A picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, a few extra words make a picture so much more special.
The previous few posts that I’ve done always seem to level hate towards Saudi cops. As a photographer (a marginally acceptable pastime in Saudi Arabia), run-ins with the police are frequent and seldom pleasant. But every now and then you have an experience that warms your heart. There are good, clear-headed people out there, and this story is about one of them.
It was the April of 2009, and I was in Riyadh to pick up my visa from the Egyptian Embassy for my trip later that month to cover the Egypt’s First Comedy Rumble tour. And I was incredibly bored. I had 4 hours to kill before the consular office opened, and finding something to do in Riyadh’s midday on a Saturday is an experience not very different from waterboarding.
Exhausting my options of feeding myself and slowly twiddling my thumbs, I finally decided to pick up my camera and head to the nearest landmark to take some pictures. It was a nice clear day, rare for Riyadh, which is frequently hit by dust-storms obscuring much of the city in an ugly haze. Some clouds, much sun, perfect for photography.
Those familiar with the Riyadh skyline know there’s only two landmarks of note (to a casual visitor at least). The Mamlaka tower and the Faisaliya. I chose the former as the destination for my expedition today.
After some questionable help from my GPS (thanks Nokia maps :s) and several near-death experiences on Riyadh’s roads (friggin Bedouin drivers in Grand Marquis), my car finally rolled onto the dirt parking area next to the tower. The plan was to head into the tower, which is basically a mall inside (go figure, this is Saudi), and get some nice shots of the interior.
Walking towards the Mamlaka towers, I went past a number of Humvees, complete with armed soldiers and mean looks. ‘Best not to pull out my camera here’, I thought. Some parts of Saudi Arabia resemble a war zone. But more often than not, you feel the soldiers are there more for show than for actual maintaining of stability.
As many of you might believe, photography is strictly prohibited in Saudi malls. Or is it? A royal decree enacted in 2006 allows photography in all public places. I would assume malls are included in ‘public’ places. Unsure, I carried a copy of the document to the security office inside the Mamlaka. That was a mistake.
Interestingly, the authorities had never even heard of this edict. The man in charge, obviously rattled to have actual work to do on a Saturday afternoon, flipped through the pages with utter disbelief. Unable to make a decision, he called his boss. His boss also seemed utterly confused. Soon I had been transferred to an office, standing in front of what seemed like an upper level manager.
“Where did you get these papers?”, he asked me, accusingly.
“On the internet, it’s on the Ministry’s website”, I responded.
“You work for newspaper?”, heavily accented English again (newsbaber)
“No, I run a personal website about Saudi Arabia”
He looks me over again.
“What nationality are you?” – I groan inwardly. Saudi Arabia is incredibly racist. Apparently this was going to be a decision based on my origins, not a legal one.
“Pakistani, does that matter?”
“No, you cannot take pictures here. You need permission”, he said.
“But I have permission, from the ministry of tourism”, I countered.
“This is not a permission. This is just a paper”
Apparently its A-OK to defy a royal decree in Saudi Arabia. Not wanting to cause a fuss, I asked for my paper back and proceeded to exit the mall. Not dejectedly of course, I expected as much. This being Saudi Arabia, my mistake was asking if it was allowed. The correct procedure was, of course, to start taking pictures as if you knew exactly what you’re doing.
Walking back to my car, I noticed those soldiers on the Humvee again. They looked bored. I smiled at one. He smiled back.
The weather really had become amazing. Clouds were covering the sun, giving a very nice, diffused lighting covering the Mamlakah in the background. And I was at the perfect angle too. Only problem: the gunner was obscuring the view of the tower. And in front of him, a small fountain was spouting water high enough to distract the photo.
On the other hand, the gunner was still smiling at me. I quickly realized why. My camera bag was slung to the side and my equipment was visible after having being opened inside the tower.
“Msawir? [Photographer?]“, he asked in Arabic
“Aiwa! [Yes!]“, I responded.
And quickly taking my chance, I followed up with:
“Mumkin ‘sawer AlMamlakah min hina? [Can I take a picture of the mamlakah from here?]“
He smiled a bit more, looked back at the building, shrugged, and crouched in his gunners nest, giving me a perfect view of the building… except for the fountain.
“Bas Almushkila hazee [This is a problem]“ I said, pointing at the fountain.
To my utter disbelief, the soldier picks up his walkie-talkie and says something on the radio. Moments later, the fountain turns off. Shocked, but not wanting to waste time by asking questions, I pulled out my camera and dropped into a crouch. Click.
I waved at the soldier, thanked him, and walked back to my car. Say what you want about Saudi bureaucracy. There’s some really good people out there
As I walked away, I heard the fountain turn back on.
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