Babylon & Beyond

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SAUDI ARABIA: Adventures in Hajj photography

December 8, 2007 |  9:06 am

Today’s experiment from the holy city of Medina was to actually manage to take some pictures outside our hotel.

Pilgrims The crowds of pilgrims are crawling with uniformed and plain-clothed police and even amateur photography is heavily restricted. Our concern was that my colleague, photographer Irfan Khan, wouldn’t last 10 minutes on the streets with his professional camera rig before being accosted by aggressive authorities.

The solution: Secure an escort from the Ministry of Information whose job would basically be to run interference and protect Irfan.

This required months of back-and-forth e-mails with the ministry before our trip. Then after we arrived and realized that our e-mails had produced absolutely zero results, it required a day of frantic phone calls to a half dozen officials.

Finally we got our wish. A ministry employee met us this morning and stuck with us throughout the day as Irfan photographed street hawkers selling scarves and fake gold watches after midday prayers outside the Mosque of the Prophet.

At first it seemed too easy. Irfan wandered the crowds at will and our minder never had to lift a finger.

But the realities of the situation became clearer later in the day. Irfan and I were waiting outside the mosque to meet up with our minder so he could take us up to a nearby hotel rooftop for some high-angle shots. Irfan wasn’t even taking pictures at the time, just standing around with his camera gear.

Suddenly a tall man in a beige robe appeared and started barking at Irfan to come with him. I intervened and the man took me to meet a heavyset guy astride a red moped who identified himself as an officer with the secret police.

I explained who we were, flashed my business card and said that our ministry escort was en route. He seemed satisfied and drove off, but it was definitely a little unsettling.

Anyway, through it all we managed a successful day of photography, as evidenced by this photo of Indonesian pilgrims.

Blog Mapper: Tracking the Hajj

— Ashraf Khalil in Medina