Qayyarah, Iraq—On the cold concrete floor of a makeshift tent in Qayyarah refugee camp in northern Iraq, Azzi elegantly balances a slim Gauloise cigarette between the middle and index fingers of her left hand.
“I used to sell these cigarettes,” the 69-year-old grandmother of 28 says, smiling mischievously. “I did it right underneath ISIS’s nose.”
Almost three years ago, Azzi’s home city of Tel Abta, a city strategically poised between Mosul and Raqqa, fell to the Islamic State, prompting a radical shift in daily life for its residents, who were pressured to pledge allegiance to the terrorist group or risk death. If they chose not to convert, their survival depended on adhering to strict new laws—such as pants trimmed just above the ankle for men, and veils and gloves that completely covered the faces and hands of women.
Smoking cigarettes—one of Azzi’s most beloved social activities—was strictly forbidden. “They would raid our houses, looking for these,” she says, picking up a small metal ashtray with a few smoldering cigarette butts, playfully flicking it with her fingers so that the embers danced. “We had to spray perfumes to mask the smell if we left the house.”
While smoking cigarettes is technically permitted under Islam, the Islamic State categorizes smoking as “slow suicide”—thus banning the smoking of all cigarettes, water pipes, and cannabis as part of its extreme interpretation of the religion. Naturally, a black-market cigarette trade flourished—both as an act of rebellion and a coping mechanism for life under the Islamic State.
“So, I sold and smoked the cigarettes just to spite them,” Azzi continues, taking long, victorious drags of her cigarette as she speaks. While dozens of citizens living under ISIS control in Mosul and the surrounding areas are running similar illicit operations fueled by cigarette smugglers coming in from Syria, the punishment if one is caught either smoking or selling cigarettes is extreme, and sometimes deadly. A man can face a punishment of anything from 40 lashes to torture or beheading, depending on luck alone. A younger woman can be thrown into a ditch and publicly stoned, sometimes until death, for smoking or for any other behavior considered improper.
The first time Azzi was caught, she had to pay a fine of 500,000 Iraqi dinars—the equivalent of almost $450. The second time she was caught, ISIS police stormed her house, arresting—and later torturing—her eldest son.