Editor held by police as suspected Islamist sympathiser

Marc Wadsworth in Amman

Dangerous thing a camera in the wrong place at the wrong time. I innocently took photos of a market in a Palestinian refugee district of the Jordanian capital and paid the price.

Plain clothed police pounced on me and seized my Fuji. Little did I know that the drab green building in the background was the headquarters of a hard-line group opposed to the government. Alarm bells should have been rung by the poster of a man in traditional Arab dress which adorned a quarter of the wall. My companion Hassan told me he was seeking election to parliament on a populist ticket.

Hassan said, disarmingly: "They're all the same. Once they get elected they do nothing for the people." But this was no run of the mill political hopeful. I was later to learn that Mohammed Qureshi is a leader of the pro-Palestinian, Egypt-based Islamic Brotherhood. The over-zealous police thought that I was a sympathiser who had come to publicise the Islamists. A slim, walkie-talkie toting man in his mid-20s ushered me past two uniformed officers seated in the sunshine outside the small police station. In broken English, he spat out the question: "Why are you here? Why do you want to take pictures."

Lamely, I told him that I was 'only a tourist'. The ferret in a short-sleeved white shirt and khaki slacks was unimpressed. He led me to a sparcely furnished room with a police major, Nassar Habachna, sitting behind a desk. Hassan did the talking for me, expressing consternation that I had been detained for doing no more than taking a photo of a market.

They gave him a hard time. Though he showed ferret and major his 'Kingdom of Jordan' identity card, they still brusquely demanded to know where he was from. I was asked for my passport discovering, in the process, that it was an offence not to have it with me. All I could produce was a business card establishing me as the editor of The-Latest and my NatWest bank card. A carbon-copied, hand-written report was made by a subordinate of the major's.

The boss was busy on the phone. I nervously pretended to watch the Argentina versus Colombia football match on an over-head Tv with Hassan's son Faris, 14, and engaged ferret by asking him the score. I also inquired who he was. His 'CIA' Freudian slip was telling. I think he meant to say CID to denote 'detective'. Fortuitously, I was wearing an Argentina blue t-shirt and my team were 3-2 ahead. The football game broke the ice enough for me to ask ferret about my detention: "Is there a problem?"

He demurred: "There may be a problem." I queried: "Why?" He answered by flicking through the pictures in my digital camera, with the aid of the much more technically-minded Faris. The market images held the attention of ferret and the major. The delete button was pressed, censoring the offending couple of snaps and the camera handed back to me. But that was not the end of my ordeal.

I was ordered to go to another police station nearby and my camera again confiscated, this time by an amiable sergeant who escorted me on the short walk. A police colonel, with gun-metal, buffone hair sat behind a desk. Behind him was a portrait of two kings, the late Hussein and his ruling son, Abdullah. Along the walls were framed passages from the Koran. The colonel was absorbed by a lively conversation he was having with two men who, from their clothes, looked like they had come from a building site.

The colonel took his time, before asking me if I spoke Arabic. I apologised as best I could for not speaking the language of my hosts. The chief seemed relaxed and wise. More like someone to whom the community would go to for advice than a tough police force high-up. More phone calls. Then, line by line, he examined the hand-written report which had been brought to him by a tall, moustachioed, plain clothed officer. Once more my camera was handed back to me.

But I couldn't leave though, by now, the 'we're really sorry for keeping you. It's a routine check', had started. An indignant, precocious Faris, said: They should say sorry. They're stupid." I was taken to a cramped interview room where the moustachioed detective sat behind a desk. Was I about to be interrogated, I wondered? A phone call later and I was finally told I could leave. I went outside as quickly as I could to taste freedom after an edgy hour of hassle. Hassan remained behind in the colonel's office to remonstrate with the people in authority who had wounded his pride in his part of town.

My ego felt bruised too. Mention that I would contact the British Embassy to secure my release had fallen on deaf ears. On the veranda I met a dapper Middle-Eastern man who had a worldliness about him. "I'm Hassan's brother, Talal," he drawled in an American-tinged accent. After shaking my hand, he went inside to join Hassan's protest, saying mockingly, in front of the police: "You're only allowed to take pictures of the beach in Jordan. If you take pictures of anything else they will take your camera, interrogate you for a week and fine you a thousand JDs." I wasn't sure if he was joking.

It was Talal, a 39-year-old businessman who had lived in America for 14-years before being forced back home by post-9/11 prejudice, who informed me about the Islamic Brotherhood. He said: "Palestinians in Jordan are treated like the Blacks in the US. Jordanians are given the government jobs and other top positions even though we (the Palestinians) run the businesses and built this country economically." He added: "I swear, they don't like us. I was happier in Chicago and the Bronx. Every day I am unhappy here."

Since before Talal was born, thousands of Palestinians have been squashed into refugee camps in Jordan, at the mercy of international aid and the political whims of the government. The Jordanians have just commissioned a study to find out their exact numbers - not that the survey will end the suffering. Prejudice, discrimination and distrust of a people sometimes feared as an 'enemy within' takes much more than that to eliminate.