means of making a livelihood the prospects are lucrative for smugglers. Ten dollars for a run into Iraq isn't much to us but for such a repressed area it's
all relative as this is big money for
these Kurds. Possibly, it's also a muted form of warfare as corrupting and
incapacitiating enemies even through alcohol weakens the country from the inside. (Ex: Russian males functioning hampered severely by alcoholism.)It is an affront to the Muslim religions and forbidden
market demands provide another
way to weaken governing policies
based on Muslim religion. The development of the Kurdish peoples' economy is the only possible way to empower themselves to become strong enough to unitedly develop and sustain their own country.
- Fairfax, VA
This story doesn't tell how much someone makes doing legal work in Iran so it isn't fair to say that doing something else would be mre beneficial to them. I feel that looking at the amount of alcohol being smuggled in is probably true that the Iranian government takes their fair share of enjoying this illegal trade whether they admit to it or not. You have to think with that much of a demand if they didn't smuggle, the businessmen of the trade would find someone else to do it.
Falls Church, Virginia
It is tragic and mind-boggling to me that these young Kurdish men have no other means of survival than to risk life and limb to smuggle alcohol into an Islamic state that forbids alcohol use (with the apparent exception of the ruling elite.) What hypocrisy!
Interesting video. As someone who has friends from Iran, I knew a little bit about the smuggling. But I had no idea these Kurdish smugglers were risking their lives for so little money. Yet Mr. Sherabayani asserts that more than $2.5 million worth of liquor is being smuggled into Iran every day. So who is making the bulk of the profit from this trade? In other words, how about a longer piece perhaps contrasting the lives of the smugglers with that of the lives of the individuals controlling the operation?
Silver Spring, MD
Although this article does not provide much of valuable information about political or environmental concerns like the first article, it does a good job of depicting the differences of liquor laws between Iran and Iraq, which are both Islamic countries. Before reading this article, I did not think that consuming alcohol is considered illegal in both of these countries. In fact, I have never thought liquors are being disallowed for adults in any countries in the world. I am only aware of underage drinking prevention policies. Moreover, I also learnt from the article that the Kurdish smugglers have done this type of job for centuries. In my opinion, it is rational for the Kurds to take this opportunity to earn their livings. Wherever there is a prohibition of goods or service, the money for running these types of business is always lucrative. As a result, many Kurdish young men are willing to risk their lives to earn a decent living. Some of them just simply do not have options to choose. I believe the focal point of this article is the sarcastic actuality that not only regular Iranians like alcohol but the Mullahs also drink liquors. They are not just ordinary consumers; in fact, they are the first group using liquors in Iran.
This came as no surprise to me. With all of the chaos that is going on in Iraq I understand why people want to get out. I also understand the Alcohol smugglers; these are the people who can't leave because they don't have the money or the resources to do so and this the best job that they can get. These situations are happening here in America as well. The people who can't get legit jobs find other alternatives to make
- Leesburg, VA
I was shocked when I saw this report. I didn't realize that the alcohol black market was so bad and in such high demand. The article gave me a good inside to what it was like to have to establish and run and participate in an illegal operation as this one. I did not know that even though both Iran and Iraq were Muslim countries, Iran is a dry country and Iraq is not. Even though it is illegal, I don't think that I can judge it in a negative eye. America smuggled alcohol as well. How can we sit back and criticize a country for doing something that we did ourselves, even though it was not of the magnanimous manner as Iraq and Iran are.
This story is not that surprising because smuggling is done all over the world. If the demand for something is high enough someone will figure out a way to get that need supplied. However, this does not mean I agree with such activities. These people are in so much economic despair that they are willing to risk there lives for $10 a day. Just like in any big business the little people at the bottom only get a crumb and the big people at the top do little and reap all the benefits.
I have heard of the Kurds before and of the suffering that they endured under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. I have even seen footage about the atrocities committed against them using chemical weapons. This was the first opportunity that I have had to see the life of a Kurd. Granted, not all Kurds live the same way, but it gave me a small piece of insight into the life of the Kurdish men in this region. Many people are quick to judge those who make their living on the black market, but those people have probably never been in a situation that required them to take risks in order to survive or feed a family. I feel for the families of the men that are imprisoned, injured, or killed carrying the smuggled goods into Iran. It is a shame that these men are actually shot at over hypocritical laws, while many in Iran consume the goods, carefree.
The smuggling of alcohol from Iraq to Iran and the serious consequences that the smugglers sometimes pay are news to me. I was unaware that alcohol is permitted in Iraq while it is forbidden in Iran, despite the fact that both of these countries are Muslim. Although this operation is illegal and involves alcohol, which is a sin even in some religions found in the United States, I cannot say that I disapprove of it. The fact that this operation is the only job that some Kurdish men can get makes it vital to them. I cannot imagine what the injured man who was interviewed would do without his smuggling job; he said he has a wife and two kids to sustain. If smuggling alcohol is what keeps a poor person and his family alive, then I cannot condemn this illicit operation. At least the Kurds are not smuggling guns or other weapons that could aid in the violence already inflicted towards many of Iran's citizens.
This is a dated, but interesting story. The continued consumption of alcohol as well as the satellite dishes on virtually every home in Tehran, Iran, shows that while the Islamic government sets policy, the Iranian people find a way to survive. In addition, the price for the alcohol at the camp was relatively inexpensive, likely meaning that it was smuggled into Iraq without paying duties leaving Europe or entering Iraq. I found it interesting that the smuggling was done both as pack trains of horses as well as on foot by individuals. I would have expected this type of undertaking to be more organized and controlled by a mafia like structure. The report would also have benefited from some discussion of the security measures taken by the smugglers and the sellers to avoid Iranian and Iraqi interference.
I think these people should continue doing what they are doing. There are more serious matters simultaneously occurring involving suppression of human rights, free speech and others in Iran for example, and people are discussing the legality of this liquor smuggling? Nonsense.
(anonymous) - "There is no difference between Lors and Kurds and others. Why the Kurds always think they are different?"
Are you comparing a population of 3 million Lors to a population of over 50 million Kurds. Are you a fool? And Azad, You call the Kurds a Persian tribe that should go back to Iran. And your name is KURDISH!
- Reston, VA
I have always known the situation in Iran and Iraq is tenuous. That is why we see so many Iranian and Iraqis immigrants in North American alone. When I hear they risk their lives all for $10.00 it makes me laugh at the fact that I have relatives living in middle class North America who get mad because we don't show our love by sending them gifts. I should send this article to them instead!!!!
Although I do not encourage illegal activity, I understand people must do what they can to survive. At least they are not a big country trying to sale weapons to kill others.
This reporter is brave to follow those who get shot and killed while trying to make this rough journey. I did not know that alcohol had been banned in Islamic areas and that there was such a large business in smuggling alcohol. Prohibition never works and always brings a black market and death. Goods like alcohol and marijuana should be legal to all residents of all countries. I also did not know that so many people are leaving these areas. Fifty thousand is a large number of people to be leaving an area and it should send a message to those in power.
Matt Tisdale - Reston, VA
I think any sort of prohibition is silly and doomed for failure in the long run. Making liquor illegal is not going to make the people wanting it want it any less; they are just going to pay a higher price for it. And in this situation with the Kurds, who Iranians hate are turning a profit. So in essence they are making a way of life for their enemy and wasting resources trying to stop the flow of illegal liquors across the already disregarded borders. My opinion is they become forward looking and see that the people who want to drink, are going to. You are not preserving the virtues of any of Iranian Muslims with this law. Make it legal like all other modern countries, impose a drinking age and tax it, but maybe that's just the American way of thinking.
This is a shameful situation. The Kurds in Iraq and Iran are caught between a rock and a hard place. They can either stay economically depressed in their respective countries and go against their beliefs or they can stay strict in their beliefs and not engage in this sort of commerce. I also wonder why some (especially the Iranian Kurds) do this for so little profit? Also, any country involved in this region has to look at their roles in economic sanctions, occupations, etc. to see why there is all this smuggling. The Iranian and Iraqi governments have had help over the years in the economic depression of their countries.
I am not surprised that there is smuggling occurring in parts of the world, although I was surprised to learn that alcohol was the item in this case. I did not realize that alcohol had been banned in Islam. I also learned about the discrimination that exists between the Kurds and the Persians. This has caused unfair conditions for the Kurds, forcing them to do whatever it is that they can in order to provide for their families. I was also shocked that one would be paid only $10 for their efforts! You would think that one's life would be worth more than that.
I do not think that it is because of the oppression of the government that these Kurds choose to illegally smuggle alcohol across the Iranian government, although they do face some oppression from their government. I think that like any other country, or like America during prohibition, illegal smuggling is going to happen whenever people cannot freely buy what they want. It seems to me that even though this dangerous business might be illegal, it is also very profitable for the ones willing to deliver the alcohol. I think that to blame the government for making them sell illegal alcohol to survive, is not right. I am not saying that these people would not live oppressed lives if they did not sell alcohol, because I honestly do not know what type of "oppression" they face. However, though, I believe that the government did not force them to do anything illegal. I think that the pay of the illegal act they so willingly perform is enough in their minds to risk dying. Like in any country running illegal things is very dangerous but the payoffs are larger than any other job they could be working. I think that while the government might not have forced them into selling illegal alcohol, the alcohol runners are not going to stop now. In their minds the profit is good and they need to smuggle alcohol in order for them and their families to survive.
anonymous - not listing, not listing
You've got to do what you have to do to survive and support your family. It may seem wrong but think about what you would do in their situation.
I am amazed by the comments of Muhammad and Azad. These people don't have jobs in Iran, they are Kurds. Most of employment in Iran is government jobs, if you are not a Shiaa Muslim, it would be hard to find a job. These people are doing it [smuggling alcohol] to survive and feed their families. The world accepts the independence of East Timor and Kosovo, each with less than 2 million people, yet 40 million Kurds have no right to have a place call it home? The countries in which Kurds reside, they have tried to use everythings in their power to eliminate or eradicate Kurdish identity.
This shows the contradiction between what people claim to believe and what actually they do. Although we all know that alcohol is a poison, but if you are denied the right to poison yourself you'd rather do it! Of course the smugglers do not think they are doing something wrong! Their motivation is to survive. But I think it's a business for the people at the top of what is going on. The others are only tools to make wealth for the top layer.
Lance Thomas - Charlotte, NC
The Kurds, as an apparently disrespected minority in their homeland, are only doing what those with the least to lose seem to do all over the world. They take what others see as big risks in return for big profits (or at least big relative to their ready alternatives) by providing all those "black market" goods and services that their neighbors demand, but which they are prohibited from using their hard-earned money to buy legally. Such markets are forced upon every nation in the world by their rulers - typically for silly, naive, self-serving or illogical reasons. The items prohibited vary from nation to nation. But, ALL the nations on earth seem to forbid something which is highly desired by some (or even all) and which was once allowed - at least since the early 20th century this has been true.
In Iran there are many different tribes and ethnics, Lor, Kord, Baluch etc. Should every one of them have their own country? Lorestan as a country? There is no difference between Lors and Kurds and others. Why the Kurds always think they are different?
I am sure this is not the ONLY way they can make money, but for them it is EASY money. They don't want to produce anything, the village economy, rural economy is difficult to keep, agriculture is difficult, but smuggling is easy. That's why they do it. They do not try to organize themselves to make a good business based on production, as the reporter says, this has been going on for centuries in that area. Smuggling is easy, thinking, organizing, and producing and living a nice life is difficult.
Scott - Allen, Texas
I don't understand why these men risk their lives every day of the year to make such little profit. They say it's their only means of survival, but is there no other legal profession in Iraq that they could pursue? If they are just smuggling alcohol in because of tradition or because the people of Iran cannot legally have it, then it is, I'm sorry to say, their own fault if one of them is shot on the Iranian border. I would like to see Iran liberated as Iraq has been, but until that time these brave but foolish men are risking their own peril. But if it is truly their only option at making money, I completely support what they are doing, though alcohol is not a necessity.
Azad - Toronro, canada
The Kurds don't want to join any country or any government...They just want to create a crises to obtain a country of Kurdistan, which has NEVER existed anywhere geographicalyy, except a fantasy in their minds. The Kurds are merely a Persian tribe and they should go to Iran and be satisfied there. End of subject.
muhamad butt - oklahoma city, ok
The Kurds do have rights in Iran, however as usual they pursue activities that are not beneficial to either side. They should try to help their own people rather than using them and feeding them the big lie of "Kurdistan."