The Wiki Man

What I learned in a Qatari jail cell

Lesson one: start memorising important phone numbers

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

This column nearly didn’t appear. Another 24 hours and I would have trumped the late Jeffrey Bernard with the single sentence ‘Rory Sutherland is in prison.’ Having just spent a day in jail or police cells in Qatar for using an electronic cigarette on a plane, I thought I would just write one piece of technological advice for any Spectator readers who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Sit down today, take out your mobile phone, and memorise four or five important phone numbers. Better still, delete those few important numbers from your phone so you are forced to dial them from memory. Because when you’ve been arrested and your mobile phone is dead at 3 a.m., it is not the time to be wondering ‘Now was that 07786 or 07886?’

My children always get irritated when I nag them to charge their mobile phones. But as I try to explain, every few years we will find ourselves one phone-charge away from disaster. Tom Wolfe, who is a brilliant systems thinker, understood this fragility of life so well in The Bonfire of the Vanities. One misdialled phone call, one wrong turn on the freeway, a few tokes on an e-cig and you can find yourself, as I did, going from seat 1A to cell 3F in the space of an hour. It is the human equivalent of a phase transition.


I was treated, I think in retrospect, ridiculously harshly but not unfairly. The best of the police, in particular, were helpful, as far as a Kafkaesque bureaucracy allowed them to be. But my God it was terrifying at the time. Several of our fellow inmates had been imprisoned for bouncing a cheque. One, a Filipino, was imprisoned for having contact with a girl outside marriage. I shared a cell with a Russian who had lit a (real) cigarette on a flight from Moscow, and an English expat who had had a verbal altercation with a flight attendant.

It is not the physical conditions but the uncertainty and powerlessness which are crippling. It also doesn’t help that to the English ear, Arabic, like German, is a language which makes people in authority 80 per cent scarier. (I suspect that if you could force all parties to negotiate in Portuguese or Italian, the whole Middle East problem could be sorted out in a month.)

I hated imprisonment more than almost anything else in my life. There is only one thing of value to rescue from it, which is that it is an experience which is impossible to recreate in the imagination. Just as rich people cannot pretend to know what it’s like to be poor, free people cannot imagine what it’s like to be imprisoned. A mere 24 hours of uncertainty was agony for me, a Brit who has a few friends in the Foreign Office and could easily afford to pay the fine. For a Nepali who is skint, and who is there for a month, I can barely contemplate the thought. Incidentally, it no longer surprises me that prisons have produced more great works of literature than all the world’s universities combined.

Tom Wolfe said that a conservative was a liberal who had been mugged, while a liberal was a conservative who had been arrested. Did it have this effect on me? Yup. From March, my column will be appearing in the New Statesman and I will read the phrase ‘human rights lawyer’ with a newfound reverence. But it has also made me more nationalistic. I will never live anywhere else but here, ever, whatever some appealing country’s ‘impressive GDP growth rate’ may be. London’s airport infrastructure may be inadequate, but when we landed on one of Heathrow’s only two runways, I broke into tears.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Wow. I’m going to share this around. Poor you: how awful. This is also why I hate it when Joe Blow Public (or Punter) comments on how heroic or not some hostage has been, when they have no idea what it’s like to be in extremis or how they themselves would behave. Some things are too much to ask of a human being, especially a decent one that fortunately (up to that point) has no experience of savages. Sauve qui peut, I think. I wouldn’t care about escaping from a murderer’s clutches with dignity; I would just want to escape, any old how!

    I lived in Qatar for a year and I’m one of the few Westerners to have swum naked in the Persian Gulf. But I was a small child and Qatar was then a British Protectorate (which it ceased to be just before we left). My dad has just returned from Rwanda and Uganda to view and photograph the gorillas, chimps, and tree-climbing lions, as well as take a boat ride on the Upper Nile. Sounds wonderful: but what about the human guerillas that infest those parts? What if someone had slipped drugs or other contraband into his luggage? Or just decided that he was rich enough to take hostage? He seems to think this will never happen, as he treks hither and yon around the world. I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, Rory, it’s good to have you back.

    • Terry Field

      I spent a year there – a shudderingly dreadful but exotic experience.

      • As an adult, I take it. Which might be better in some ways and worse in others!

        • Terry Field

          Adult or child, it was NOT good!

  • VarahaMihira Gopu

    Now imagine the United States Air Force napalming you and drone bombing you every day for a decade….

  • Nick

    I lived in Qatar for 14 months ending in May 2011. I was falsely arrested and spent 3 harrowing days locked up not knowing when or if I was going to be let out. All this happened because a taxi driver would not take me back to my home (Ezdan Towers). I thought I was actually going to be murdered until I jumped out and thought I had found help with the local police. I thought wrong. They took me back to Qatar central prison. There I copped a beating, I was made to undress and i now have no feeling in my left hand pinky finger due to the tightness of the handcuffs.

    After 2 sleepless nights and 3 frightening days they simply came and got me and let me out the front door as if nothing had happened.

    I was too scared to mention it to my employer through fear of losing my job.

    I eventually left 1 month later.

    This has left me mentally scarred to this very day.

    I am so angry 3 years on.

    Nick – Australia

  • can’t tell

    Once I am out of here I am definitely going to share my experience with you. I used to take my country for granted not realising it is the safest place in the world. Cannot wait to get back! Ex Lowe Employee 🙂

  • Gilbert White

    They have to be strict on planes thought everybody knew this?

  • hogsnort

    Should have vaped in the dunny. No smoke, no smell and, guess what, nobody will see you. If anyone hates long distance flights because of nicotine withdrawal, e-cigs are a wonderful thing.

  • If where incarcerated in “Middle East” lucky, gotten your sanity due inhuman conditions. Sharia law, U.K needs pressure to abolish this uncivilized trail with beheading only “Gulf states” oppression and hate!

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