Sunday, December 30, 2012

Arrested for Espionage

© Greg Cummings

Sun, Nov 10th 1985
I'm standing on the rooftop of the Red Sea Hotel as dusk falls. The Yemeni port of Hodeida hums with commerce, hustle, trade between seafaring cultures in transit. It's a busy, sprawling seafront town, of two and three storey sand-brick buildings pierced by half a dozen slender minarets. 

The port juts out into the sea, strong-arming passing ships into harbour. And there are hundreds of ships here, as many vessels as there are little restaurants filled with khat-addled Yemeni men in sarongs, tucking into steaming plates of barbequed chicken, beef stew with puffy flaps of pita bread, salad. No alcohol. No women. 

I'm only in the Yemen because I won second prize in a raffle at the United Nations 40th Anniversary Ball at the Addis Ababa Hilton: two weeks in the Yemen "What was first prize," asked my father, "one week?" 

The night before lastwhen I stood as now outside my room on the rooftop terrace of the Red Sea Hotel smoking a cigarette, listening to the muezzin's call to prayera favourable off-shore breeze broke through the haze, and the intense pre-dusk sunlight revealed a spit of land stretching northwest beyond the port.

The next morning I found my way out to this forbidding province of flatland, and spent most of the day sitting cross-legged in front of the Red Sea, on an empty, wind-swept beach on the far side of the port. It was an elemental convergence of sky, sun, sand, sea, and prodigal son. 

Everything on my barren beachhead was flat and simpleI could not see another soul anywhere. Such a desolate scene deserved a photograph. My father had loaned me his Yashika single lens reflex camera for the trip. I placed it in the middle of the road, set the timer, then walked away. After ten steps I heard the shutter click then wondered how the picture had turned out. As I retrieved the camera, I spotted a vehicle approaching from the direction of town, a white Land Rover heading straight for me at high speed. Still, it took an entire minute for it to reach me.

The vehicle came to a screeching, sideways halt just a few feet in front of me. Out jumped half a dozen men in headdresses, armed with traditional Arab cutlasses around their waists. One of them politely ordered me into the vehicle. “Please! Please!” he said. 

Crabs scuttled like ragged claws across my back. I didn't know these people. Was I being kidnapped? He showed me his badge and then his pistol, and I realised all along he'd been saying, “Police, Police!”  Reluctantly, I climbed into the vehicle. 

We sped back to Hodeida. They parked the car in front of police headquarters then escorted me into a compound where everyone was carrying weapons. I was forced at gun point into a room furnished only with a single mattress on the floor and naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. "This is fucking it!" I thought.  

They went through my leather satchel, sifting through letters, removing my journal, my passport, my camera, smiling all the while. Then I was hustled out of the station, back into the Land Rover and dropped back at the Red Sea Hotel. Once inside the hotel lobby, they informed the proprietor I was under house arrest, and me that they would pick me up the next morning at nine o’clock sharp. By this time I was intensely shaken by the whole ordeal, unsure what to do next.

The police had my passport. Still, I recalled a page in it that stipulated, in leu of any Canadian diplomatic service, I should seek out the nearest British Counsel. I found him in the bar of the nearby Ambassador Hotel nursing a gin and tonic, and told him my story.

"You were taking pictures of the harbour?" he laughed. 

"Not intentionally," I said. "All I saw was empty flatland. I was photographing myself, if anything."

"You should be grateful you're standing here, talking to me now," said the Counsel. "The last chaps they arrested for that offence were thrown in jail for two weeks." 

Just then I spied a man trying to conceal himself behind a pillar outside the hotel entrance. It was the same stalky bearded guy who'd been following me since I left my hotel. He was obviously my minder, though I found I could keep him at bay as long as I held an alcoholic beverage in my hand.

Hoping he'd eventually tire of waiting, I shot a few games of pool with some Norwegian aid workers, who reassured me this was all just a storm in a teacup, then left the Ambassador at around midnight. My minder was nowhere to be seen. Back in my rooftop hotel room I spent a hot, sleepless night dreaming a ghostly visit from a dead friend and awoke in a pool of sweat, held fast by desert moonlight, no idea where I was. 

The next morning, as promised, I was picked up outside my hotel at 9 am by the police and taken back to their headquarters where this time they ushered me into a different room, filled with suspects. There I waited for about two hours, chain smoking, listening to the complaints and queries of the aggravated assembled. 

Finally, I was led out of the waiting room and up a flight of stairs to the second floor. As we walked the corridors, the high ceilings and mosaic floors had a cooling, calming effect. We eventually reached a large office. There, seated behind a desk, was a tall, well built man, wearing a white dish-dash and red checkered kefeyah, and screaming into his phone. 

I saw my journal, letters and passport strewn across on his desk and wondered if he'd read any of my writing, or all of it. I'd written some fairly blasphemous content. How would he react? When he hung up the phone, he intstructed the man who had led me there to translate for him. That's when I realized he couldn’t have read any of it. Phew! 

They gave me back my camera. The film had already been developed. The shot of me walking away, down the abandoned highway wasn't that bad at all, in focus and with good depth of field.

The chief of police situated himself in front of his desk, with one foot in his hand, then stretched and twisted his neck. He repeated this again and again as he asked me my purpose in Yemen, my profession, and why in God's name I'd been taking photographs near a military installation. I answered the questions slowly and precisely, explaining I had no idea I was in such a sensitive area. 

"Why would you take photographs," asked the translator, who had the air of an undertaker, "when you wrote in your journal someone had already warned you when you arrived at the airport not to take pictures?" I swallowed hard, but the words escaped me. So my journal had been read.

Nevertheless, the chief of police seemed convinced that I was not a spy, and the conversation soon moved to the situation in Ethiopia, a nation gripped by famine. As we talked, he became more interested and concerned about their plight and asked me what I thought was the best solution to the problem. 

"The misuse of land that has contributed to about a third of the problem," I said. "Development, and a better understanding of agriculture are the best long term solutions."

"Perhaps we can be of some help," he said. "We Yemenis have been farming the desert for centuries."

He then dismissed me, saying he was grateful for having had the opportunity to meet me and that in future I should be more responsible about where I take photographs. I thanked him and left, with my passport, my letters, my journal. 

I'm preparing to leave old Hodeidah-by-the-sea now, breathing in the rich, sweet air as I struggle to stuff the endmost of my things into a suitcase.  I think my favourite kind of climate is breezy tropical coastal, with lots of sunshine. And the life must be simple and free...Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Dar es Salaam, and Hodeida are all places which meet the criteria. But I doubt I'll pass this way again.

I recall the time I placed a long distance call from New York to LA for an Arab who could not speak English, after he accosted me at JFK airport. Christ, I don’t know how I pulled that off. 

I stuff the photographs into my satchel and smile, glancing momentarily at the shot of me walking down the road. In the distant background I can just make out the silhouette of a missile silo. It won't take much to enhance it.

No comments:

Post a Comment