Our hope today was to film the contrasts between spirituality and consumerism apparent here in Mecca.
On one side, you have the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque which houses the Kaaba, swarming with Hajj pilgrims at this time of year. On the other, just metres away, stands the largest clock tower in the world – a $800 million project which when fully completed will be the second tallest building in the world.
Attached to it is a four-storey shopping complex with the leading brands, where one can find the curious sight of a man clad in the two simple unstitched ihraam sheets, enjoying a Baskin Robbins ice-cream as he ascends a modern elevator.
These and other fascinating elements are perfect for TV – and our team were very keen on looking at the balancing act Saudi Arabia attempts to successfully accomplish being a puritanical ultra-religious society, honoured to host pilgrims to Islam’s holiest sites but also being a modernising and fabulously oil-rich kingdom.
We hadn’t even begun our day’s filming when, after strolling outside the Grand Mosque with equipment in hand after downing our morning Starbucks lattes from the aforementioned shopping mall, we were approached by plainclothes security men.
They wanted to see if we had permits for filming at that exact spot. But our camera was covered up and off. What followed was a verbal altercation between them and our guide* from the Ministry of Culture and Media. And then it got a little blurry.
Within minutes we were in a holding cell, or cabin more like, for about an hour, our cameras and identity documents seized. My attempt at surreptitiously filming the men rounding us up on a mobile-sized flip-cam failed.
“Do you work for intelligence???”
“Why do you film us with this THING?!?!?”
We were escorted to the special security office of those in charge of the perimeter of the mosque, Mecca’s version of The Vatican’s Swiss guard, snuggly located within the Grand Mosque with a view of the Kaaba. There the head of the department heard our endless explanations, while we flashed around credentials we thought would never get us into this situation.
We had our fingerprints taken, and were made to sign affidavits. What those affidavits said is up for debate, but a few hours later we were out, free. It was a remarkable reversal of fortune, or rather tone.
A lesson for us was this: never underestimate the power of a good war story.
Once it had transpired that were in fact legitimate journalists with proper accreditation and that it had all been a misunderstanding, it was our cameraman Ahmed El-Daly’s chance to shine.
For so long sternly questioned by the security man who made the swoop on us, Ahmed eventually took on the role of master storyteller, and the once interrogative, mean and frightful security man assumed the role of eager pupil.
Security Man: “So have you ever filmed the Afghanistan war?”
Nonchalant Ahmed: “Of course, many times.”
Security Man: “Air strikes?”
Ahmed: “Many … I’ve seen the strike, then the horrible aftermath, with dead bodies and limbs.”
Awe-struck security man: “Which was the worst?”
Cool, reflective Ahmed: “Probably Rwanda. Rwanda was bad. People were hacked to death with machetes.”
Security Man: “Has your life ever been in danger?”
Ahmed: “Plenty of times. And you know, cameramen have died because armies thought their cameras and tripods were RPG’s …”
Security Man: “May God protect you!”
He still took our tapes away, despite Ahmed’s heroics, I guess his war stories weren’t potent enough!
I hope we have better luck filming tomorrow.