I am a Middle Eastern cigarette smuggler
By Mark MacKinnon
October 26, 2008
At the Iraqi Kurdistan region-Turkey border -
Saturday, Oct. 25
I left Iraq this morning, crossing into Turkey via
the busy Ibrahim Khalil crossing that is landlocked
Iraqi Kurdistan's main lifeline to the outside
I left Zakho, a dusty border town, and ascended into
the jagged mountains of southeastern Anatolia in a
a white Ford Focus
driven by a gruff man named Kemal. It would cost me
$150, he said, for the four-plus hour drive between
the predominantly from Zakho to Diyarbakir in
With his bald skull, and shiny black shirt tucked
into shiny grey slacks, Kemal looked like an extra
on some Turkish version of the Sopranos. Not Paulie
or Silvio, mind you, but one of those anonymous
thugs they sent out to rough up the guys who
inadvertently picked up the trash on one of Tony's
That's just me stereotyping of course. Or at least
it was until Kemal pulled me aside at the border
crossing and showed me a black garbage bag stuffed
with several cartons of Gauloises cigarettes.
"For you," he told me with a
in his eyes. "Not for driver."
I got the message. If anyone asked, I smoke six
packs a day (despite my asthma) and came to Iraq for
the cut-rate ciggies. Got it.
the question never came
up, and Kemal, the Gauloises and I glided through to
the land of Ataturk. A Kurdish guard on the Iraqi
side, however, did have some queries about my
"Kanada?" he said, eyebrows raised.
"Like Montana?" (For some reason, it's the U.S.
state best known in these parts.)
"No, different country."
"Like Kurdistan and Iraq?" (This gave me pause.
Perhaps we are indeed only semi-autonomous in the
Stephen Harper era. But my patriotism was by now in
"No, like Jordan and Iraq."
The guard furrowed his brow. Canada being an
entirely separate entity didn't quite sound right to
him, but he obviously he didn't want to insult me
either. He offered a compromise.
"Maybe like Kuwait?" he said, referring to the tiny
Gulf state that Saddam Hussein always claimed was a
renegade Iraqi province.
I took the offered olive branch. After all, the
world had driven Saddam out of Kuwait when he
invaded back in 1991. Not a bad precedent to
establish for that inevitable day the Americans come
seeking revenge for the War of 1812 and Celine Dion.
"Like Kuwait," I agreed.
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