Muslim 'angels' ease American's prison days in UAE

Family: American held for taking photo
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Story highlights

  • Robert Alan Black was imprisoned in October for taking a photograph in Abu Dhabi
  • At first, he was frightened, but prisoners, most of them Muslim, made him feel welcome
  • One prisoner had his wife call Black's daughter, so Black could speak to her from prison

(CNN)It was 3:30 in the morning when Robert Alan Black was escorted into Khalifa jail.

An American in Abu Dhabi, he found himself frightened even though the other prisoners were sleeping. Movie scenes from "Midnight Express" and "Brubaker" swirled through his head.
He sat at a table in the common area, waiting for the others to wake, not knowing what the reaction would be to his presence.

    His crime

    Black, who has a degree in architecture, three master's degrees and a doctorate in educational psychology, was in Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, for October's Creative Thinkers Conference. He was to present a workshop and emcee the event.
    On a Tuesday morning, the 70-year-old got up early to take a walk in the neighborhoods near his hotel. An avid photographer, Black took his camera to snap photos of houses and a couple of the mosques he passed.
    When he left the second mosque, he was approached by a man in uniform. He motioned Black to get into a camouflaged truck.
    "I had no idea what he wanted," Black said, "but never felt threatened so I got in."
    He was driven a short distance to a building with a sign out front that read "Reception." He waited about an hour before he was guided back outside and told, "Do not photograph security areas."
    Black asked for clarification, but he was waved away with no further explanation, he said.
    He decided to continue his walk. A few blocks away, he came upon a sign on a lamppost that said in English, "Photography Forbidden." Thinking a photo of the sign would make for a novel Facebook post, he snapped an image.
    After crossing the road, he was approached by two other uniformed men in a second camouflaged truck and waved into the backseat. He was driven back to "Reception," which Black believes was a police station, where his passport, camera and cell phone were seized.

    Headed to jail

    Black tried to keep his composure. He was questioned and moved to different rooms, waiting for hours at a time, but the process was civil, he said. No one harmed him in any way.
    After eight or nine hours at the police station, a man came in and asked him to stand. His hands and feet were shackled and a hood was put over his head. He was escorted to an SUV where his wrists were chained to the floor. After hours more of interrogation, he was driven to the Khalifa jail.
    When the sun rose that morning, Black was relieved to be greeted with smiles from the other inmates. A few prisoners from the Philippines spoke English. Their conversation revolved around why Black was there and the daily routine at the jail.
    Later in the day, police took him back to his hotel and allowed him to retrieve his belongings and check out of the hotel.
    Concerned friends and family called the hotel but couldn't obtain any information on his whereabouts. After Black spent about a week in jail, a translator for the prosecutor's office felt bad about his plight and Googled his name, Black later learned. The translator contacted some of his associates, which is how friends and family members learned what had happened to him.
    He was quickly transferred to al-Wathba prison, where he met a Syrian in his mid-30s named Kousai.
    "All of those who could speak any English were very supportive and helpful" in both the prison and the jail, Black recalled, but Kousai made the most concerted effort.

    Kousai and 'The Foreman'

    Well-educated, he had a master's degree in business administration from Florida State University and spoke fluent English.
    Black called him the cell blocks's "den mother." He was always trying to help and facilitate the needs of the prisoners who came from countries such as Oman, Yemen, Nigeria and Egypt -- all of them foreign workers. Kousai himself had been in prison for six months on an immigration violation.
    When Black first walked in, Kousai and his roommate, a massive man everyone called "The Foreman," offered him an orange drink and crackers. "The Foreman" didn't speak much English, Black said, but seemed to be in charge of the cell block.
    Kousai helped Black settle into the facility, making sure he had snacks and arranging for Black to have his prison clothes laundered. In one act of kindness, Kousai was chatting with his wife on the prison phone and asked Black if there was anyone he wanted to contact.
    Kousai's wife called Black's daughter on her cell phone and connected the two on the same phone line. It was the first time that Black had been able to talk to someone outside of the prison or jail.
    His family finally knew first-hand where he was and what had happened to him.
    As the weeks dragged on, Black became immersed in prison life. He walked the cell block halls to pass time, often recalling humorous episodes of "M*A*S*H" and "Frasier" to buoy his spirits.
    He and the other prisoners told jokes or talked about funny movies to help inject humor in their otherwise serious world.
    When he got down about his situation, many of the prisoners would ask him to join their conversations, share cookies and boxed drinks they had bought from the canteen or offer food they had cooked in their cells.
    If the prisoner didn't speak English, a simple smile or thumbs up was offered.
    Black was grateful for the acts of friendship, and he made an effort to reciprocate, he said.

    Back home

    Meanwhile, Black's family, friends and colleagues were raising money to hire an Abu Dhabi attorney and working official channels to get Black released. They called themselves FAB, Friends of Alan Black.
    The U.S. Embassy sent representatives to meet with Black several times while he was at al-Wathba. Many of the prisoners and guards told him he would be out soon, but the days dragged on.
    He continued to endure the daily routines of incarceration while waiting for his case to go before a judge.
    Black was the only Westerner in his cell block, though he believes he saw a few others in the prison, he said. Besides a Nigerian man, he was the only Christian. The rest, if they had religious beliefs, were Muslim.
    Five times a day, the devout would roll out their prayer mats. Black never spoke much about religion with the other inmates, he said, and he never felt any animosity aimed toward him for being a Christian.
    He had no biases against Muslims, and they had no predispositions about him. In fact, many of the inmates told Black they prayed he would be released soon, he said.

    Sweet freedom

    On November 17, almost a month after his arrest, a lawyer pleaded Black's case before the superior court's three-judge panel.
    "He was very passionate and forceful," Black said. "He told the judges that he thought the case was an embarrassment and that I should have been fined and released the first day."
    The judges agreed and ruled Black "not guilty, no intent to do harm."
    He was fined 500 dirham, around $135 dollars, the minimum fine allowed by the court system. It was later waived because of time served.
    It took about 28 hours to get fully processed, and Black immediately made his way to the airport and flew back home to Athens, Georgia.
    Black was grateful about how quickly his case was ultimately resolved, he said. Some of the prisoners he met had been in prison for years, and many still hadn't seen their case presented in court.
    The support of his family and friends was important, Black said, but he considered prisoners such as Kousai his "angels." It was their generosity of spirit, humor and kindness that made a bad situation tolerable.
    The episode reinforced Black's belief that while differences exist among cultures, in the end "we are all human beings."
    "Sometimes it takes something like this to show you people will reach out when you need it," he said. "It's important to be open to your emotions and know people care."
    Black plans to keep in touch with some of the men he met in prison, he said, and has already Skyped with Kousai, who was recently released and is back in Damascus.