The blindfolded man was led around the streets in the central Bab al-Toub area of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul by a group of fighters associated with the extremist group known as the Islamic State. He was eventually forced to kneel down in a public area and one of the fighters announced to a small crowd that the man was being punished for possessing cigarettes and a lighter. The man would be flogged, the fighters said, receiving 40 lashes for carrying a packet of cigarettes and 15 for the lighter.
This is now a common scene in Mosul, which has been controlled by the religious extremists since the middle of 2014. Almost as soon as they arrived in the city the Islamic State, or IS, group banned smoking, whether of cigarettes or of the water pipes that are so popular in the Middle East. Most of the larger traders selling cigarettes or smoking paraphernalia in the city were located in the Bursa market and on Corniche Street in central Mosul. They were given two weeks to dispose of their product but many just hid stocks and raised prices to about IQD2,500 per packet (around US$2 – this is expensive by Iraqi standards). After two weeks, the IS group's morality police, or Hisbah, began to look for smokers and cigarette sellers, confiscating stocks and punishing any who held them. The IS group's intelligence task force, or Tahari, also helped to find the “criminals”.
The IS group say they do not like smoking because although the Koran doesn't explicitly ban cigarettes, they consider smoking a form of self-harm and a waste of money.
As a result new rituals have arisen in Mosul around smoking. Locals smoke at home and don't carry cigarettes or lighters anywhere. They might hide one cigarette among other items as they leave the house but that would be it. And they disguise the smell of their smoking with the perfumed oils that can be bought at stores selling religious paraphernalia.
Locals say that they're smoking in different ways too. Many are now rolling their own cigarettes if they can find some tobacco. A lack of proper cigarette papers mean that some smokers are rolling their cigarettes with ordinary writing paper or smoking without filters. Some people have even started using pipes and padding out their hand rolled cigarettes with dry grass or leaves.
The cigarette sellers have also changed their habits. One who wished to be known as Abdul Ghani says that those selling larger quantities of cigarettes are hiding stock in oil tanks coming from Syria. They distribute them very carefully, hiding them in residential neighbourhoods after the sun sets, when the Hisbah patrols leave the streets.
According to Ghani, the most popular brands are the Akhtamar, Miami, Ghamadan, Gitanes, MT and red and yellow Gauloises.
Ghani says that these days he, like many other cigarette sellers in Mosul, only sells to people he knows personally and he doesn’t hide more than ten packets of cigarettes in any one location in order to make sure he gets a reduced penalty if he is caught by the IS' fighters, and so he doesn't lose too much stock.
“Hundreds of people are unemployed in Mosul now and the economic situation here is terrible,” Ghani continues. “I don't see any other option for employment.”
There is one other very interesting aspect to locals' need to smoke. The extent to which locals obey the ban in any particular area is a sign of the respect they accord their rulers in the IS group. For example, after the group was defeated in Baiji, some locals in areas like Qayyarah, around 60km south-west of Mosul, have been flaunting the ban. In these neighbourhoods, smokers see their favourite pastime as a challenge to the IS group; it also underlines the group's slow loss of control here.