He was the only man I saw when we entered the nearly empty village in northern Iraq, which had just recently been liberated from the Islamic State. The first thing he did when he approached our car was ask my colleague for a light. That’s when I noticed the pack of cigarettes sticking out of Mohamed Ahmed Saleh’s shirt pocket.
Just over a week after the terror group was flushed out of his hometown, Mr. Saleh was making a visual statement. He wanted people to know that he’s a smoker, a crime that until recently would have earned him 20 lashes.
Mr. Saleh is a cow herder living in Badoosh, a district of gently rolling hills 15 miles northwest of Mosul. He launched into a diatribe about the Islamic State, which had imposed its ultrastrict version of Islam on his village during the almost three years it occupied the area. Among his many complaints was that the group had criminalized one of his daily pleasures: smoking.
I’m no fan of smoking and avoid bars because I can’t stand the smell of secondhand smoke, but it was obvious that smoking for this man equaled freedom.
Mr. Saleh described the lengths he had taken to find cigarettes under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the thrill it had given him to break its rules.
Akhtamar Classic, he said, was the only brand smuggled into territory controlled by ISIS. A pack used to cost 750 dinars, or 63 cents. Under the militants, it spiked to 20,000 dinars, or $17. He said he couldn’t afford $17. So he and four trusted friends pooled money to buy one pack of 20 cigarettes. He showed me how he would break each slim cigarette into three pieces to make them last longer.
Mr. Saleh said he and his buddies used to go out into the fields with their cows and smoke, covering their faces like this to reduce the smoke.
Then they would brush their teeth and spritz one another with perfume before heading back. One time at a checkpoint, he said, an Islamic State guard stuck his head through the window of their car and sniffed them.
The day the Islamic State was forced out of the area, he said, he chain-smoked four packs. Now he proudly keeps a pack with him at all times.
“I just like to walk around holding it in my hand because I can,” he said, showing off how he now holds his cigarette between his fingers.
In the next house we visited, a young man walked in with a carton of the same brand of cigarettes.
He, too, described pooling money with four or five friends to afford the cigarettes during the occupation. One carton like this used to cost more than $100, which he said was approximately the monthly pay of an Islamic State fighter.
During my day in the area, I interviewed six people who said they had smoked in defiance of the ban. The young man with the carton told me that he smoked because he was addicted, but that it was also his own form of resistance.