As I am currently writing my third book, Maiden Rising, which covers 1999 to now, there is obviously a large chunk in the middle about our time in Qatar and the devastating consequences of doing business there. I had never heard of Qatar when I first went there in 2003 and Doha, now packed with glittering skyscrapers, was little more than a dusty backwater with the makings of a city. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into and having done business in Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Lebanon, knew only good things about being in Middle East countries. I had nothing to fear – or so I thought…………
On that note I thought that I would make these few chapters available for anyone considering going to Qatar for the World Cup and those who are already knee deep in supporting and promoting it.
Over 2003 to 2005, I and my team, created, organised and ran the first ever non-stop round the world yacht race to start and finish in the Middle East; Qatar to be precise. The ‘Oryx Quest’ was sponsored by HSBC and a Qatari organisation and the race took place at the beginning of 2005. By June, we were coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Qatari organisation that had sponsored us had been quietly ‘dissolved’ during the actual race and that we were not going to get paid; HSBC paid in full and on time of course.
When I began questioning what was going on, things got nasty very quickly and I managed to fly everyone back to their respective countries as suddenly I felt very strongly that we were not safe there. However, we had bills to pay and I owed a bank in Qatar an extremely large amount of money which I had borrowed to pay for the race; the loan, covered by the sponsorship agreement, had also been guaranteed by HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in his position as CEO of QNOC, who had in turn taken a position on my home and my boat as collateral. By that time, we also had proof that some of the funds I had borrowed had been ‘syphoned off’ before they reached us.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
Three days later, on 10th July, 2005 I made a decision that would change our lives forever. Or to be more precise, a decision whose consequences would rip our lives apart, destroy the final few years of my Mum’s life and hasten her death. I was still in the UK, safe but stressed beyond belief.
And then the email arrived. It was from Paresh, who shared our office and acted as agent between me and my sponsor under the Kafala system, his boss, the Foreign Minister HH Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. The email basically asked me to return to Qatar and meet with a Representative of the Foreign Minister to ‘update them.’ At that time, I did not know that things had turned nastier than I could ever have imagined. Even though we had our problems getting paid and getting others paid, I still thought of Qatar as my second home and no matter that we had enemies, we also had many friends. I also knew that if I could get this sorted out, we could get on with the second event and conclude sponsorship deals for that event. We would survive and everyone would get paid – including me.
Ha! If I had known what was really going on behind the scenes, wild horses would not have got me on a Qatar Airways flight back to Doha. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I emailed back that I could not return till 3rd September as planned. I had speaking engagements, was busy keeping my family afloat, putting the company into Voluntary Administration in order to facilitate the retrieval and sale of assets for creditors in an orderly fashion.
The next email in reply literally begged me to get on a plane and get back there.
“There is something not right here.” Greg read the email over my shoulder and shook his head.
“I know but what can I do? He needs me to go, and I don’t want him to get into trouble if there is a problem that I can sort out.”
“But we know people who have been held there.”
“Why would they hold me there? All I am trying to do it get us paid. Why would they do anything to me?”
“Really.” Greg turned his head to look at me, as someone might give a pitying look to the Village Idiot. “You want to take that chance?”
“I can’t let someone else clear up the mess that our Sponsor has made. Look, I’ll go for 4 days and then I will be back for the meetings and the talks I have lined up. It will be fine. We have just organised an amazing event for them. Why would they want to hurt me?”
As I write these words I wonder at my naivety. Seriously I want to reach into the past and shake me by the shoulders and slap me about the face a few times.
DON’T GO YOU IDIOT!
And then I called our travel agent and booked my tickets while emailing Paresh to say I would be flying to Doha on 13th July and returning to the UK on 17th July. He replied that he would set the meeting up. Oh, and if I could reach back in time again I would like to punch Paresh – very, very hard. What a complete slime ball.
Three days later I said goodbye to Mum, kissed my five-year-old daughter and Greg took me to Heathrow to get the late night flight to Doha. Was I nervous when I checked in? Maybe a little but only because I had so much going on and could well do without this trip. Everything hung in the balance and every day mattered. But there I was once again in Terminal 3 late at night waiting for yet another flight to Qatar. As I walked into the Irish Pub airside, I half expected the barman to say “The usual?”
Arriving in Doha Airport bleary eyed at 06.30 I was on automatic pilot as I went through passport control, so quick and easy with my resident’s permit (without which I could not do business in Qatar and which required me to have an ‘Exit Visa’ to enable me to leave that bloody place) and with no baggage I was through in minutes. Aadan was waiting for me with my car and his usual cheery smile and I dropped him off on the way home.
Ramesh greeted me at the door of my house but instead of his usual bright smile there was a worried look on his face. We went into the kitchen so I could make a much needed strong coffee and he told me that Paresh had been calling in every day since I had left to see if I was there. Strange. He knew I was coming back. I told Ramesh not to worry and he went outside to water the garden while I took my coffee into the room I used as my office.
The house was quieter than it had ever been. No chattering from Mack, devoid of Cath, Janie and Aisha, no Ildi or Libby having meetings and no Greg or Cat planning and laughing. Complete silence. An empty silent house devoid of the usual comings and goings of the Oryx Quest. Sinking into my chair, I placed my coffee on the desk and turned on my computer. Opening my emails, I sent a quick message to Paresh to say that I was back and ask when the meeting was. Then I texted Greg to say that I was home safely and to give my love to Mum and Mack. So, nothing to do but have a nap and wait for the day to begin in Doha.
The rest of the day consisted of a strange game of cat and mouse as I tried to find Paresh who was suddenly nowhere to be seen. No reply to my email, no reply to my texts or calls and no-one at home when I called in at his house next door. Nothing. I decided to go into the office. Upon arriving I went into our office first to grab some files and then next door to find Paresh.
“He’s gone on holiday,” said a bemused Salima “He’s gone for a month with his family to the South of France.”
“Did he leave me a message about a meeting?”
“No. Nothing at all. Oh, he did leave some papers for you to sign.”
“These are in Arabic. Who wants me to sign them?”
“He didn’t say, just that you should sign them and give them to Fadi Bachos.”
“Right. If he calls, get him to call me please.”
I felt sick as I got the lift down to the underground car park. My scalp tingled as if I was in ‘fight or flight’ response mode. Trying to control my breathing which had become ragged I tried not to panic. But deep down, I knew. I knew what was going on I just didn’t want to believe it. Sitting in my car in the flickering light of the cavernous car park I had absolutely no idea what to do. I felt paralysed with fear but realised I was actually rocking back and forth. I shook my head to clear it, started the car and drove home. I needed to speak with Paresh – urgently. There had to be an explanation, there just had to be. I threw the two page document written in Arabic onto the passenger seat in disgust and started the engine.
Arriving home, I again sat in my office and tried to calmly work out what to do next. Without Paresh how would I get my Exit Visa to leave Qatar? He was my link with the Foreign Minister. I suddenly remembered the mobile in my desk drawer that was used by people who visited and didn’t need to have a permanent Qatar mobile. I wondered if Paresh would answer a number he didn’t recognise. If he was just avoiding my calls then maybe he would. With my heart literally thumping in my chest I dialled his number. If he didn’t answer there was a chance that this was all some huge mistake – if he did answer – well I didn’t want to think what that would mean.
The phone rang, once, twice, three times and then a click as it was answered. I exhaled so loudly I made myself jump.
“Paresh its Tracy please don’t put the phone down.”
“Paresh? Say something please. What the hell is going on?”
“I’m sorry Tracy I didn’t have a choice. The Foreign Minister forced me to get you back.”
“How the bloody hell did he do that?” my voice rose a level
“He told me they would hold me and my family in Qatar unless you came back.”
Now it was my turn to be silent as I tried assimilate the news and what it meant.
“How do I get my Exit Visa if you are not here?”
“You need to meet with Fadi Bachos at the Foreign Minister’s Office but they won’t let you leave until you sign some documents. They also want you to sign a confidentiality agreement. My office knows how to reach Fadi…… I’m sorry but it was you or me.”
And then the phone went dead.
The next three days were a blur as I tried to get hold of this mysterious man who was the supposed link to the Foreign Minister who held my life in his hands. I called everyone I could think of. I called my link to HH Sheikh Tamim but there was no answer. His secretary – no I couldn’t see him; he was too busy. My solicitor Khalid Al Attiya – no answer. His office – no you can’t see him he is too busy. Sheikh Hassan – out of the country for the summer. Sheikh Jassim’s secretary did actually answer his mobile and confirmed my suspicions that he really didn’t know what was going on and probably never had. He was at least sympathetic and asked me to write a letter to Sheikh Jassim detailing what was going on and drop it of at his office, which I duly did, leaving it with him at QNOC.
The day of my return flight home came and I called Greg to ask him to move my reservation for two days’ time which he did. It was a strange feeling making that call because it was the first time I had acknowledged to myself that I couldn’t fly home. I was not allowed to get on a plane and leave Qatar. I was, in effect, a prisoner in a country that now seemed very sinister. I had known people who couldn’t leave, had them round for dinner in fact, but it had never seemed real somehow. Now I knew it was real. I was being held in Qatar against my will.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
I knew I had to find out what the legal implications were but before I could do that I had money to worry about. If I couldn’t get home for my Speaking Engagements those worries were about to get a whole lot worse. After the initial panic of feeling trapped, a strange calm descended on me and I started to think very clearly. I couldn’t afford the car any more so it went back to the rental and Aadan, bless him, drove me around in his uncle’s old banger. The house was paid up until September so that was ok and the office was paid until the end of July. OK so I had time move stuff from the office to the house and I could base myself there.
Aadan and I spent a day moving boxes from the office to the house, planning to move the big stuff like computers, filing cabinets and printers in the days that followed. The next thing I had to do was strategise a plan of action. Was it better to fight from here or ask Greg to do something back in the UK? Maybe a mixture of both I reasoned. I would phone Fadi Bachos every single day until he bloody well helped me. Getting to grips with the situation was like trying to hold onto a wriggling eel. I found it so hard to form thoughts in my head. I had to completely change my perception of Qatar from somewhere that, as bonkers as it was, had been home, to what it was now; enemy territory.
My life felt like a huge pile of muddled worries and I knew I had to separate each strand and understand where it started, where it was going and where along each strand I was. I must also figure out how everything impacted on everything else and what my priorities were in each case. Personal problems and business problems needed to be categorised and listed in order of priority as well as chances of success. I needed to focus on what it would take to get me home and then go from there. That was the key to my survival and that of my family and my team and if we survived then everyone could get paid at some point down the line. I must not get distracted by things that I could do nothing about. I did email Brian and Tony and told them that there was an ongoing problem with the prize money but that I was trying to sort it out and they were both extremely supportive. I did not tell them I was being held in Qatar.
The other real problem with being held in Qatar in the summer is that all the Qataris are in London. It’s too hot for them so they all leave. The people who work for them remain to swelter it out, but they have no power and certainly would not be able to help me. I tried every single day to get hold of Fadi Bachos from the Foreign Office and my solicitor, Khalid Al Attiya, the man whose words to me had been “Don’t worry, your Sponsor will pay you. I will make sure of it.” His office suggested that I try going to the Office of Human Rights of which Khalid was President. Yes, believe it or not, Doha has an Office of Human Rights. Looking at how migrant workers are treated here, they could win, hands down, a prize for being the most useless organisation on the planet.
Aadan took me there anyway – just in case. It was closed for the summer. Of course it was. Where to next? The British Consulate must be able to help me. I had known the previous ambassador; the brilliant David MacLennan and he had helped with many of our events when Royals or Sheikhs had been in attendance. There was now a new ambassador whom I had met a couple of times and although he seemed fairly benign, he must be able to do something, right? Wrong. This was to be the first of many visits to the ineffective and impotent British Consulate. We arrived just as it was re-opening after lunch and after a short wait, I was ushered in to see the Ambassador. I am guessing that the only reason I was able to get in that quickly to see the top man was because we had previously met but I didn’t care. I would take what I could get.
We sat in his office and I outlined what had happened while he sat with a slightly disbelieving look on his face – or was it pity? A full twenty minutes later when I finished speaking, he drew a breath, pursed his lips, and looked at me frowning.
“I’m afraid you are describing what we refer to as a civil matter and we cannot get involved in civil matters.”
“What exactly does that mean?” now it was my turn to frown
“It’s a legal matter and will need to be handled by solicitors.”
“But it’s not a legal matter. I have no notification of a court case against me. I am being refused my exit visa without any explanation whatsoever and being told that if I want to leave I have to sign an agreement in Arabic which I am guessing basically removes my rights. Isn’t that blackmail? Can you at least speak with someone at the Qatar Foreign Office and ask them what the hell is going on?”
We parted company with him shaking my hand and promising to see if he could find out what was going on but being careful not to promise anything. He didn’t look me in the eye and I was far from convinced that he would be rocking any boats in Doha any time soon. I left the building wishing that David was still in residence as Ambassador but I didn’t even know how to get hold of him now he had left.
I had now been held in Qatar for a week and it felt like a year. I knew of cases where people had been there for months, or even years and of at least one suicide. For the first time, as Aadan and I drove away from the Consulate, I felt pure terror. I knew it was pure terror because I had felt it before; in the Southern Ocean on Maiden when I thought we were going to die. It was an icy hand gripping the back of my neck causing the hairs to stand on end. The hand then reached down my spine as I went into a cold sweat. Then the panic that stirred from the pit of my stomach made the bile rise in my throat. Yup I knew this feeling very well – we were very well acquainted.
Aadan stopped the car before we reached the main road and turned to look at me. I dug deep and found the will power to smile. He too smiled but I guess we both looked as worried as each other. On the drive home I told him what the Ambassador had said as he listened and nodded.
“You know Miss Tracy, I drove Mr Robert when he was held here.”
Oh my God how had I forgotten that?! So much for thinking clearly! It’s how we met. He drove Robert to my house for dinner one evening when he was being held. As I have said previously, Robert had been one of the first people I had met in Doha. He had been head of the Qatar Tourism Authority which had ended up being one of our sponsors. Robert didn’t tell me too much about why he was prevented from leaving but I had heard via the Doha Drums that he had annoyed Akbar Al Bakar, who runs Qatar Airways. I believe Al Bakar accused him of stealing money which, when you know Robert, is as unlikely as me sprouting wings. He eventually cleared his name and when he was finally released after two months, he had asked me to employ Aadan.
Aadan filled me in on as much detail as he remembered as we drove along the desert road to the house. The sun hung low in the sky to our right, throwing shadows of the tiny local mosque across the sand. Round the Intercontinental roundabout and then off road to take the short cut, bouncing over the uneven desert, dust billowing around the car, before reaching the smooth new road that led to the house. I started to take my seatbelt out of the clip as we drew near, ready to get out and dash through the unbearable heat to the sanctuary of cool marble with air conditioning. But, instead of braking, Aadan hit the gas pedal and kept going, hissing “keep your head down” out of the side of his mouth.
In an instant and without question, I leant down putting my head on my knees, feeling the blood rush to my head. Aadan continued smoothly but accelerating slightly until the end of the road and then he turned onto the dual carriageway. I sat up in the car and instinctively turned to look through the rear window.
“What the hell was that about?” my voice sounded an octave higher than usual.
“Secret Police outside your house.”
I laughed involuntarily and then I looked at Aadan’s face and stopped laughing.
“You can’t stay there tonight. Who can you stay with?”
“Let me call Cat.” I said as I fumbled inside my handbag and grabbed my mobile.
As Aadan headed towards Cat and her husband David’s house, I felt a ridiculous urge to laugh again. Completely inappropriate reaction, but I had maxed out on fear by that point. I called Cat and yes of course it was no problem. I didn’t want to get her involved, but I just couldn’t trust anyone else. Cat lived right across the other side of town and the traffic was littered with the usual kamikaze drivers and pedestrians, but we eventually got there. I then realised I couldn’t just leave Ramesh not knowing what was happening so I asked Aadan to take him one of the spare mobiles with a prepaid sim so that we could keep in touch. He agreed and said to call him in the morning and let him know what I was up to. I agreed, thanked him profusely and went into the compound where Cat and David lived.
Cat came out through her pretty little courtyard and met me carrying a very large glass of vodka and tonic with lime and ice and I promptly burst into tears! She thrust the drink into my hand and hugged me which made me cry even more. The sun had now disappeared below the horizon and the air cooled slightly to a heavy, humid fug. We each drew up a wicker chair on the front stoop and sat down. I wiped my eyes with a tissue and told my story for the second time that day to a shocked Cat. As I spoke the final call to prayer rose eerily from the local mosque and acted as a reminder of just how far from home I was. I have always loved the call to prayer but now it just sounded threatening.
As we spoke, David cooked us dinner and I realised I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. We went inside and I hoovered the plate of Spag Bol in what seemed like seconds.
“Hungry?” laughed David
“Thank you so much – best meal ever!” I laughed for the first time in what seemed like days.
A few glasses of wine later and feeling slightly calmer, Cat showed me to the guest room with spare pyjamas and a brand new toothbrush. I just couldn’t stop thanking her as we hugged good night and she left me to get my head down. Switching off the light, I sat on the bed in the dark, tugged off my clothes and slipped into lovely clean pyjamas. My limbs felt as if they were made of lead. I thought about brushing my teeth but the effort was just too much so falling sideways onto the bed I pulled the covers over me and curled into the foetal position. I felt tears prickle my eyes again but I thought, ‘if I start crying now, I don’t think I will ever stop.’ Fear enveloped me; it drenched me, wrapping itself around me, totally and completely drowning me. My stomach churned and my heart ached as I clutched my legs to me, making myself as small as I possibly could.
I must have fallen asleep in seconds as I remember no other thoughts and certainly no dreams. When I woke, sunlight poured through the curtains and I uncoiled my stiff body. Without even a moment’s blessed forgetfulness of where I was, I was plunged into the day like being thrown into an icy pool. I took a deep breath and thought ‘I have to fight today. I have to find my way home and I must think straight. No more crying and no more panicking.’
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
I couldn’t believe I had slept until 10am and Cat and David had already left for work. Cat had left me note in the kitchen telling me to help myself to coffee etc. and there was also a spare set of keys with a PS. ‘stay as long as you need to.’ I made coffee and then sat down at the table with my ever present note pad and started to sketch a plan of action. I made a list of contacts in Qatar and a list of contacts in the UK and prioritised them. Then I called Greg; it would be early in the UK but I couldn’t wait. I was going to have to work out how I could afford to make the number of calls I was going to need to. He answered at the second ring.
“How are you?” he asked
“I’ve been better.”
I explained the ‘Secret Police’ situation and my trip to the Consulate and he filled me in on news from home.
“OK, so I called Mark Lucas yesterday just cos he knows so many people and also I thought as he manages Andy McNab he may have some interesting contacts? Anyway, he said he would think about who he could put us in touch with. Cath and I were wondering whether to get the press involved. What do you think?”
“I think that would be a very bad idea. Possibly as a last resort. I just think that it will make them dig their heels in and also worry people. I have to keep trying to get everyone paid and this news could just slam the brakes on.”
“OK” said Greg not sounding very convinced. “We have also spoken to a mate of mine who knows someone in Mossad to see if they rescue people from Middle Eastern countries …. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say!”
After making a list of things that each of us was to do we agreed that I should go back to the Consulate and insist on some help. So, I called Aadan and whilst I was waiting for him to arrive, I made my daily call to Fadi Bachos, whose very existence I was beginning to doubt. An hour later Aadan pulled up and we were on our way. This time I was not allowed past the front desk and I had the feeling that I had been marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. The woman behind the glass moved slowly and spoke in the soothing tones usually reserved for unpredictable clients. Step away from the crazy Englishwoman. She reiterated that they couldn’t help me but gave me a list of solicitors in Qatar.
“But I have no money to pay a solicitor because I am owed money, have had money stolen from me and I am now being held here against my will so can’t earn money.” I tried to keep my voice level in case I scared her.
“I’m sorry but that is not our problem.” She answered before beetling off into the back office leaving me standing there holding the piece of paper.
As I walked out of the building laughingly called a ‘Consulate’ I tripped and broke my flip flop………… and promptly burst into tears. Good grief. I thought I had cried more in the past 10 days that in the whole of the rest of my life. Aadan was waiting in the banger and I got in still sobbing.
“I don’t understand.” I shouted “I have a British passport for God’s sake.”
But as Aadan drove to the main road, I looked at him and realisation dawned on me ‘Just shut up Edwards’ I thought ‘you are British and at the top of the food chain here and Aadan is Somalian and close to the bottom. People will help you and you will get out of here. Somalians have no options at all.’ I dried my tears and shut up. We stopped at the junction and I showed Aadan the list. I then crossed off those I knew couldn’t help because they worked for the enemy and we were left with six solicitors. I asked if we could start at the top and off we went.
I called the first law firm on the list and made an appointment for first thing in the afternoon and then followed that up by making appointments at two others later that day and the remaining three the day after. First on the list turned out to be in a swanky marble and gold office in a brand new building near to City Centre. Aadan came in with me in case they didn’t speak English and we must have looked like a right pair. Actually Aadan looked quite smart. I was the one with the hastily duct-taped flip flop and red puffy eyes. We were made to wait the standard 20 minutes or so to remind us that we were peasants and the solicitor with whom we had the meeting was very grand and important. We were then shown into his office which was in such bad taste I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so miserable. Aadan kicked off the meeting and 12 minutes later we were being hastily escorted from the office and to the lifts.
“You are up against the Foreign Minister and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. I fear that the other meetings may go the same way.” Aadan explained.
I wasn’t even surprised really and that afternoon and the next day proved that Aadan knew what he was talking about. We were whisked out of each ridiculously opulent office quicker than you could say ‘the Foreign Minister is the scariest man in Qatar’. Finally, there was one name on the list and as I looked at it I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed before that it was the name of a woman. How could I have missed that? I would have gone there first if my brain had been working.
Fawzia Al Obaidly’s offices were in an unfashionable area of the ‘old town’ and off we went. When we arrived and parked at the side of the dusty road there wasn’t a single piece of marble in sight. Just a drab street of ordinary houses, built before the boom of LNG. We got out into the dragon’s breath of afternoon sun and walked over to a wrought iron gate which was slightly ajar and then into the pretty courtyard beyond. In the corner was a door with a brass plaque to the side which told us we were in the right place. I followed Aadan inside to the slightly cooler interior which was basic but welcoming. The waiting area was packed with an assortment of people sitting quietly and the receptionist beckoned us over to her desk. When she told us to go straight in to see Fawzia I felt the first glimmer of hope.
I walked hesitantly through the door first, with Aadan close behind, into a friendly office decorated as someone might decorate a study at home. There were hundreds of books on every available shelf and flat surface. The rugs were worn but exquisite and there were wall hangings and framed Arabic quotes everywhere. I felt instantly at ease. The woman who sat behind the simple desk was completely covered from head to foot in the traditional Niqab, and she motioned us to enter. We shook hands and she asked us to sit down whereupon she removed her veil to reveal a beautiful strong face, a pair of steady but compassionate eyes and a wide genuine smile. We had definitely come to the right place.
We already knew that Fawzia could not speak English so Aadan waded right in with the, by now, well-practised concise version of what was happening. She listened intently while making notes here and there and nodding slightly. When Aadan finished speaking he handed her the document in Arabic I had been told to sign and she read it quickly. Fawzia then spoke at length with a strong and confident voice. At one point she actually smacked her palm on the desk to emphasise a point. I hoped her annoyance was not directed at me. When she finished speaking Aadan translated while she resumed her notes.
“She is saying that she has known cases like yours and is extremely angry that her country continues to treat foreign workers in this way. She loathes the Kafala system and says she will do anything she can to help. I have said you do not have much money and she has suggested that you pay what you can, when you can, if she gets you out. Oh, and you absolutely must not sign this document or anything else for that matter. It’s a trap.”
I looked at Fawzia and just said “Shukran.” She smiled and spoke to Aadan at length while it was his turn to make notes. He made them in English and I marvelled at how anyone could do that. I leaned over and watched the note pad as he wrote. She seemed to be saying that I could not be held in Qatar, even under the Kafala system, if there was no court case against me. It occurred to me that I still didn’t know if there was or not as no-one would speak to me.
We agreed, with much translation, that her assistant would find out if there was a case against me. Aadan was to call her the next morning and we would go from there. We all stood and shook hands and I couldn’t stop saying ‘Shukran’ over and over. She must have thought I was an idiot but she smiled graciously and we left. In the car Aadan explained the rest of the conversation and that in fact it was illegal to hold me if there was no court case.
“Was there a case against Robert?” I asked
“No but it took two months to find that out.”
That evening I updated Greg who said that he had now spoken to Terry Waite, who just happened to be a friend of Mark Lucas, and he said was extremely kind and helpful. He thought he knew someone who could help and would get back to Greg.
I then called my contact at Bank A, from which I had borrowed the money, and asked what the chances were of extending the loan. He said it would not be a problem but as of tomorrow he was on holiday with his family. We agreed to catch up when he was back in the office at the beginning of September. As for my personal situation in the UK, that was still extremely worrying. I had given Power of Attorney to Cath and she was gradually managing to get in touch with my other creditors who again were all extremely understanding and very helpful.
However, in the 12 days I had been held I had missed thousands of pounds worth of work and the speaking agencies were less than impressed. We couldn’t tell them what was going on as we didn’t want to cause a panic. My reputation, built up over 15 years of being one of the best speakers in the competitive UK market, was slowly being whittled away. Qatar had already taken my money and my freedom and now they were destroying my ability to work and take care of my family. A wave of anger swept over me as I thought about what I had done for them and what they were doing to me. I felt like smashing my fist though a wall, but settled for clenching my hands and some deep breathing. Next I called my Agent who told me that he would have to cancel my other talks in a bid to salvage my reputation and as a curtesy to the companies employing me. I knew he was right of course but when he did, that would be it. No income. How would I pay the mortgage and bills? How would I buy food? How would I keep going long enough to get everyone paid? How the bloody hell were we in this situation and how much longer would it continue? More deep breathing.
In total we had to cancel months’ worth of work. Things could be very different today if I had not been forced to do that. Over dinner that night we chatted about what was going on and Cat suggested that I speak with Mark and Katherine at Qatar Sailing Academy. I was not sure what they would be able to do but I could certainly visit them if only just to let them know what was going on. Aadan was borrowing his uncle’s van the next day and we were going to go and get the rest of the stuff from the office so we didn’t have to pay another month’s rent. Maybe we could visit them on the way to take everything from the office to the house. I called Mark and he said he had heard rumours that I was being held there. He invited all of us to dinner at their house the next night and I happily said yes.
It had been a weird day of ups and downs but I felt mostly positive because of meeting Fawzia. I had a very good feeling about her. As if to prove my point, Aadan called me before I went to bed and said that Fawzia had called him. She had asked him to take me to the Sharia Court the next day to sign a paper confirming her as my solicitor. She could do nothing for me in court until this document, giving her permission to act for me, had been presented to the judge. She couldn’t even begin to find out if there was a case against me let alone get me out of the hell-hole that formed my prison. Aadan would pick me up early the next morning.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
At 8am, Aadan and I turned off a Doha street and into a dusty car park where he pointed to a shabby, paint-peeled building to our right. The contrast between this and the brand new marble edifice that is the modern court in the swanky West Bay area could not have been greater.
He parked the car and told me to stay there while he took in my passport to get the paper I had to sign. I sat in the cold air-conditioned car and stared at the street in front of me where normal people were going about their normal business and where just a couple of weeks ago I had also been a normal person going about the business of working in Qatar. Once again, I felt totally detached from my surroundings.
A few minutes later Aadan was back. “They need you to come in and confirm that you need to sign this paper. They won’t listen to me.” Of course they won’t, Somalians are even further down the pecking order than Brits. So, I got out of the car and stepped into the furnace. As the summer was progressing, the heat was becoming even more intense. Even at that time in the morning it was so stifling that your body doesn’t even have time to sweat. You can feel the heat literally sucking the moisture from your skin. My lungs filled with hot air thick with sand and dust. The feeling was overwhelmingly claustrophobic and deeply unpleasant.
We walked towards the grubby building, up the steps and turned to the right where a door hanging off its hinges was ajar and I entered for the very first time, and, I sincerely hoped, the very last time, a Sharia Court building. In the reception area everyone turned round to look at us. I realised in that instant that being in Qatar was just geography. This room, this austere building and these people were truly from a secret world that had been hidden to me. Working in Qatar and being away from the UK for two years I had never ever felt uncomfortable or uneasy. Now I just wanted to turn and run.
I was suddenly aware, as I had not planned to go into a Sharia Court Building, that although I was wearing my customary wrist length shirt buttoned up to my chin and floor length skirt, my head was uncovered and my face must show fear. Eyes cast downward, I followed Aadan through the lobby where a crowd of men in traditional Qatari dress, calmly sat in eerie silence waiting their turn, to a desk behind which a man with a particularly unfriendly face was sitting.
“What you want here?”
I looked at Aadan and he gestured for me to answer.
“I need to sign a form” I stammered
“What form?” He already knew the answer of course.
“The form that gives my solicitor permission to act for me.”
“What his name?” Again, he already knew this.
“HER name is Fawzia” and my mind went blank. Oh god what was her surname?
He watched me struggle with my memory and then surprisingly decided to assist.
“Al Obaidly?” he asked
“Yes” I said relieved
He wrote something in Arabic on a piece of paper and said “Take this with your passport to woman’s section.” He waved his hand in the general direction of the door dismissing me.
I didn’t need to be told twice and I was out of there, with every pair of eyes in the room following me. Aadan was close behind. We went outside to a blast of baking hot air and then in another door to a blast of cold. We were in a huge stone hall, with high ceilings totally empty except for a small reception desk at the far end. Groups of men who had been chatting watched us pass. No-one spoke and our footsteps echoed loudly. This was good however as it masked the sound of my thumping heart. We reached the desk where two men were sitting reading. They did not look up even though they knew we were there.
Aadan spoke in Arabic and asked them where the women’s section was. One of them waved a hand towards a door on the far side of the hall. Aadan took me over and explained I must go in alone with my passport and give them the piece of paper. Nervously I pushed the door open and entered a small hallway. This again was a different world, a world of women where men are not allowed.
A smiling woman in bright colourful clothing greeted me and I smile back relieved.
“English?” she said still smiling
“Yes. I need to sign a form.” I mumbled handing her my passport and the piece of paper.
“Please to be sit here.” She walked off towards an office.
I looked around at this friendly, comfortable almost homely area and smiled to myself. Women are the one constant in this diverse world I thought. I peered into the office next to my seat where the desks were covered with cuddly toys, photos of happy smiling children and laughing grandchildren. There were bright pictures on the grubby walls and dusty plastic flowers on a broken table. The air smelled strongly of incense. There were bright voices down the hall coming closer. The same woman beckoned me to follow her.
The next office I entered was small and efficient. There was a woman in a Hijab at one desk speaking in consoling tones to another whose face was totally covered by a Niqab but who appeared to be sobbing quietly. I wondered briefly what her story was before sitting in the free chair next to the other desk. Another smiling woman was sitting there with my passport and the note in front of her. She tapped away at her computer, creating the form that I must sign. I watched the screen. I am always fascinated with Arabic writing especially when it comes from a computer.
“City you live?” she asked me
“Er in England or here?”
“In Doha you live?”
“Where do I live now?” Good grief, I couldn’t remember Cat’s address. “You need my address in Doha?”
“In Qatar?” she asked a puzzled frown on her beautiful face.
This could go on for a while I thought, and we realised it at the same instant. We looked at each other in bewilderment for a moment and then burst out laughing together. “I write Doha!” she said eventually
The form took about 10 minutes to complete and then she printed it and I signed a piece of paper which was totally in Arabic hoping that I hadn’t just signed some sort of confession. ‘Yes your honour I am guilty of being naive and stupid enough to hold a round the world race based in Qatar. Lock me up instantly, I am totally insane!’
“Shukran” I said and departed as she smiled after me.
Aadan was waiting and as we got into the car we looked at each other and burst into yet another fit of hysterical, crazed and very scary laughter; I was crying at the same time and my heart actually hurt. Oh dear, I really was hanging on by a thread. How much longer this nightmare could continue I had no idea. What I did know for sure was that I must remain calm, fight this overwhelming urge to scream and tear my hair out and trust Fawzia to get me home. Home to my daughter. Home to my Mum. Home to my life which thanks to Qatar was falling apart. Home to England which had never before looked so good.
“Miss Tracy.” Says Aadan gently “Mrs Al Obaidly will help us. They cannot hold you hostage here forever.”
Back at Cat’s that night I was beginning to wonder and fought the aching fear in the pit of my stomach which had become my constant companion. There was a sinister and threatening undertone which now accompanied me everywhere and I could not shake the sense that I was being watched. I would catch myself glancing over my shoulder if I walked anywhere and more than few times I felt my heart race with fear as I thought I caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure. The hairs on the back of my neck would stand on end if I caught sight of an SUV with blacked out windows and I wondered what I would do if I was grabbed off the street. I knew for a fact that this had happened to people in Qatar but before now of course that kind of thing had only ever happened to other people. Now I was potentially one of those other people. It was the ‘not knowing how long I would be here’ which provided the mental torture and I wondered if this is how Fred had felt. Is this how the man who had jumped off the building had felt after two months of being held here? To maintain the ‘fight or flight’ response for long periods was to place the body and mind under extreme stress and that is how I felt every day.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
I now knew I was now being followed and my phones were being tapped. This was my darkest time and if I hadn’t had my five year old daughter to get home to I honestly believe I would have contemplated the unthinkable.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
Greg smuggled a clean sim card to me in a child’s toy and met with Terry Waite who gave us the contact details of a friend in the British Foreign Office who knew HH The Emir. It was now the beginning of the second week of August and fourth week being held in Qatar.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
The 10th August 2005 started as any other day. I woke bathed in a cold sweat and my dawning consciousness was of blind panic and terror. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t feel afraid. My second thoughts were the events of the previous day – maybe something would happen today. I turned over and looked at the clock – 6am. I couldn’t supress a tiny glimmer of optimism but I had to; I had been here before.
The plan for the day was a visit to Fawzia at 8am for her to confirm the process and what if anything we needed to do. I knew that Greg was meeting Terry Waite that afternoon and that supposedly, my passport was at the Foreign Office. I got up, showered and dressed quickly, then went through into the kitchen to make some coffee. As I sat sipping from the steaming mug I wondered if at midday I would be changing my ticket to tomorrow as I had done every day for the past 28 days. And, as I did so, my mobile rang. It was Aadan.
“Miss Tracy, I think I have some good news.” He sounded breathless “Fawzia has just called me. She is on her way to the Foreign Office to get your passport!”
The world stopped on its axis……….. it just stopped turning. Everything stopped; my heart, my breathing, my thoughts. I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights.
“I’m here.” I barely breathed “What did she say?”
“She says that it’s true what Mr John said, and what they told her, they have agreed to let you go. The Foreign Office has granted your exit visa. She says not to change your flight but just pack whatever you can. She will call me when it’s ready and I will call you. Get ready!”
I ended the call and stared at the phone in my hand not quite knowing what to do next. And then a million thoughts all jumped into my head at the same time, bumping and pushing each other aside, clamouring to be heard. I shook my head and laughed just once, very loudly before clapping my hand over my mouth to stifle the sound. Just at that moment Cat walked into the kitchen. Seeing the look on my face she just mouthed OH MY GOD and grinned broadly.
“I don’t know. I think so. I might be going tonight!”
We grabbed hold of each other and jumped up and down like children, yelping and whooping. David walked in rubbing his eyes and then laughed when he saw us.
“I’m guessing its good news?”
We both nodded and I explained while David produced more coffee. Then we all sat and chatted excitedly about what the day might bring. I couldn’t call Greg yet and didn’t have anyone in Qatar that I wanted to call but I did want to go and see Ramesh. Cat said she would drop me off at the Four Seasons on the way to work.
As I hurried into the hotel, I wondered would this be the last time I would ever see this building again? I bloody hoped so. If Ramesh had not been safe I could not have left.
After an hour or so, my good friend, the manager, walked me out to the front of the hotel and beckoned one of the limousines to draw up. He kindly offered its services for the rest of the day and we said our goodbyes. Although I was so glad to be leaving there were many people I would miss and he and his family along with Ramesh were in the top ten. As we drove off I turned and waved through the rear window as he stood and raised a hand.
I had decided to go and get a few more belongings from the house as it would be my last chance and although she had volunteered, I didn’t want to leave Cat with too much to do. So, the limo driver took me to West Bay for the final time – I prayed. When we arrived, I did a quick scan for secret-police cars ……. as you do, and seeing none got out of the limo. I was immediately in for my next surprise of the day; where there had been the air-conditioning units that I had bought and installed, there were now just empty gaping holes. Someone had stolen every single one of them – seriously, I am not making this up. I imagined I was now the worthy winner of the ‘who has had more of their house stolen than anyone else’ competition and made a mental note to email Libby and tell her that she and her missing bathroom had been usurped. It was fitting somehow that, finally, everything of value that we had added to this armpit of a country had been stripped away.
The limo driver did nothing more than delicately arch one eyebrow as he looked at the holes. I am guessing that as a driver of the wealthy in Qatar, he has seen his fair share of the untoward. Taking a deep breath, I walked up to the front door while rummaging around for my keys and then inserting said key into front door. Something was wrong. I tried turning the key then wiggling it then waggling it and then removing it. Standing there like a lemon, I turned and looked at the limo driver who was watching all of this with absolutely no change of expression whatsoever. He then walked up to me and held his hand out for the key. This was obviously all in a day’s work for him and he valiantly gave it a go, while remaining superbly aloof. Nothing. Someone had changed the locks – with all my stuff inside. Actually, the only thing that really upset me was that all Mack’s toys were still in there.
Defeated, I asked the coolest limo driver in the world to take me to Cat’s house. As we drove through the West Bay area and then onto the A Ring and along the Corniche I could feel myself getting nervous again. The whole sorry episode had just made me anxious and I had instantly reverted to total cynicism of anything to do with Qatar and that included my escape. As we drove along the Corniche I tried to remember the happy times and the crazy scenarios in which we had found ourselves to be players. But it was bittersweet. We passed the area where our amazing Race Village had been and the Marina we had worked so hard to get in place. Half of it had now been stolen and I was sure that it wouldn’t be long before the rest of it ended up at the bottom of some Sheikh or other’s garden.
On our right now was Grand Hammad Street and Bank Sederat Iran in which had been our office. Our now empty ransacked office. It was less than three months since the end of the race and Qatar had all but wiped us out. Continuing on through the old town we passed the Souk where we had made such comical discoveries and Mack had developed her ‘hair bobble’ obsession. We really had, despite everything that had been thrown at us, managed to embrace living here – and now I counted the hours till they threw me out – hopefully.
We arrived at Cat’s compound and I thanked the driver and wearily went inside. I felt bowed by the sheer weight of what had happened to us. Just as I sat down with a cup of sweet tea, Aadan called.
“Hi Aadan, any news?”
“Yes….. but it’s not good Miss Tracy” Aadan was using his soothing voice which was a worry.
“What now” through gritted teeth, although it was hardly his fault.
“Miss Fawzia waited all morning at the Foreign Office but no passport and no information. They are closed now till 5pm when she will go back.”
I slumped on my chair and lowered my forehead on the table with a thud.
“Do I change my ticket or go to the airport?”
“Oh, she said go to airport for the early flight but ask Greg to also book you on the late flight as well.”
I didn’t even know if that was possible.
Aadan signed off by saying he would pick me up at 7pm. Maybe we would know by then. ‘Wow,’ I thought ‘I really must quash this tiny sliver of optimism that keeps popping up’. Abandoning our coded text system with almost reckless frivolity, I called Greg and updated him and in turn he said he would call the travel agent to see if we could run two reservations at the same time. Possibly the least bizarre thing I had asked while being there.
I packed the final few remaining things and wondered in which country I would be unpacking them. Putting everything, and by that I mean my rather meagre possessions which hadn’t been stolen, by the door I went outside for a quick cigarette. Rather conveniently, it takes exactly the same amount of time to smoke a cigarette as it takes before you start melting and have to dash indoors; either that or I had learned to smoke at warp speed. Then I settled down in my room to have a nap. I knew if I didn’t I would just conk out later on. I fell into a fitful sleep in which I dreamt of being at home in the garden with Mack.
The next thing I knew, Cat woke me with a cup of sweet tea and told me it was 6pm. It was already dark outside and I got up feeling unrested and strained. I checked my mobile and there was a text from Greg saying ‘We used all your air-miles and got you a first-class ticket for 10.35pm and one for 11.45pm.’ I sent back a smile but only because I couldn’t find crossed fingers or hands clasped in prayer.
And so it was that David, Cat and I sat in their little courtyard and drank what we all hoped were goodbye vodka and tonics and told each other funny stories of our adventures in Qatar. Libby’s kitchen, Kate’s knickers, the drunk journalist, the ‘Inter-racial Jury’ T-shirt, Sheikh Jassim’s bottom and many, many more. After a while we were quite literally crying and helpless with laughter; although just beneath the surface I felt as if I was once more peering into the abyss. Hopefully it was busy with some other poor sod and hadn’t noticed.
At 7pm on the dot Aadan arrived in his uncle’s banger and we loaded the bags and Mack’s bicycle, which was the only thing of hers I had managed to save. Cat had kindly agreed to get hold of Paresh, whom we assumed had changed the locks, and see if she could pack up what was left, to send home to us. Then they both said they wanted to come to the airport with us to say goodbye and would follow us in their car. I have absolutely no idea what I would have done without Cat and David. I think I might have lost the plot completely. I could see that someone who was stuck here without friends might do more than just consider suicide. In the end it was friends and family that had kept me going.
As we left the compound I once again scanned for secret police – would I ever get out of that habit? We had been left alone at last and I preferred to believe that it was because they thought I was flying out tonight. Any other reason would be unthinkable. 20 minutes later we were at Doha airport. The difference between evening traffic during the summer when no-one was here, as now, and then during the winter months is extreme. Doha is one big traffic jam in the winter. We were extremely early for the 10.35 flight and although I still didn’t have my passport, just being at the airport felt as if I was at least doing something.
We stood outside the airport smoking and Aadan called Fawzia. He listened and then turned away from me but it was too late – I had seen his face fall. When he got off the phone he told us that she was still waiting. She had been there for nearly two hours and no-one was giving her any information. I called Greg and asked if he could call John Smith and let him know that there appeared to be a problem. Maybe he could do something although I doubted it.
“What are you going to do if you haven’t got your passport when you have to check in?” Kate broached the question that was playing through my head like a ticker tape on a loop.
“I guess I’ll leave it till the last possible moment and if it’s not here cancel my reservation and confirm the next seat. I don’t know really; I’m making this up as I go along.”
During the next hour we smoked, drank coffee from the little coffee stand and chatted – all studiously pretending to ignore the extremely large clock in the terminal which moved inexorably towards 8.35pm and check-in time. I looked in through the glass and into the departure hall. The queue for the Qatar Airways desk had started building already and, as the flight would probably be half empty at this time of year, it would not take long for it to reduce to nothing again.
I started wearing down a strip of concrete outside as Cat and David saw some friends inside and went to say ‘Hi.’ Aadan called Fawzia again. No answer. My nails were now down to the quick but I kept worrying at them, pausing only to smoke another cigarette and turning to walk back again. The muscles of my face hurt from alternately biting my nails and clenching my jaw. At one point my teeth were clenched so severely that I heard one of them crack under the strain. I think Aadan must have heard it as well as he placed a gentle hand on my arm to reassure me. Then he tried Fawzia again and this time she answered.
I stopped pacing and watched Aadan so hard that I thought my eyes might burst out of my skull and hit him in the face. I blinked slowly and my eyes stung like crazy. I was listening so intently to what he was saying as if I could pull Fawzia’s words from the phone in his hand and draw them into my head. The sound of the blood rushing in my ears was deafening and I thought I might faint. Just as I was starting to feel light headed he said “OK” and closed the phone.
Then he just shook his head.
Without warning, my body threw itself forward, and I vomited straight into a gutter drain which luckily was right in front me. I stood up and wondered who looked more surprised, Aadan or me or possibly the nice couple walking past tutting. Somalians are the Grand Masters at pretending nothing strange has happened so he just looked me straight in the eye.
“She is still there and they are still telling her to wait. She will wait but she thinks you should confirm the next flight – but don’t cancel this one just in case.”
There had been times during the past month that I had felt like falling to my knees and reaching down inside of my soul to produce a scream so powerful that it would reach the heavens. Up to then I had managed to resist that compulsion but I felt that a few more moments like that one and it would be a forgone conclusion.
Cat and David had re-joined us and just stood quietly.
“What do you think?”
“Listen if you don’t have to cancel this flight in order to keep the next one just leave it. Do you feel the need to leave here with thousands of saved Qatar Airways air-miles?” David didn’t speak often but when he did it was usually spot on. “Go and join the queue and we can wait here in case she makes it.”
OK, that’s what I would do. I walked back inside with my luggage and left Aadan, Cat and David outside. I joined the back of the queue and for the first time in my life, prayed for it to move slowly. Well there is a first time for everything; and Qatar is a place that produces more first times than any other place on the bloody planet! As we all did the check-in shuffle, my mobile rang and it was Greg.
“OK so, I’ve spoken to John and he has no idea why there is a delay. He was reassured that you would have your passport and exit visa this morning. So, he is now in the process of calling the Emir to tell him what is happening. What are you doing now?”
“I’m queueing but I’m nearly at the desk so I think I’ll have to leave it and wait until the next flight” I almost sobbed but held it in.
“I’ll call you back as soon as hear from him. Stay strong, this is going to happen.”
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE
As I turned away from the queue I just caught the bemused look of the girl at check-in and I tried to smile but it probably looked quite scary judging by her response. My legs were made of jelly as I walked away and it felt as if every pair of eyes in the airport were watching me, suspiciously. So, I marched over to the exit with my head held as high as I could get it and still see where I was going. And there we all were again. This is when you need a bar outside a Middle Eastern airport. I wondered; just what was the tipping point, the exact moment between sanity and madness, before it occurred to me that I might very well find out this evening.
‘OK so we have two hours before the next flight and check-in just opening now. What the bloody hell do I do?’ Everyone was looking at me expectantly and when the mobile in Aadan’s hand rang we all jumped out of our skins. Then everyone was looking at Aadan.
“Marhaba this is Aadan, yes...ok…..ok…...yes…...yes of course we will be waiting.”
Aadan looked at me and beamed the biggest smile I think I have ever seen.
“She has your passport, and in it there is an exit visa. She is in her car and making her way here now. GO AND QUEUE!”
It is only when those words left his mouth that I realised I had never truly believed that I would ever leave Qatar. And now, I was going. I was leaving this hell hole and I was going home.
“OH MY GOD!” I even startled myself “I’m going home!” Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion and this was enough of both to last me a life time. Everyone suddenly moved at once, grabbing bags and bumping into each other we did ‘Laurel and Hardy’ impressions as we rushed through the doors.
“How long will it take her to get here?” I asked
“Maybe fifteen minutes, the Ministry is very close.”
A quick calculation told me that she would be here by 10pm. Reaching the queue which was shorter than the last one, I was almost hopping from one foot to another. However, that would be unwise. Cath and I were once nearly stopped from boarding a Qatar Airways flight because we were laughing too much. Stay calm, just stay calm. As Cat and David waited with me in the queue Aadan went back outside the airport to wait for Fawzia. We suddenly remembered loads of last minute things we had to say to each other and I was aware I was gibbering like an idiot. Stay calm.
The queue shuffled slowly towards the desk with, rather worryingly, the same check-in girl as before. It’ll be fine, stay calm. Every few seconds we would all glance over at the exit where we could see Aadan standing outside staring in the direction of the car park entrance. He stood stock still, unlike us. The time ticked on and my eyes now swivelled between my watch, the desk and Aadan, over and over again. Fifteen minutes came and went and we were just four people away from check-in. Aadan turned as if he felt our eyes upon him and shrugged dramatically. Stay calm.
It was 10pm with no Fawzia, no passport and only two people to go. Nausea swept over me and I bit my lip to push it back down. Suddenly Aadan was on the phone and rushing in at the same time
“She is caught in traffic!”
Seriously? You - have - got - to - be - kidding - me! It’s summer for God’s sake. Cat just put her hands on her head and started walking round in circles. God knows what anyone watching our little group was thinking. David calmed her and Aadan ran back outside.
“Next please” said the very confused check-in girl with her pearl-white teeth and huge brown eyes.
In slow motion I walked towards the desk and felt as if I was watching a film with me in it. This is the moment where I would be screaming at the TV and hiding behind a cushion – oh to be able to do that now. I took the final step and reached check-in with no hope of getting on the plane unless Fawzia arrived right this minute. Cat looked at Aadan then back at me and shook her head very slightly. Let’s hope all the drama training kicked in. I forced a smile in response to the girl behind the desk and handed over my ticket. Explaining about the change of date would hopefully take some time. Stay calm.
“This ticket is for 17th July” she said looking at it.
“Oh yes I know but my travel agent has rebooked it for this flight and told me I would be able to use this ticket and that the date could just be changed.”
“Let me have a look” she said brightly.
Then her lovely face turned to a frown.
“You were booked on the previous flight.”
“And this one” I added.
“I can’t see your name but it doesn’t matter, the flight is only half full” she said helpfully.
This could be the ultimate example of Murphy’s Law ever. If I had been in a rush I am sure the process would have taken hours of wrangling and arguing and pointed-watch staring and huffing and puffing. But no. The change was made in a few seconds.
“I’ll just need your passport to book your seat and print your boarding pass.”
“Oh, my passport – yes of course.”
As I put my head down and started to pretend rummage in my handbag, David was slowly placing my bags on the belt. I looked upwards and sideways at Cat who was staring at the exit.
“I’m sure it’s here somewhere” I mumbled.
Luckily there was no-one behind me as I was the last to check in. David moved at a pace which would have embarrassed a snail; I rummaged and Cat stared. The young lady’s smile started to become fixed and I saw her glance at her colleague and frown. My mouth was so dry, I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t speak. And then, all of a sudden Cat literally shot off towards the exit. Honestly, she looked as if she had been fired out of a gun. I had never seen anyone move so fast. I turned to follow the movement and saw Aadan running full pelt towards her, waving something in his hand. It was my passport – either that or it was the worst joke in history. Cat reached him, grabbed it, turned around and ran back all one movement.
“You left it in the car!” she said handing it to me and giving me an exaggerated ‘silly girl’ look.
I seamlessly passed it over and the young lady took it checked it and printed my boarding card. I realised I hadn’t even checked to see if it was my passport or if it had an Exit Visa in it. Both must have been the case though or she would not now be handing me a boarding card and explaining where the first-class lounge was.
She finished with the perfect words “Have a nice flight!”
It was then I realised I had actually stopped breathing. I think everyone else had too because as we turned towards the departures’ door we all breathed out as one. I wanted to run. I wanted to sprint to that door but of course I didn’t. We walked over to the door and I called Greg and gave him the good news. He said that he had spoken to John who had in fact called the Emir. He signed off by saying that he would meet me at Heathrow the next morning.
And then came the goodbyes. Tearful, happy, sad, relieved and exhausted we hugged and I thanked my wonderful, wonderful friends. I asked Aadan to call Fawzia for me and thank her, which sounded so pathetic considering what she had done for me – well what everyone had done for me. Then after a final hug I walked through the door that led to the rest of my life. I looked back just once smiled, waved and then proceeded into passport control. I felt as if I was floating on air, as if I had somehow been anchored to the ground and someone had cut the line to release me.
There was no queue which was lucky as I only had 40 minutes to the flight. I stepped up to the first booth and handed my passport and boarding card to the smartly dressed border guard. He looked at the documents, checked both carefully and looked at his computer screen. When he pursed his lips and shook his head, my first thought was ‘how had my friends got a border guard to play a joke on me?’ How crazy was that!
“Your name is on the banned list” he said as he handed back my documents
“No, no it was but everything has been sorted. Look here is my Exit Visa I said pointing to the stamp on the page” the words tumbled from my lips.
“Yes I can see but if your name is on the list then the Exit Visa does not mean anything.”
My second thought was that this was all some elaborate plan. If I disappeared now, no-one would be any the wiser. No-one would know. Everyone thought I was getting on a plane. Seriously if my heart continued to speed up like this I was just going to keel over. Getting antsy with these guys is a huge mistake so I smiled and asked if it was OK if I stood back and used my mobile. He graciously inclined his head in the affirmative and I walked to the back of the hall. I texted Greg and then called Aadan who picked up immediately.
“They won’t let me go. My name is on a list!” I could feel the beginning of hysteria in my rising voice and clamped down on it hard.
“Call you back.”
As soon as we disconnected Greg called.
“What the hell is going on?” he sounded panicked
“I don’t know. They say I am on a list and I can’t leave. Aadan is calling Fawzia but I don’t know what to do. People have been known to disappear into prison like this.” A sob escaped my lips.
“I’ll call John. Just keep trying and stay calm.”
‘Stay calm and stop crying right now’ I told myself before turning round and going back. At least the guard smiled at me as he took my documents again and checked the screen before shaking his head again.
Over the next 10 minutes as I waited for someone to call me back I tried a further four times before on the fifth, the unbelievably patient guard looked up and smiled at me. “You are free to go. Your name has gone.”
The other guards actually applauded as I gushed my thanks and gathering up my things ran through to airside. Officially I was now not in Qatar but I would only be safe when I was on that plane. I ran at breakneck speed through duty free grabbing 200 Marlboro Lights and throwing cash at the startled cashier. They didn’t even ask to see my boarding card. Maybe I looked as crazed as I felt. I knew the airport like the back of my hand and continued at full throttle till I got to the gate – above which was a sign saying ‘Gate Closed.’ “Wait” I shouted waving my boarding pass like a winning lottery ticket “Wait for me I have to get on that plane”.
One of two things was about to happen. The stewardess at the door could, quite within her remit, refuse to let me board the plane at which point I would need to be strapped into a strait jacket – or she could be an angel and let me through. And so it was that a few seconds later I met an angel. I don’t know what my face looked like but she must have seen the desperation in my eyes. She grabbed my boarding card and ripped the stub off while shouting to the man closing the doors to hold the bus. It was too late and the bus pulled away. I sobbed loudly now through my ragged breathing and felt my knees give. But my angel was not giving up that easily and without any warning she was suddenly dragging me through the doors much to the surprise of the other staff.
I like to think that she was an angel, but of course in reality she probably thought that her life and the lives of her colleagues would be infinitely longer if they got ‘the deranged woman’ on the plane pronto! Alternatively, maybe I was not her first ‘escapee’ who had arrived at that door, crazed by the process of getting out of Qatar. Outside, looking wildly around, she saw a bus heading towards us, possibly on its way to pick up some passengers, and she literally flagged it down. As God is my witness she hijacked a passenger bus, bundled me on it and told the driver which flight number. Not something you’d see at Heathrow I’d wager, but judging by how nonplussed the driver was, maybe it happened every day in Qatar.
Once on the bus, I braced my luggage between my legs in the standing area, held on to the pole and laughed out loud with tears of joy and relief pouring down my face. It was just then that I noticed a cleaner standing on the other side of the bus. He stood silently in his tattered blue overalls, with his bucket at his feet and his mop raised as if in defence, with his mouth hanging open. I stopped laughing and nodded a silent universal greeting. He just stared at me keeping the mop where it was, not taking any chances……. I could see his point. I also felt a stab of guilt at my luck as opposed to his situation. I looked down at my feet and stayed like that.
Two minutes later we pulled up outside the plane, the doors opened and I shouted my heartfelt thanks to the driver as I got off and ran to the steps dragging my bag behind me. I put one foot carefully, deliberately on the bottom step and as I slowly and ceremoniously lifted my other off the tarmac, I vowed ‘this is the last time my feet will ever touch Qatari soil.’ Up the steps I bounded and as I reached the top I turned to look at the innocently twinkling lights of Doha. Then I took a breath, turned again and stepped in through the doorway of the plane. The stewardess looked at my boarding stub and guided me to my first-class seat where, after retrieving my phone, I quickly put my bag in the locker and collapsed into the soft leather.
A few seconds later the stewardess reappeared with a tray and I removed two glasses of champagne without even bothering to look embarrassed. Qatar Airways stewardesses have seen it all and she didn’t even pause. I downed the first in a gulp and then texted Greg;
‘I AM ON THE PLANE AND COMING HOME’
As we taxied for take-off I sipped at the second glass and stared out of the window at Doha. My home for two years, my prison for a month and the thief of my dreams. By the time the wheels parted company with the tarmac ….. I was asleep.
When I arrived in the Uk I was forced into bankruptcy and lost everything I had ever worked for, including my home. I was forced to place my disabled mum into a home where she died and I was left to rebuild the lives of my daughter and I. Over the next few years, I joined the Qatar Survivors and we worked together to facilitate the release of others held illegally in Qatar. Some were released, some died in suspicious circumstances, some committed suicide and some are still in prison.
I was lucky.
© 2022 Tracy Edwards, MBE