The Hassles of Suspicious Guards Keeping a Nervous Eye on Buildings


By Jawahar Malhotra

DOHA, 28 February, 2013: The Qatari security guard was indignant, pointing his walkie-talkie at me as he took hurried steps in my direction, his soft, rolling belly divided by a wide belt, and shouted in Arabic.

 His cherubic face with a wispy black beard was contorted into an angry scowl with menacing eyes and knitted eyebrows. I was tucking away my camera into my black shoulder case and he shouted more as I got closer, and then repeated “Kamera! Kamera!” . I immediately understood that his anger was directed at the two photos I had taken from the small park 100 meters away of the outside of the Indian Embassy, with the flag fluttering on a mast on the wall of the top floor. I wanted to use one picture for the article I planned to write. I was amazed that he had seen me from behind the bushes and the cars parked on each side of the small lane, so he had obviously earned his keep with his eagle eyes.

 I had been in this predicament before, when security or the police had shooed me away from taking pictures of the outside of the buildings they were keeping an eye on. It has always puzzled me why, in the age of Google Earth satellite maps, why this incessant nuisance is perpetuated by security apparatuses in many countries, mostly those in the developing world with despotic and authoritative regimes. If taking a picture of a building can be so threatening, then it seems that the authorities are placing their energies in the wrong direction.

 So I fell back on the strategy that had worked most often in my other foreign travels – feign ignorance of what was asked, use hand gestures to ask for more information, try to see if the offending pictures could be deleted to the security guy’s satisfaction, declare and object that I did not understand the language and ask (and hope) for more English words to enter the fray.

 Only this time, it wasn’t working as the security guard in dark blue pants and short sleeves waved his walkie-talkie up and down and kept repeating, with a swirl of his head and pouting, round lips, ‘No! Kamera! Kamera!!”. Now, I was afraid that he actually wanted to confiscate my camera, and since I have also in the past been in the position of having to spend hours and days tracking down personal possessions that have been detained (including a passport), I was equally determined to hold on to it. “No Kamera! No!! Why? Why??”, I asked, irritated that such a thick-headed fellow who spoke no English would be assigned to guard a foreign Embassy.

 By now, the people arriving for the evening program (ironically about airing grievances that the local Indian community and nationals had against the Embassy, a weekly hour-long event) gave me a quick suspicious stare. A couple I asked for help with “Abdullah’s” (my name for him) Arabic, they smiled apologetically, shook their heads and kept walking on, as if they had denied a beggar alms, not wanting to be dragged into a security situation. The Embassy’s Indian security guards came out to check the commotion they had seen on the camera monitors inside. Abdullah growled in Arabic, which the guards understood imperfectly, and they grinned peevishly. I handed them my business card and asked they take it to the Ambassador (whom I had come to see) and they refused, saying in Hindi “Nahin Sahib, us ne CID ko bulla leiya hai” (No sir, he has called the CID), turned and walked away. This only made Abdullah snort more annoyingly.

 This was the first indication I had that Abdullah had asked for higher intervention. Another rule of travelling is to make sure such situations these don’t escalate beyond where they start. If they do, hours can be wasted and I had no desire to spend more time in the hot, late afternoon sun. I immediately started to use more beseeching words and gestures to implore Abdullah (who, by now, I had handed over my camera to) to look at the pictures and remove the pictures (“Delete” was a word I found that he apparently knew). The soothing sounds apparently calmed him down and he looked at me as we both waited by the curb and said “Come! Come! Minute”, gesturing with a wave of his hand  and showed five out-stretched fingers.

 A thought gnawed in my head that no one knew what was going on with me or where I was and if things didn’t turn out right, I may have to waste more time, but I had no intention of writing an article about the inside of a detention cell. I then called the only other person I knew, my business appointment from earlier in the day, to explain my predicament and asked he stay tuned for my return call, even though the expensive call was routed through AT&T in the US to a local Doha number.

Finally, a white Range Rover marked “Police” turned into the lane and slowly came to a stop in front of us. Out stepped a tall, lanky officer with a blue beret and a thin moustache whom I started to explain to, then stopped short to ask “You speak English?” to which he gave a confused stare and replied “Passaport!”. Apparently not, I realized and turned to the shorter, stockier officer with an easy smile who stammered only twenty words of English. He took my passport, leaned over the backseat, flipped through to the visa stamp and spoke into his walkie-talkie. He came back and queried “Kamera – see, see?” pointing at the viewer. “Yes, yes,” I replied and pointed to the guard’s room, gesturing there was too much sunlight to see outside. They nodded and I showed them the two pictures, which conveniently had come out overexposed. The three muttered some words excitedly to each other and the short one said “Delete, delete” to each picture adding an “aah” when I did so.

Satisfied, the two officers handed me back my camera and Shorty exclaimed “No problem” with a jubilant smile and I reassured them with “Shukram, shukram” (thank you) which delighted them. I put the camera away in the case and gestured “no more’ as they turned to shake my hand and then spoke a few words to Abdullah who put up his arms and shrugged as if to say he was only doing his duty. He shook my hand too, smiled friendlily and motioned that I go to the next gate to enter the Embassy. Two hours later, as I walked back out into the waning dusk, he saw me walk by and waved a hearty goodbye with a big toothy smile.

– Jawahar Malhotra is traveling