Photograph by Adam Reynolds
Photojournalist Adam Reynolds took this photo in Yemen, where he and a colleague were detained by authorities after they evaded security to enter the country. They traveled to to the South, where they photographed and interviewed members of the secessionist Southern Movement.
Photojournalist Adam Reynolds was happy to see the FedEx truck pull up recently. He'd been anxiously awaiting the return of the tools of his trade -- camera, laptop and iPod -- that were confiscated by Yemen authorities in April.
The Bloomington native and another freelance journalist, Heather Murdock, were deported at the end of April from the country located at the tip of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. The official reason for their expulsion was that they were traveling without permits. "We wanted to visit southern Yemen to interview members of the secessionist Southern Movement," Reynolds said. "And there was no way the government would have permitted that."
Reynolds developed a fascination with the Middle East during his junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After graduating from IU in 2002, he returned to Jerusalem to continue his studies in Arabic and Hebrew, earning a master's degree with a focus on the Middle East. With his knowledge of Middle Eastern civilization, Reynolds is pretty sure his expulsion had cultural reasons, too.
"The Westerners had to disguise themselves by donning the niqab, or face veil, and jilbab, or full-body covering, worn by Yemeni women."
After flying into the southern port city of Aden, the pair traveled six hours by car to meet with rebel leaders in the remote Yafa region -- a rugged tribal area in what is called the "Free South." To pass government security checkpoints, the Westerners had to disguise themselves by donning the niqab, or face veil, and jilbab, or full-body covering, worn by Yemeni women.
In Yemen, as in many other countries, Islamic law requires women to cover themselves in public. When their guides reported that all routes bypassing security were blocked, Reynolds reluctantly donned a pair of gloves along with the shapeless robe and head covering that features a slit for the eyes.
"I know that other journalists have gotten past checkpoints dressed as ladies," Reynolds said. "As a man, I'm not comfortable with that because if I'm caught, I'm in that much more trouble."
Nevertheless, the resourceful Hoosier agreed to wear the garment through the drive-through checkpoints. "I sat between two Yemeni ladies with a purse on my lap, pretending I was asleep." Noting that some checkpoints feature female guards who inspect women in private, Reynolds acknowledged that he was lucky. "I didn't have to get out and walk -- there's no way I could carry myself as a woman."
"Soon after returning to their hotel, Reynolds and Murdock received a visit from Yemeni authorities, who confiscated their passports."
Once in southern Yemen, Reynolds reverted to his traditional Western garb: sandals, T-shirt and long pants. After he took his photos and Murdock conducted her interviews, the pair looked forward to returning to the capital, Sana'a, to file their report.
But their visit with rebels had not gone unnoticed by government informants. Soon after returning to their hotel, Reynolds and Murdock received a visit from Yemeni authorities, who confiscated their passports.
"They said it was routine and that we could pick them up in the morning at the Immigration Office," Reynolds said. Routine or not, once the officials left, Reynolds immediately wiped his hard drive of any imagery that could have been used to incriminate his hosts. "Everything left was publishable, so I had no qualms about cooperating with the authorities," he said.
The next day, the pair went to the Immigration Office and were driven to a Political Security detention center. Luckily, before their cell phones were confiscated, Murdock was able to alert U.S. Embassy officials in Sana'a to their plight.
While Reynolds and Murdock were in custody, Yemeni authorities retrieved their baggage from the hotel and carefully examined it. "They went through all my pictures on my laptop, naming all of the people we met without having to ask me," Reynolds said. "They knew everybody."
"While Reynolds and Murdock were in custody, Yemeni authorities retrieved their baggage from the hotel and carefully examined it."
Among his belongings was a copy of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning history of al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, The Looming Tower. The cover of the edition featured photos of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. "They asked me, 'What is this?'" Reynolds said. When he replied that it was a history book, they objected. "No, it's a manual for terror!" Reynolds chuckled as he recalled that the guards inventoried it as "Book of al-Qaeda."
Reynolds spent a good deal of his three-and-a-half-day detention in a hot, cramped cell made even more uncomfortable during intermittent power outages. There was a water spigot outside the cell, and though guards offered to feed him, he declined. "It wasn't so much a hunger strike as a shame strike," he said. "The toilets were gross."
Reynolds said he tried to keep a level head. "My thought going into rebel territory was that at the end of the day Yemen is very careful about its relationship with the United States. They want to be our ally in the war on terror, especially after the Abdulmutallab affair," he said, referring to the "Underpants Bomber" whose links to Yemen have been disputed by that country's government.
"Yemen isn't going to make two U.S. journalists disappear," Reynolds continued. "I was reasonably sure that the worst that could happen was that we could be deported."
It helped that he and Murdock were initially detained in separate rooms at a "hotel" adjacent to the detention center. Before he was taken to his cell they were able to discuss their predicament. "We were able to talk it out," Reynolds said. "Had we been separated for a lot longer than we were, it probably would have gotten to be a lot worse."
While his fluency in Arabic was helpful in communicating with his captors, Reynolds' education presented a dilemma. When he was asked by Yemeni authorities to write out his life story, "I debated briefly whether to include my past years of study and work in Israel," he said, worried that his studies in that country could result in a spurious accusation of ties to Mossad, Israel's intelligence service. But Reynolds decided to include his stay in Israel, reasoning that the guards would have found out anyway. "I figured it was better to be up front about it from the start."
"Reynolds spent a good deal of his three-and-a-half-day detention in a hot, cramped cell made even more uncomfortable during intermittent power outages."
Murdock had a different experience. While she and Reynolds were separated, the guards' request for her background was lost in translation. "Heather thought they asked her to write her love story," Reynolds said with a laugh. "So she wrote down all of her boyfriends and stuff since seventh grade."
Reynolds said this wasn't the only occasion when the guards' worst impressions of Westerners were confirmed. Having studied Middle Eastern culture, he was aware of the low regard his captors had for his sartorial initiative. They reminded him that it was illegal to dress like a woman. "I said, 'I did not know that; it's perfectly fine in America,'" Reynolds said. "They had to think about that."
Grinning, he added, "The funny thing is, they were wearing the ma'awiz." Reynolds likened the lightly woven, loose-fitting cloth wrapped like a towel around the waist to a man's skirt. "So they're wearing this and an open collar shirt and telling me I was dressing like a woman."
Would he do it again?
Reynolds is currently working on a photo essay about immigration in the Heartland. But he's really hoping for another assignment to the Middle East -- any place but Yemen.
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. A version of this story previously appeared in NUVO. He can be reached at email@example.com