Iranians want booze, say Iraqi bootleggers

"Even the clerics drink," says one Kurdish militiaman-smuggler.

kurdish smugglers 298 88 (photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
kurdish smugglers 298 88
(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
Atta Muhammad, his mouth muffled by a keffiyeh, offers what in Iraq is an unusual parting gift: "Beer, whiskey?" Muhammad, 36, is a key liquor smuggler in this bootleggers' heaven high up in the Zagros Mountains, a short mule's ride from the Iranian border. And while electricity, culture and women are scarce around here, he has hundreds of cases of liquor in stock. In Iraq, the stuff is frowned upon but is legal, cheap and untaxed. Just a few kilometers down the road in Iran, alcohol is banned and increasingly expensive as Teheran clamps down on anything that it claims detracts from the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has recently banned Western music, but Muhammad and his team of pack mules intend to brave the driving rain, landmines and Iranian border guards to smuggle liquor to Iran, as they do nearly every night. Amstel, Heineken and cheap whiskey are popular in Iran, according to Muhammad, who has been smuggling for the better part of 20 years. Demand has never shrunk. "Even the clerics drink," he said. Alcohol is also the most profitable bootleg item, explained Muhammad and several other booze-brokers interviewed in this half-deserted border town of bootleggers and security agents. A sniper's rifle, an AK-47 and magazine clips droop from the walls of the hut-like artwork. Muhammad, an ethnic Kurd and a Peshmerga, or a Kurdish militiaman, said the weapons are for fighting Ansar al-Islam, an antigovernment Kurdish Islamic terrorist group. A bribe of a few dollars - which he called "tips" - and a clever mule are the best defenses against Iranian border guards, he explained. Some 25 million Kurds, the largest stateless people in the world, are scattered over Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and their common language often facilitates trade. Alcohol is one in a constellation of products traded daily across the border here at Penjeun. Everyday dozens of porters trudge in thick rubber boots over muddy hills to reach Iran. A few logs thrown across a stream lead men carrying anything from people to tea to washing machines illegally over the border. On their way back, they may bring expensive Iranian candies, kerosene, benzene, or more people, said Bakhtyar Dewdil, 24, a college-educated Kurd born in Iran. He earned a degree in chemistry there but couldn't afford to make ends meet. "My wife left me because I could not pay the rent," he said. "The money as a porter is not good, but I am getting out of debt," he explained, guiding a journalist to the Iranian side of the border. Most often the border guards who stop the smugglers are bribed. For a dollar, people and products are most often overlooked. When alcohol is involved, they may shoot the mules and sometimes their riders, as punishment. During the day, liquor smuggler Muhammad sleeps, or sips tea while watching the satellite TV rigged up to the thatched roof of his hut. At night this clump of huts clinging to a mountain becomes a staging ground for Muhammad's men and mules, "sometimes with 10 cases of wine, sometimes with 500," he said. He sells whatever he sends for at least 5 times the cost. "Wine," the local word for both beer and spirits, softens the term. Hard liquor, specifically "Black Jack" whiskey, is the drink of choice for most in Iran, or even those Iranians who cross into Iraq on a day's jaunt through the bootleggers camps, as though on a tour of a wineries in Napa Valley. The thriving black market trade is also an indicator of some Iranian's dissatisfaction with their regime. "Iran is a good country, but we have a very bad government. We have no freedom, no satellite TV, no justice," said Ali Reza Dodelband, 42. Shivering in a jeans-jacket, he stood just feet from the official border crossing, gathering a crew of stout porters to carry about three tons of tea across the border. He would like to move from Iran to Iraq, "then I want [US President George W. Bush] to bomb Iran. Tell Bush he must bomb the -," Dodelband then pantomimes the wrapping of a turban over his combover, referring to Iran's clerics. Meager pay and Dodelband's hate for the regime pushed him to flee his job in the Iranian air force as a helicopter crew chief, he said. Dodelband now takes home a modest $400 a month, only $150 more than he did in the army. The waiting in the biting cold and the risk of arrest are just part of "being my own boss, like in America," he said nudging this reporter. Times have certainly changed. Before the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, the lively cross-border smuggling was the Kurdish lifeline. With economic sanctions on Iraq, and Saddam's sanctions on the Kurds, this border town and a couple of others served as the Kurd's umbilical cord. Fuel, food and basic building materials were all trucked over the border to the isolated Kurdish regions, often through this mountainous border crossing. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Iran also sheltered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fleeing Iraq's chemical gas attacks. Iranian troops even evacuated the wounded from Halabje, and opened the town to foreign film crews to document the chemical gas attacks there in 1988. Back then, the smuggling also existed, observed Muhammad, and "no matter what, it will continue to exist. And we will continue to provide the win. That is the way it is."