Hoosier photographer comes home after detention in Yemen

Adam Reynolds photographed Yemeni rebels like this one, in southern Yemen, before he was detained and expelled by local authorities. Photo by Adam Reynolds

Anxiously awaiting the return of his camera,

laptop and iPod, photojournalist Adam Reynolds wondered why the shipment,

mailed from a terrorist hotbed in the Middle East, was stuck in Memphis in

June.

He drolly ventured a guess about who currently

had possession of his equipment, first confiscated in Yemen: "Homeland

Security."

The Bloomington nativeleft his tools of the trade behind after he and another freelance

journalist, Heather Murdock, were expelled 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 recalled recently.

"And there was no way the government would have permitted that."

A fascination with the Middle East developed

during Reynolds' junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After

graduation 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 was pretty sure his expulsion had cultural reasons, too.

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."

In order to pass government security checkpoints, the Westerners had to

disguise themselves by donning the niqab, or face veil, and jilbab, the full-body covering.

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

only 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 intrepid 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," he said. 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."

Once in southern Yemen, Reynolds reverted to

his traditional Western garb: sandals, T-shirt and long pants. After he got 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. It generated a different kind of report — this one 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 he

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 taken into custody. Luckily, Murdock was able

to alert U.S. Embassy officials in Sana'a to their plight before their cell

phones were confiscated and they were driven to a Political Security detention

center.

While Reynolds and Murdock were being

interrogated, 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."

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 his 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 says 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, his educationpresented

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."

Murdock had a different experience. While she

and Reynolds were separated, the guards' request 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 7th 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?

"Absolutely."

His electronic gear arrived in good shape

recently, and Reynolds is waiting in Bloomington for his next assignment to the

Middle East — anyplace but Yemen.

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