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?
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.