The most innocuous of inquiries, the most aboveboard of assignments pique the interest of security agencies across the region.
In Egypt, television journalists know this all too well. I experienced it once again, first hand, while filming this month s edition of Inside the Middle East.
Since first traveling to Upper Egypt in 1991, I d always been curious about the ancient Nubian community. Distinct in their traditional dialect and ethnicity, the Nubians, who once ruled over the rich and lush land on the banks of the Nile, have become exiles of sorts in their own country.
A series of floods from the construction of dams on the mighty Nile displaced up to a million Nubians over the last generation. The government relocated many of them in the early sixties, sometimes deep into the desert, far from their ancestral homeland. Their Nile culture has drowned under the water of the river that made their glory for a period thousands of years ago.
We spoke to an old man who remembered what life was like in Nubian villages before the floods. In the open-air patio of a government-provided home, he energetically showed me deeds of his family property and spoke of the difficulty of adjusting to a more urban lifestyle.
The children, he said remembering his days as a school principal don t draw colorful pictures anymore. Not the way they used to.
His wife, sitting on a wooden bench behind him, nodded no when I asked if all Nubians had been compensated fairly for the homes they were forced to abandon.
Then, the old man started changing his story. Life for Nubians was actually wonderful, he said with verve; they had all been given a fair swap for their property. The schools, he added, were top-notch.
It wasn t making sense; and then, I knew.
I turned around and saw a government minder taking notes. Leaning against a wall, behind the camera, the young man Egyptian authorities had assigned to our television crew was busy writing away.
I asked a few more questions and ended the interview. It was pointless to go on. The old man did not want to appear overly critical of the authorities. In Egypt, as in many countries in the Middle East, that can get you in trouble.
Later, I took the minder aside:
Why are you taking notes? I asked.
Does it bother you? he replied, smiling.
I wasn t smiling.
Yes, actually, it does.
His expression turned serious. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an official ID card.
Look, he says pointing to his picture, thinking I was questioning his credentials, rather than complaining that his presence was a nuisance.
The following day, a man who d helped us on the ground in Aswan was called in to a local police station for questioning. We immediately called the police chief and dictated our shooting permit numbers over the phone, finally convincing the authorities that our contact had nothing to hide.
Add to that the checkpoints and the questions from soldiers calling their superiors. During this trip, I would hear fragments of conversations from the window of our van.
“Americans . Tourism . Yes sir.
This isn’t unusual in Egypt or anywhere else in the Middle East. Sometimes, information ministries don’t impose minders, but when they do, the “escorts are simply following orders. In the end, I even warmed to the young man assigned to us in Upper Egypt. Young, shy, with a pencil mustache and a soft smile, he was easy to like. Others have been more intrusive and more aggressive.
In the end, we get around them. When conducting interviews, we make sure they’re out of earshot. When alone, we spend that time speaking to ordinary people on the street. For more sensitive stories, we shoot interviews in hotels. In other words, we can report accurately and fairly, but the presence of minders is a constant reminder that we are being watched and that our presence is deemed a threat.
In Egypt a few weeks ago, 22-year old blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil was imprisoned for four years for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and “insulting Islam . All the while, opposition politicians complain proposed constitutional changes will further choke the democratic process in Egypt.
Dissenting voices are not easily tolerated within one of America’s strongest allies in the Arab world.
In the Middle East, asking questions gets you noticed.
Hala Gorani hosts ‘Inside the Middle East’ which can be seen on CNN International, Saturday April 7 at 18.30 GMT