A picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, a few extra words make a picture so much more special.
There’s no doubt that the world has become a dangerous place for the aspiring urban photographer. Government campaigns all over the world have encouraged populations to look at photographers with a degree of skepticism. Could this person holding the big camera be a terrorist?
Despite government assurances of our right of expression (even Saudi Arabia allows public photography), all it takes for that right to be revoked is a well-meaning, but overly-scared citizen. Sadly, this is the world we now live in. And it is a lesson all photographers learn, one way or the other.
It was the summer of 2008 and I was in Saudi Arabia, visiting my parents after a particularly tough school year in the United States. It felt strange to be walking around the familiar streets of home again.
But this time, something was different. I had taken up photography as a hobby earlier that year, and already I knew that I had a passion for it. And it was this passion that prompted me, one fateful day, to carry my photography equipment up to my old university campus, to take some night shots of the unique architecture to be found there.
I spent hours walking around the King Fahd University campus, taking shots of the buildings among which I spent 4 years of my undergrad life. Not for a minute did I consider that my actions were wrong. Nor did I realize that I was being watched.
Perhaps it was the jogger passing by as I was setting up my tripod. Or maybe it was that car that slowly drove past. As I waited for a particularly long exposure shot to complete noise correction, I suddenly found myself not so alone.
Several university security officers were walking towards me. They had apparently made a coordinated effort to approach me from all possible exit points. This looked intense. And for some reason, the first thought that came to me was: ‘I must save my pictures’. With only seconds to go before they reached me, I quickly swapped out my memory card in the camera; and gingerly slid the one containing hours worth of shots into my pocket.
As the first officer reached me, I slowly turned to him.
“Good Evening Officer!”, I said cheerfully, in an American accent.
The man was obviously taken aback. He didn’t expect an American terrorist, surely. He stared at me, judging for himself where I might be from, as I made a mental decision not to even act like I might understand his Arabic. For tonight, I would be Abdullah Mohiuddin, the bungling American tourist from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Who are you?”, he asked in Arabic. I wasn’t going to reply.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand”
“Oh… English?”, he said in a heavily Saudi accent.
“Yes”, I replied, “Is everything alright? I hope I wasn’t doing anything wrong”
The officer just stared at me. He obviously didn’t understand English.
In the meantime, several other officers had arrived. They started talking amongst each other in Arabic. I suppressed any form of recognition of what they were saying. “Is that a camera?”, “Tell him that’s illegal here”, “How? He’s English”.
Finally one of them stepped forward again. And started talking to me in broken English.
“Your father…”, he said making a twisting gesture with his hand for ‘where’.
“Oh, my father is at home. He is a teacher at KFUPM”
“You… from?”, he asked, again making that twisting gesture.
“I came from Michigan, United States of America” (Not a lie!)
“Amrika?… No. Where ID?”, obviously my non-white skin failed to impress.
I pulled out my Michigan University ID and gave it to him.
“No. Where you… father.. grandfather?”, he was obviously asking about my origins. He wanted to know weather he could treat me like an Asian that he thought I was.
After being in the US for a year, I had forgotten the overt form of racism Saudi Arabia exhibits. As a Pakistani, I would probably be put in a jail cell overnight and they would discuss my case in the morning. As an a possible American, they wouldn’t dare touch me. I resolved to stand my ground.
“My father’s at home. My grandfather is there too”, I answered him coldly.
A police jeep had now arrived on a road across the courtyard and another officer joined us. This guy was younger, and obviously better educated. As he walked towards me, an officer talked to him about the ‘situation’. And the fact that they couldn’t communicate with me.
“What’s wrong?”, he asked in a slightly accented English.
“I was taking photos of the university and apparently it’s wrong to do that.”
“Are you American, man?”, he said, with a little too much emphasis on the ‘man’.
“Just got here from Michigan”, I offered in response.
I got the distinct impression that this officer was rather impressed by this. Turning to his compatriots, he told them in Arabic to send me to the compound security office rather than get the police involved. Sighing in relief (but trying to not to show I understood the exchange) I packed my camera into its carrying bag.
The rest, as they say, is history. The guy asked me to get into the Jeep he arrived in and we drove off to the King Fahd University security HQ. They had a look through my camera photos (an empty card!) and told me never to do it again. It should be noted that my exact crime here had not yet been explained to me. Was it the taking photos bit, or trespassing?
I was given an Arabic document to sign. But I refused given my lack of understanding of all the legal terminology on the page. For all I knew, it was an admission of guilt for a crime and I knew I was innocent of all laws I was aware of.
Instead, I asked for a blank piece of paper on which I wrote out a statement detailing that I would not walk near that particular part of the university after 10pm. In English. The police ‘chief’ looked it over and unceremoniously dumped it into a filing cabinet.
Free to go, I made for my car and got home after 3am. Still on an adrenaline high from my ordeal, I logged onto my laptop, pulled out my protected memory card, and started downloading the images form the night. One, in particular caught my attention.
A wide angled shot of the KFUPM campus. Made the whole experience worth it.
I’d do it again.
See it BIG
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