Life as a bootleg smuggler in Iran

2 mins read

By Fredrik Fahlman

Alcohol has been illegal in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Consumption however remains high, and there is no shortage of supply. Quite the contrary: In an economy struck hard by renewed sanctions, widespread unemployment and costly foreign military operations, some see no choice but to start smuggling.

It’s Christmas Eve and I find myself in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province on the border of Northern Iraq. Having been briefly controlled by Kurdish-Marxist separatists in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, the city is renowned for being secular. Most women wear headscarves only because they are forced to by law, and lose them as soon they enter a home. While the people I meet are reluctant to discuss these topics at public cafes there were not many kind words about the government when talking in private.

An Islamic Republic only by name, alcohol drinking in Iran is in some cities as destigmatized as in Europe. Measured in pure ethanol Iranians annually consume more than eighty million litres, forcing the government to open an alcoholism rehabilitation center in Tehran in 2013. Iranian media reports suggest that there are over two hundred thousand alcoholics in the country.

In Sanandaj I meet Daryush, a friendly Kurd I encounter at a cafe who kindly invites me to stay with him, and his supplier Amir. Amir is a man in his thirties and used to alter between small jobs and unemployment before accompanying his older brother into the smuggling business. He arrives at Daryush’s apartment within minutes of a quick phone call.

They exchange the three customary cheek-kisses and light a cigarette each. For a person facing lashes, jail time and even execution if arrested by authorities, Amir is surprisingly open about his job.

– I’ve been doing this for two years now. My brother did for much longer. The police hassled him a lot. Three times he could bribe his way out, but not the fourth time. He got sentenced to six months in jail.

He tells me how his brother started to withdraw from smuggling, as a second arrest would result in several lashes and likely years in prison. Although rare, a third time could land him a capital punishment: In 2012, after two prior offenses (the second being 160 lashes), two men were sentenced to death in Iran’s northeastern city of Mashhad. And that was only for consumption.

Even though I knew before that illegal drinking was widespread, I am astonished at how readily available alcohol is. Daryush tells me he that he has more than ten contacts who could drive booze out to him at any given time. “Never in my life have I had any problems with it”, he says.

Amir opens his trunk and reveals his goods. It’s a decent mix, ranging from Turkish-brand beers to American high-end whiskey. He tells us that he could not bring too much this time, but that there is a lot more to choose from at his place. That didn’t matter. We settle for two bottles of a Russian vodka brand I’ve never heard of.

I reached for my wallet to pay, but before I even could ask how much it was Daryush orders me to put it back. My objections are futile. “No problem, you’re a guest here” is a phrase I’ve heard more times than I wanted to in this country. The Middle East has a strong culture of hospitality.

Daryush pays by credit card. To me it seems strange, paying for contraband with such easily-tracked measures; not to mention the fact that Amir had even bothered obtaining a card reader. But they don’t understand my puzzlement at all. “This is how I do business,” Amir says with a grin on his face, while Daryush puts the receipt in his pocket.

Amir has to leave soon after. It’s Wednesday night, start of the Islamic weekend that Iran adheres to, and he has more customers to attend. Before leaving, I ask him what he thinks of the future of Iranian alcohol policies. He does not think that it will get better anytime soon, and admits that he is actually making good money. “Honestly I’m not sure if I want it to become legal,” he says while laughing. “This is the only job I have and it’s going well.”

The names have been changed for confidentiality.

Illustration: Edwin Hallkvist

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