Photography Tips: How to Avoid Imprisonment in Dubai

I skipped down the road in Old Dubai, camera slung over my shoulder, chatting to my friends as a video crew trailed behind us. We were in high spirits, exploring the city without smartphones, on our way to the Dubai fish market.

We passed a man sitting on a ledge in the morning sun, drinking tea from a styrofoam cup. Sami stopped to ask the man for directions.

“May I please take your photo?” I asked the man. He nodded shyly. I snapped the picture, showed it to him, and continued along my merry way.

Guy-on-streetMy last photo before “the incident”.

We reached the fish market, a large warehouse that smells like fish from half a kilometer away. Men hurried in and out with carts. My heart raced; local markets are my favorite places to take photos. I pulled out my GoPro camera to record the scene as I walked into the market, as I’d been doing everywhere we went for the last two days.

I spied a stand just to the right of the entrance, where a man hacked open coconuts to sell to thirsty customers. Coconuts! I love coconuts. I turned toward the coconut stand, GoPro outstretched. As I approached the stand, a woman walked away from it with a coconut in her hand. The woman wore a full black abaya, covering everything except her face.

The woman walked past me, then abruptly turned around. “You took my photo!” she shouted, pointing to the GoPro. “You must delete it!”

I looked at the woman. He face was now completely covered, with a semi-opaque black cloth allowing her to see out but preventing anyone from seeing in. She had only removed the face covering for a moment, I now realized, to sip coconut water through a straw.

I looked down at the GoPro. I had just gotten it yesterday and had no idea how it worked. (I would realize later that I’d been shooting stills all along when I thought I was shooting video. Go figure.)

“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “There’s no screen — I can’t delete the pictures here. I have to connect it to a computer.”

“NO!” The woman shouted, louder. “YOU HAVE TO DELETE THE PICTURES.”

“I…I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.”

The woman continued to shout, her English bleeding into Arabic. I stood helplessly, aware that lots of people were staring at me. I slipped my DSLR into my bag.

Sami, my Arabic-speaking friend, stepped in. He spoke diplomatically to the woman, whose voice continued to rise. Sami took the GoPro from me and removed the memory card. He held it out to the woman, gesturing for her to take it.

The woman shook her head and stalked away, cell phone to her ear. Sami turned to me.

“I offered her the memory card, but she wants the police,” Sami said. “So now we’ll wait.”

The cops arrived — two of them — about 15 minutes later, in an imposing SUV. A heated discussion ensued in Arabic among the woman (whose name I never learned), Sami, and the two policemen. The woman gestured angrily in my direction. I stood a couple of meters away, trying to look repentant (which wasn’t hard, because I was).

I could see from the policemen’s faces that they weren’t upset with me. But a formal complaint is a formal complaint, and the Dubai police take their jobs seriously. It soon became clear that I — and a couple of my colleagues, by association — would be hauled into the station.

The police politely loaded Sami, me, and Tim, our videographer, into the back of the imposing SUV. The door shut behind us. We sat there for a few minutes, waiting, and eventually grew hot. Tim tried to open the SUV’s door but it was locked from the outside.

I was a prisoner of the Dubai Po-Po.

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My friend Sine, who blogs at the Joburg Expat, has written often about her run-ins with South African traffic police. She occasionally bemoans the fact that she was never taken to South African jail during the time she lived in Johannesburg. For the sake of her blog, of course.

As I sat in that police car outside the Dubai fish market, I couldn’t help but think about how much Sine will envy me when she reads this blog post.

♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

“They’re on our side,” Sami whispered as we drove to the police station. “I told them to just take the memory card. But they don’t want to destroy your footage.”

The Naif Police Station was immaculate and empty, with strange pictures on the wall portraying Dubai security forces engaged in some kind of mock anti-riot activity. The policemen were polite but pretty much ignored me. I longed to take a photo, just one photo. But I didn’t because I love my freedom.

I sat primly on the sofa in the police lieutenant’s office, while Sami endured the woman’s withering verbal attacks — in Arabic, with periodic waves in my direction — and Tim fiddled with the GoPro memory card. Eventually Tim managed to plug the card into the lieutenant’s desktop, and after much anguish the two offending photos (the woman’s uncovered face hovering on the periphery of the fisheye lens) were deleted.

We waited while the woman demanded that everyone else’s cameras be checked. No other offending photos were found. Minute upon minute dragged by, but still we weren’t released. It seemed that nothing would satisfy her and the lieutenant was too polite to tell her to bugger off.

Finally, finally, the lieutenant requested my ID, recorded my details (I suppose I have a permanent record in Dubai now), and pronounced that we were free to go.

As everyone else filed out of the office, the woman remained in her seat. I approached her and looked directly into her veil, where I guessed her eyes would be.

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “Really.”

“Ah, it’s ok,” she waved me away. “You didn’t know.”

And that was that.

I know I was pushing my luck, I just couldn’t leave without a police station selfie.

Police-station-selfieFree at last, free at last.

The only other shot I have to show for this experience is a picture of the postcard that I wrote to my mother while I waited in the police lieutenant’s office.

Postcard-to-momI don’t think she’s received it yet.

We all had a good laugh as we resumed our trek through the streets of Old Dubai. But a colleague later told me that if those nice policemen had decided to throw the book at me with the full force of Emirati law, I could have gone to Emirati jail for up to six months.

So here are my tips: If you want to avoid incarceration in Dubai then don’t point a camera at anyone — especially a woman in Muslim dress — without asking. Just don’t. And if you do, then just shut up, smile, and apologize profusely. Also, don’t litter and don’t do drugs. The end.

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18 Comments

  • Reply Ellen January 2, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    I think you were very lucky. Great story!

    • Reply 2summers January 2, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Ellen. xx

  • Reply Jerome January 2, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Dubai for me is the worst place to visit. Scenes like these put my back up. I wonder how much PR can ever repair my opinions?

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun January 2, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    OMG, what a story. I am so glad you were able to write this from South Africa and not some seedy Emirati prison. I got in some trouble in Tunisia many years back for accidently including a government building in a photo of a statue I was taking (didn’t even see it) but luckily didn’t get taken in (though I did call their bluff and tell them to go ahead and take me, I wasn’t handing over my film (yes I said it was awhile ago 🙂 ). I was alone so it was rather scary at the time. I love that you took a selfie outside the station, ROAR!

    • Reply 2summers January 3, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Wow, that sounds very brave. Although I think I would have probably done the same. I’m also glad to be writing this post from home!

  • Reply Notjustaphoto January 2, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Glad it ended well

    • Reply 2summers January 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

      Thanks 🙂

  • Reply Lani January 3, 2016 at 5:52 am

    Jeez. Louise. That was a close shave, eh? Scary! And so good of you to apologize again even after she put you through all that. My goodness. I have no idea why she was so indignant. Did you ever find out? I mean, really, I understand getting pissed, but to call the police? Over-reacting…

    • Reply 2summers January 3, 2016 at 9:09 am

      Yeah, apparently she as really just kind of crazy 🙂

  • Reply Sine January 3, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Ahhhh, the long-awaited story! Thank you for including me in it!

    You know, it’s always so much more fun to write about it afterwards when you can be relaxed and laugh it off, but at the moment, you almost want to die of shame and fright and the worry, in my case, what to tell my husband who has always said I’m careless.

    I may have said I’d love to be taken to a South African jail, but if I ever had been, I would have been scared shitless. Although, given the choice, I’d much rather be in a South African jail than a Dubai jail. I’m glad you didn’t know the story of that American couple I told you about when it happened.

    By the way, did anyone ever tell you what the law exactly says? i.e. is it indeed illegal to photograph anyone without their permission, or just veiled women? Or is there no law and she was just upset and the police tried to placate her? I’d be interested to hear. I seem to recall that when we were in Egypt we were also warned once not to take a picture of a government building. And there is a similar anecdote as yours in a book I recently read, Ticket to Timbuktu, where the memoirist also gets hauled off to jail in Mali for having taken an illegal photograph of something or other, I think it was a train.

    • Reply 2summers January 5, 2016 at 8:37 pm

      I must confess that I haven’t researched the Dubai laws myself. But I’m told that there is an obscure law against photographing people (anyone, not just women) without their permission. So I guess I was guilty of that (along with 80% of the rest of Dubai and the world).

  • Reply autumnashbough January 5, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Wow. Good to know that law. When I was once shooting a school documentary in DC, a security guard for a company threatened us with the police for videotaping the exterior of his office building. Must’ve been top secret.

    Your postcard cracked me up. I think, when I arrived at USC, I sent my parents a map that had been printed in the Daily Trojan showing which crimes happened in which part of student housing. I was all, “Don’t worry! I’m in the dorm where there was only a rape, not a murder!”

    • Reply 2summers January 5, 2016 at 8:33 pm

      Hahaha. I’m not surprised about the DC story. Haughty security guards are often the root cause of conflicts like this (although not in this particular case).

  • Reply Jaina January 20, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Woah, what an ordeal. I think her reaction at the end of the whole issue sort of surprised me the most. Glad you got out of the situation pretty much unscathed. The police officers in the situation seem pretty understanding of your side of the story, which is what probably helped you out the most. Next time I’m in Dubai, I’ll have to remember this!

    • Reply 2summers January 20, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      Haha, yes it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. Have you ever run into problems like this in Bahrain?

      • Reply Jaina January 20, 2016 at 5:37 pm

        Not so far. Bahrain is considered, and definitely feels, a lot more relaxed than Dubai or any other country in the Gulf. Though that’s not to say I can’t imagine something like this happening here. Just takes one person to have an outburst.

  • Reply Adventure Planet October 11, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Hi, I’m Michelle Dela Cerna currently based here in Dubai . I would like to say thank you for sharing your beautiful story and some thoughts of Dubai , very detailed and well written! I would like to commend the Author of this Blog for sharing us an interesting idea. Keep it up a good job!!
    Hope you will make more Blog. ♥

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