Welcome to the Qatar Prison Blog , where we attempt to answer this question plus entertain the reader a bit. This introductory section is part of a book I’m writing; what follows is an early draft that I think will answer this question. The completed book should come out in 2017, depending on whether I’m still here.
Blogging from inside an Arab jail is difficult and risky. I have no release date. When I request a release date the computer prints out a string of zeros, this means a life sentence. So I don’t know when I shall have the luxury of writing a book the way it should be written, in a comfortable setting with Internet and all sorts of research materials. As I write this in late 2016 I am 60 years old, with good health, but you never know. By the time I get home I could be sick, or daft, or dead.
I hope you enjoy this, and stop by this blog from time to time. I also hope you learn from my example and are careful when you venture overseas into strange and difficult places, without proper laws or protections for human rights.
My Story Begins……
‘Ashra, ashra,’ went a voice somewhere down the corridor. It was Ashra, number 10, wanting something. I rolled over, it was morning, the jail was going thru its morning rituals. Sound of boots, a guard coming to room #10 to see what Ashra wanted. Faint conversation in Arabic. Then boots outside my door, a thump. I looked up. Breakfast had come, in a plastic insulated thing like a tackle box, and Indian style ‘shay haleeb’, delicious sweet milky tea in a foam cup. The guard opened my door, put the tackle box inside, cup of shay on top. The door clanged shut. Then he went away, not one of the talkative ones. I rolled over again on my foam mattress on the tile floor, my fingers reaching out to the wall, to test the reality of the situation. Was I really here? In jail? I figured if my fingers touched the masonry wall the answer was yes. I felt the wall, it was real, hard and solid. It was real. The light blinked on in the room, more noise in the corridor, time to get up. Shay haleeb must be enjoyed hot.
I learned the following. To summon a guard proceed as follows: go to the room door, reach thru the bars for the padlock and clack it a couple times against the hasp, clack clack.
From somewhere a guard responds, ‘kam?’, what #?
I say ‘sitta’, #6, that’s my room. Sound of boots and there he is. Since ‘sitta’ is an English speaker I often got guards with some English, from Pakistan or Jordan. They were in Qatar to make a living, just like me. From the guard I ask for exercise time, or remind him of my visit or phone call, or most often ask for another shay.
The room was large, with a private bath, and I was all alone. Each day a man came and swept it, another man cleaned the bathroom. This was Qatar State Security’s jail on the west side of Doha and there were only a few of us. Since we were accused persons, on remand, we weren’t allowed to see each other. We were enemies of the State and might conspire. Each prisoner had a large private room and they were each on a sort of cul-de-sac, like a maze. I could walk with a guard to exercise or to the fone and not see other prisoners, and they never saw me. There was no banging of cups and shouting as a prisoner walked by like in the movies. Each of us was alone, we saw only the guards, except on court day or Embassy day. We ate in our rooms, exercise alone 20 minutes a day. No card games, no yak-yak. Prosecutors and police were busy investigating our crimes and they didn’t want us interfering, communicating with people outside. I shouldn’t even use the word “us”, there was no us. I never saw other prisoners and have no idea why they were there or how many there were.
Sometimes for variety sake I clacked my padlock and announced ‘sitta’. ‘Yes?’ the guard answered. ‘Shay haleeb please.’ Pause. ‘OK, 5 minutes,’ the voice said. And it came, these guys never failed to deliver, the Sri Lankan tea boy making it in a tiny kitchen. Milky tea was my only pleasure, it got me thru those early weeks.
After breakfast I’d settle down to work. My book box from home included complete Shakespeare, King James Bible and Don Quixote. The jail provided only Korans, so I accepted a small English Koran. A window provided a patch of sunlight a foot square that progressed across the floor during the day, like the face of a sundial. Sometimes out of boredom I climbed up onto the sink to look out this dirty window – nothing but blue sky and a metal warehouse next door. I would take off my shirt, sit on the floor in my slowly moving patch of sun, and study.
Clack, clack, ‘Kamsa’, #5 said, the sound of boots. Then Arabic conversation, something about a visit. It was 9AM maybe, time for exercise. I put on sandals and started my pacing, like a tiger in the zoo, back and forth. It was 8 steps from one corner of my room to the far corner of my bathroom, the last step in the shower basin. Then turn, 8 steps back. Then turn. Again and again, sometimes running. I would pause and look at a list of Arabic words I’d written on a wooden door, scratched with an old nail. Door is Baab, house is Bayt, man is Rajul, jail is the Sejn, water is Maai, tea is Shay. Court is Mahkama, exercise is Riyada, visit is Ziara. Then back to pacing, my life reduced to 8 paces and a few dozen strange sounding words. I am #6, that’s sitta; off in the distance somewhere is ashra, 10; off to my left somewhere is kamsa, 5.
A friendly guard brought me a 2 liter Coke bottle, empty. I filled it with water and used it for weight. Twenty times with each arm, lifting the bottle as far as I could, then down to the floor. Good training to be a stock-boy at Wal-Mart when I get home, Nance laughed when I saw her. Then back to pacing, always pacing. Sometimes at 10PM I’d be pacing and the guard would say ‘Khalas’, that means enough, or quit it. Go to bed, crazy American.
I Am Arrested
It was hot that day, August 25, 2005, the day I lost my life , was lifted off the earth, legs kicking in the air. It was hot. This is Qatar, so 110 F and humid is what August brings: the sea so hot fish die by the thousands , the desert landscape shimmers in the heat. Sensible people aren’t in the country at all. Nancy and I, my big son Nick and small son Tom were there, because we were moving, taking a job in Saudi Arabia in a few days. Nancy, and Tom, age 14, were going with me to Saudi; Nick was going back to Duke , where he was a sophomore. My daughter Meg was 8 time zones away in a boarding school in West Virginia. Meg was in 11th grade and Saudi had no high school, but they paid for boarding school .
The “day in question” was Friday, the weekend, and I needed to run some errands. I wore cargo shorts and T-shirt, an Aussie sun hat and shades. It was 9AM or so when I backed my SUV out and drove off alone to visit an “expat” grocery, to post pictures of stuff for sale and try to give away out cats. Nance was getting ready for movers, the boys were sleeping in. A normal Friday. In a few days they would slam shut our shipping container and take it by road to Saudi Arabia , a 2 hour road trip. Nick would be back at Durham for the Fall term; Nance and Tom and I would fly business class to Dhahran, in Saudi’s eastern province, and live on Aramco’s highly secure compound for expats. I would be working as a geologist, doing the care and feeding required by the world’s largest oil fields. It was all planned out.
I drove along but didn’t go to the expat grocery. I had a secret destination! Not a girlfriend; Nancy and I were always faithful to each other, our 20th anniversary was coming up. No, this was something more interesting, much more dangerous. I was going to become a spy!
In fact I was on my way to a “drop,” on a remote road north of town. Doha was dead, a typical Friday summer AM. Nobody with any sense was in town. I took the small 2-lane coast road up toward the brand new Ritz Carlton, still surrounded by construction equipment and empty shipping containers. The sea was off to my right, the beach empty since the water was 100 F and not very refreshing. I began to count the light poles, 15….16, then slowed at #20. This was the drop spot. With any luck money and instructions would be waiting.
Pole #20 was marked with tape, as I’d instructed. I drove past it slowly, there was nobody around. A hot still morning in the desert north of Doha. I did a 3 point turn and headed back to the marked pole. I parked and got out, the heat assaulting me, the sun blinding. Nobody around, it was silent; the only sound the hammering of rock drills from a distant construction project. I looked around , there wasn’t a soul within miles; who would be out in this? 10AM and probably near 100 F, awful. I quickly crossed the road to #20 and dug around at its base, pulling out a burlap rice bag. I opened it; there was a small wad of $100 bills, nothing else, no instructions. No problem, I thought. I was in touch with these guys by email. That’s how I’d known to go to the drop; they’d emailed me, told me to come. I pocketed the cash and went back to my car.
I began to drive, slowly, then accelerating. I could give this money to Nick for text books, it would help him out. He was always complaining how expensive they were. Everything was expensive at a gold-plated place like Duke.
Suddenly a white Toyota Land Cruiser come straight at me, in my lane, flashing it’s head lights. Strange. Then another ahead of me in the other lane, I slowed down. What was this? Then a car behind me, honking, and one on my left. I was neatly boxed in against the right guard rail. I stopped and sat there as several local guys, Qataris in white traditional dress, came up to my car, pounding on my window. I lowered it.
‘Phone! Phone! Give us your phone!’ they shouted reaching into the car. I turned off the engine.
‘I don’t have a phone, no phone,’ I said honestly. I didn’t care for the things.
An officer came up, an older guy. ‘OK, step out,’ the officer in charge said. There were now half a dozen Qataris in plain clothes, probably CID, their version of the FBI, surrounding my car. In a daze I obeyed. ‘ID please,’ the boss said; I gave him my driver’s license. He took it back to his vehicle. Behind me I noticed cops at light pole 20, examining the rice bag for evidence. I was escorted to a police Land Cruiser, a cop would drive my car.
I didn’t panic as we rode along, I felt sort of dazed, lethargic, pulled up by the roots. It all happened so fast, as these guys are trained to do. Wait for the guy, snatch him, bring him back to HQ seemed to be their orders. Being caught seemed inevitable, just like the yank when you jump off the bridge with a rope around your neck. Or the bang when you play Russian roulette. You’ve done it now, I thought. This is what you get for thinking you’re smarter than other people.
They didn’t say much as we drove, also orders I suspect. We drove fast thru light traffic, then slowed next to the enormous State Security complex in town, covering an entire city block. It was surrounded by high walls with cameras, signs posted saying “No Photography.” A gate swung open and we entered. I felt like I was drifting along, floating , my free will gone. I didn’t argue or demand my rights. They’d caught me; they’d been waiting, so protesting would be silly. I didn’t ask for my Embassy, or say ‘I’m an American, damn it! What’s the meaning of this? You’ve got the wrong guy!’ They’d been waiting. They had the right guy. I was caught like a rat in a trap.
A Bit About Me
When somebody harpoons their own life, in effect commits a form of suicide, taking their loved ones down with them, it makes sense to ask why. We weren’t poor or unlucky; many people envied us. As I sit in prison I look for causes in my past, the typical excuses people make for why their life went off the rails. Going off the rails is one thing, an accident or bad luck. Deliberately sabotaging your life and your family’s welfare, that’s something else. Clearly no normal person does this. Perhaps I’d been normal and predictable and responsible for so damn long I just exploded, went a little bit nuts. Jail has sobered me up, so now 10 years into my sentence, perhaps I can tell my story.
J.W. Downs, the original, fought for the Texans in the Civil War and later became a publisher of a successful Waco, Texas newspaper. His son, J.W. Downs II, my grandpa, owned auto repair shops. I met him only once, just before he died. J.W. Downs III was my dad. I’m the fourth, and my sons are Nick and Tom.
Both my Mom, Sybil Rose Downs , who is still living, and my dad were in WW2. My Dad was a freshly graduated electrical engineer from Texas A&M. His skills were in demand so he was trained as a meteorologist and sent to Brazil. My Mom worked in DC in various jobs – a clerk, then in an airplane factory, then in a hospital.
Predicting Atlantic storms was a daunting task in those days and my dad’s Brazil weather station was part of that effort. They sent up weather balloons, sending the data by encrypted shortwave radio to the army’s met office, where they prepared weather forecasts for the Atlantic. He told me sometimes naked Indians would walk through the jungle for days, bringing him a balloon, trading it for new machetes. The Atlantic ship convoys kept the UK and USSR afloat until 1944, when US troops could join the fight. Without these weather forecasts many convoys would’ve been lost in storms.
My mom was in the war too. She signed up and was trained, becoming a member of the WAVES. She did this until the end of the war in Europe, working in an Army hospital as a pharmacist’s assistant. She’s still with us, gets very generous VA medical benefits and is writing a book about her life.
After the war my dad went to work in the offshore oil industry off Louisiana, a brand new industry that needed technical experts. He operated an IBM computer the size of a chest freezer on a marine surveying ship , one of the first commercial applications of computers. He told me once if the thing crashed he called his helpers , opened the cabinets, and they frantically pulled out dozens of vacuum tubes. These were collected in a bushel basket and tossed overboard, while he plugged in new ones. They booted up the IBM and went on surveying. My dad was intrigued by this machine and when he got a small inheritance he put the bulk of it into IBM stock, this was the late 40s.
Meanwhile my mom was at the University of Oklahoma studying French, I still have some of her text books. After 2 years she ran out of money and went to work in Houston where her sister Judy lived. Sometime in the early 50s she met my dad, they married, and I was born in 1955. My dad by this point ran a land seismic crew so we lived in a trailer, following the crew from Texas to Montana to Louisiana to West Virginia. He liked fishing in Southeast Montana and told me once he was fishing with some buddies on the Big Horn river not far from Billings. He took a day off and hitchhiked to town to check IBM’s stock price. It had doubled again. He decided to take another week off.
As the Eisenhower era ended, vast new oil discoveries in the Persian Gulf pushed oil prices lower and lower, the industry went into a slump and he quit or was fired. He was pretty opinionated, never much of a company man. This was around 1960. He still had his IBM stock, we were modestly wealthy. My dad liked the Ozarks of NW Arkansas, there was good fishing and it was cheap . He bought a 10 acre piece of choice bottom land on the White River near the historic town of Eureka Springs. A new lake was being built by the Army Corps so my dad set up a trailer park for construction workers. By the time Kennedy died it was up and running, I had a baby sister Juju, and we’d built a big new house on the White River place. My first book, “White River Stories” describes my adventures along the river.
My dad read constantly and seriously : beat writers, Nabokov, Phillip Roth , Saul Bellow, John Updike, Koestler, science fiction, astronomy, physics. He loved Scientific American magazine. I grew up thinking about being a scientist the same way banker’s kids grow up to be bankers. During summers he’d drill me in physics and chemistry, and I built small telescopes and radios from kits. Most of my time was spent outdoors with a few neighbor boys or playing alone. I loved looking thru my telescope at stars or tuning the shortwave radio I’d built, listening to distant stations speaking strange languages.
I was at a Boy Scout meeting the night MLK was killed. By this time the trailer business had begun to taper off and I had a little brother Phillip. I was done with 8th grade and the local schools weren’t much good. Since my dad was “unemployed” we were free to move anywhere we liked. He went to look at Lake Livingston in east Texas; the fishing was good, that may well have been the deciding factor. We spent a year there in a rent house but we were homesick for the Ozarks. We moved back the following year, settling once again in Rogers in Northwest Arkansas, an area best known as headquarters of Wal-Mart.
Schools were good in Rogers, all 3 of us adapted and did well. I helped my dad build a modest new house on an acre, I was 16 or so and in 10th grade. I loved math and science so I guess my dad’s early tutoring served me well. But there was trouble looming. A man can only read and fish so many hours a day before he starts to go nuts. He had no employment, he never earned a salary after about age 40, and he had nothing much to occupy him. A neighbor once offered to get the “poor unemployed guy” on at the Army Corps, not knowing about his stock portfolio, university degree, or substantial real estate assets inherited from his dad. He was healthy and capable of working with nothing to do all day.
I enjoyed high school though I never had much luck with girls. I ran with a pack of 3 other guys, Joe Stair, Larry Anderson and Danny Pope, all of us nonconformists on 10 speeds. We went camping, rode bikes north into Missouri or west to Oklahoma, played Risk until 3AM. Joe and I were close, reading the Whole Earth Catalogue or working on bikes together. Larry was a business guy, he wanted to be a millionaire. Danny was soulful, a music lover, and we spent hours listening to George Harrison or Jesus Christ Superstar.
By the end of 11th grade I’d taken all the math, physics and chemistry the high school had to offer. I took the National Merit exam , Joe and I scored the highest in the class, the 99th percentile. Home life was no picnic so I decided to enroll at the University of Ark. a year early, in fall 1972, during the climax of the Nixon-McGovern presidential race. It was nearby and dirt cheap, $200 per semester plus $90 a month for the dorm. The family dropped me off with my stuff in the trunk of our old Plymouth and I was a 17 year old physics major. My buddies continued in high school as seniors.
Turns out they did the smart thing. I was showing off, basically, and had no business on the Fayetteville campus. I could do the academic work fine but I was very immature, going to class only when it suited me and wasting the time of my professors. After a year my grades were so bad my dad cut me off, no more money. I had a summer job on Beaver Lake that paid well so I simply continued to work thru the Fall semester. The next spring Joe enrolled and we roomed together, both made the Dean’s list. But I wasn’t consistent.
The following year I spent a semester in the Rockies with my high school pals. We rented a cabin in the mountains west of Boulder and read Nietzsche, Herman Hesse and Baba Ram Das. As long as I had my summer job at the lake near Rogers I could pay for school and continue to half-perform, something no student these days can afford to do. One summer, 1976, I got a job with the Forest Service leading tours thru a cave in Stone County, Arkansas, the famous Blanchard Springs Caverns. This was a great job with a fun bunch of kids, and it exposed me for the first time to geology. The following May I got a little money from my dad and couldn’t find a suitable job. I decided to go to Mexico.
This was a transformative trip. I drove my green 1970 Datsun sedan, alone, south of Brownsville, Texas. I left the old Datsun with strangers in Tampico when it conked out and continued on. I went by bus to the old silver town of San Luis Potosi, then Zacatecas, then down to Aguascalientes, Guadalajara, then down the Pacific. I learned Spanish rapidly, studying in my $5 hotel room and pounding the pavement, looking for people to talk to. By late summer I was chatting with friends from Buenos Aires in the Zocalo of Mexico City, watching Queen videos and asking girls to dance! The best part was having American and European tourists mistake me for Mexican! Back at school that fall I finally graduated with my BS in physics, including 6 semesters of math beyond calculus. Turns out the physics dept. wanted to hire me! They offered me a salary plus free tuition if I taught 3 astronomy labs per week, and sort-of worked on a master’s degree. Why the hell not? I liked being a student, the poverty didn’t bother me. I signed up for Spanish grammar , 19th century novel, digital signal theory and quantum mechanics, a nice variety, plus worked in a physics department lab on some electronic calibration gear, part of the Hubble Space Telescope.
By now my dad had left the family to spend the next couple decades migrating between Montana and South Texas, in search of solitude and good fishing. The last time I saw him was 1982, in Jim Hogg County, Texas, when mom and I dragged him into court over a property settlement. He was angry and simply walked away when we approached him. His departure left Mom, Julie and Phillip at home. On a couple of his migrations north, he took Julie and Phillip along and Julie had met the Moehrs, cowboys operating several ranches in Southeast Montana. Soon Julie was off to Montana and ended up marrying Vern Moehr. That left only Mom and high school age Phillip at home.
Grad school in physics was interesting but not exciting. It was 1979 when in first met some geologists. These were nice guys, Americans, not the gang of Taiwanese and Iranians I worked with. They all had job offers, the oil industry was red hot. Plus my dad had been an oil man. I switched from physics to geology and two grad students, John McBride and Chuck Price, took me under their wings. The physics dept. was glad to be rid of me and geology was happening, plus there were women! Imagine. And employment. I had to start at zero, GEO 101, AKA “Rocks for Jocks”. I rocked rocks for jocks, this was great. Plate tectonics, the iridium layer, Mt. St. Helens, a world energy crisis, it was a fantastic time to be geologist. After 3 semesters I was being paid by the geology dept. to teach labs, this was around 1981. I had been in school on and off since fall 1972, good lord. But I was having a ball. McBride, Chuck and I spent weekends driving around the mid-west looking at the rocks, I was 100% absorbed.
This was a serious MS program with a thesis and I began field work in late 1981, on the Mississippian age Pitkin Limestone. I chased that grey limestone all over North Ark. in my green Ark. geological survey truck, looking for it, measuring it, sampling it, dreaming about it. I loved every minute of it, immersion in the world of 300 million years ago. To graduate I had to score well in the geology section of the GRE, the Graduate Record Exam. I sat the 3 hour test and the results were good, 99th percentile again, the highest the department had ever seen. Chuck and John, my mentors, and the fine geology faculty had done a good job. I was a geologist now. With my physics background I started interviewing as a geophysicist, my dad’s old job more or less, updated with 10,000 times the computing power he had available.
I met and fell in love with another geologist, Lynn Gandl, tall, smart and outspoken, she bowled me over. I first saw her singing in the chorus of The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan – that’s a geologist? She was, ex-USGS, now getting a Master’s. We chatted over beers at the “D-Lux”, the geology watering hole, and did some field work together. Finally one afternoon I had to tell her. I followed her out of sedimentary petrology class and when she turned a corner toward her house she paused.
‘Are you following me home?’ she asked with a chuckle.
It came out in a flood. ‘It sounds ridiculous but I’ve fallen madly in love with you, I can’t help it…..’
‘Really?’ she said with a smile. ‘I guess you better follow me home then. You’re cute and I like you, but this is a bit much. Come on, I’ve got some cold beers.’
By late 1981 I was living with Lynn and considering a job in Houston, or maybe an academic job in South America. But then it all fell apart. Lynn got tired of me and kicked me out. The academic job fell thru, and the oil price fell, so there were no oil and gas jobs. Then disaster struck. My little brother Phillip, a high school senior, crashed his Datsun 240Z on the way to school , killing him instantly. This awful accident nearly destroyed my poor Mom.
After Phillip’s funeral I hugged my mom bye and hit the road in my trusty Datsun to look for a job. Fortunately I had relatives in all the oil towns, Tulsa, Dallas and Houston. After a few fruitless months of searching I got a real interview, at the Los Angeles oil company ARCO, in Plano, north of Dallas. I went there and an old Razorback, Leland Megason, showed me around. His assistant Don Ince was also an Arkansas grad, I found out later. I saw the seismic processing computers, covering several floors of a building at the ARCO R&D center, they even had a Cray supercomputer. I was down to my last few shekels and badly needed an offer. Instead, after a nice lunch, Leland shook my hand and said they’d be in touch.
I decided to go for it . ‘Your know Mr. Megason, someone in my position is likely to take the first offer that comes along. I was hoping you could make me an offer today,’ I said.
Megason was a bit taken aback. ‘Well, John, let’s see. Maybe we can. Why not? You write down on this pad what you’d consider a fair offer,’ he said with a chuckle, giving me a yellow pad. They came back with a few bucks more and I took it! I was now employed at Atlantic Richfield, the California company that had found Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest field ever found in North America. My job was to help them find another one.
The moving truck came for my few belongings and moved me to Dallas. My mom sold the house , left Arkansas and got an apartment in Tulsa near her sister. My dad was off fishing somewhere, living in a camping trailer. Julie was off in Montana with Vern the cowboy, and Phillip was buried among the oaks and poplars of Rogers. This was November, 1982 , and it looked as though our family might well go extinct, scattered to the winds.
My Ohio Girl
But we didn’t! Sitting here in 2015 in jail I tend to divide my life into thirds. The first third was before I met Nancy, the love of my life. The second third spans 25 years or so of our marriage, when we raised our children, and had all sorts of cool adventures. And the third third is after her death, the part I’m in now. I better tell you about her.
How did we meet? Since I had taught geology before I was asked to give a seminar for IT people, part of an internal ARCO school. And right in front was a really cute blonde, petite, glasses, who asked good questions. This was Nancy Blake, who ran a small team of technical writers doing software documentation. This was back when companies like ARCO wrote their own proprietary software. She was friendly and I found out recently separated. Interesting! I also found out they were a couple of guys already after her, two sharks in the water. One was a pear-shaped ARCO vice president who had the charming habit of asking attractive women to have lunch at the Hilton. In a room at the Hilton, not the restaurant. A more dangerous rival was Caesar, a young, good looking Hispanic engineer from the Dallas barrio , who had a brand new Cadillac and needed a blonde to complete his boy-made-good image. One day after class he came by in the Caddy to take Nancy to lunch.
‘Let’s invite the professor along,’ she said and I went too, Caesar grinding his teeth. We drove two blocks in the Cadillac and the three of us had a nice lunch. Caesar didn’t have much of an appetite, I recall. Turns out she was from the Appalachians of Southern Ohio, the sticks in other words, just like me! She grew up on the Ohio River, I grew up on the White; both of us had worked to lose our regional accents although we could both talk hick if we needed to. We started going out. So Caesar was out of luck, and the pear-shaped VP-forgeddaboutit!!
One thing Nance wanted to do when we were dating was go camping. In her family, ladies stayed home and men went camping . Her first husband liked five star resorts, he never took her. She had never spent a night under the stars, poor thing. Of course I’m a camping fool . She bought nice $300 Basque hiking boots and a backpack and said let’s go. We drove from Dallas into the Oklahoma Ouachita mountains, camping on Winding Stair mountain , made famous in the film True Grit. All night the winter wind blew in huge gusts, shaking the pine trees, you could hear it coming a mile away . Branches in the tree above our tiny vulnerable tent rubbed together, the tree moaned and groaned seemingly about to give up the ghost and fall on us. She couldn’t sleep.
She sat up and woke me. ‘I thought camping was quiet and peaceful. What are all those noises? Let’s move the tent, OK?’ A few minutes later she woke me again: ‘Oh my God, here comes a huge wind, a tornado maybe! Can’t you hear it? I’ll go sleep in the truck, you stay here, to Hell with this camping business! I’m going back to Dallas!’ I held onto her tight, trying not to chuckle too much , and she tried to sleep. Minutes later she shook me again: ‘I hear footsteps. There’s something outside the tent walking around, go look!’
Next morning it was a beautiful day, sunny, birds chirping, and I brought her coffee in the tent. ‘Hey this camping is great! All my life I’ve wanted to do it,’ she said, ready for hiking, the terrors of the night forgotten.
And we went fishing, also for the first time. Ladies in her family ordered fish at Red Lobster but never fished . We were visiting a friend in NW Arkansas, floating down a little river in a canoe , using cheap Wal-Mart fishing tackle . Suddenly she got a fish! Excitement, screaming, nobody has ever celebrated a 4 inch perch more than Nance. She reeled the little guy in and swung it back to me to remove. I wet my hand in the stream , took off the perch, said ‘Nice one!’ and tossed it back in . Her jaw dropped. ‘That’s my first fish and you tossed it back? My first fish? I wanted to keep it . That’s so rude!’ she complained . ‘No worries baby, you’ll catch another one,’ I replied, but of course she didn’t.
It was romance in the research lab. I used to e-mail Nance over our IBM terminals when we both worked at ARCO R&D in Dallas. She and I used the classic IBM 3278 terminals (green screen, no mouse, use the cursor keys to move around on the menu), connected to ARCO’s massive IBM 3090 mainframe, which occupied several floors of the research center. It was one of the world’s largest IBM machines . There was even a Cray supercomputer you could log on to! Anyway, I was DBHJWD, she was DBSNAB , for Nancy Ann Blake, her name at the time. We had riveting conversations:
DBSNAB: Hey Nance, you fox. Lunch today?
DBHJWD: Hi there Cutie. Sure. Your office?
DBSNAB: OK. What did you bring?
DBHJWD: Crudites, pita bread , healthy stuff. You?
DBSNAB: Pizza slice. … How’s your team doing?
DBSJWD: The testicle writers? Busy!
Nance had comical names for everything and everybody. The technical writers she supervised were the testicle writers. This stuff they wrote was software crockumentation. In those days companies had teams writing proprietary software to gain a competitive edge. The oil industry and weapons labs like Los Alamos were the top users of scientific computing in the 1980s, long before the days of modern server farms full of computers hosting garbage like porn and U-Tube. Computing was expensive , and it was used for serious stuff, not junk and nonsense. But we did have fun.
The Cray was a cool machine, a huge black thing like the monolith from 2001 a Space Odyssey, with upholstered seats around it. Processing jobs too big for the IBM, mathematical stuff like Monte Carlo simulation and Kirchhoff migration, were sent to the Cray. I had an ID for it but wasn’t a user. Sometimes when I was bored I would type : CRAY DBHJWD , and a password. It would respond: CRAY environment entered, welcome DBHJWD, followed by a screen full of job reports, what percentage of the giant machine was available, what the job queues were like. Then : READY. And that’s where I was stuck- I had no idea what to say to a Cray! What do you say to a Cray?? I was completely intimidated, the machine was much smarter than I was. I would type HELP or HELLO THERE and it would respond ‘command not recognized, READY.’ I wasn’t one of the uber-nerds.
By 1985 I’d been sent to Cajun-land, Lafayette Louisiana, to work in ARCO’s office. I bought a house and that August Nance quit her job and joined me, driving a U-Haul truck by herself, towing her car behind. She didn’t ask for a ring or for help, she was absolutely fearless. I was sitting on the front stoop as she drove up, she was tired and upset. ‘I lost my cat Sabrina, you know, the black one? Maybe she got out when I stopped for gas,’ she said as we hugged, she was near tears.
‘Don’t worry sweetie, we’ll get another cat. Come inside and rest,’ I said.
I went out to the truck to get her stuff and saw something moving behind the steering wheel, tucked under the truck’s instrument panel. It was a long black tail!! I grabbed Sabrina and took her inside, how the tears flowed!! We ordered a pizza and yakked until midnite. Finally we were together in our own house. ‘The blonde from Dallas has arrived,’ our Cajun neighbors said.
We had a cute 3 BR house in an historic area of Lafayette, lots of young professionals. Nance was 29 and for the first time since high school she didn’t have a job! She could relax a little, smell the flowers, take some art classes at the local university. She also had a summer off, for the first time in her hard working life. That summer she drove my pickup (alone of course ) 2000 miles up to Montana to visit Julie and my mom, living on a beautiful ranch on the Big Horn river. She rode horses and fished, had a great time on the remote and beautiful Crow Indian Reservation. Nance and Julie took a multi-day horse trip to a remote cabin on the Reservation, a place called Black Canyon. Whites weren’t allowed here but Julie had permission. Hardly anyone fished on the Reservation so they caught some fantastic trout, chasing the mice out of the cabin’s wood stove and frying them.
Nance helped out at a branding, volunteering to make apple pies for a crew of two dozen cowboys. The first step was picking the apples! The tree was in the middle of a pasture so she parked the pickup under the tree and set up a ladder in the truck bed. Cowboys riding in for lunch noticed her in her short skirt picking apples and they stopped to help, soon a half dozen guys were helping. Later we found out their wives and girlfriends didn’t particularly appreciate this stranger. The next day she drove a 2 ton flatbed truck over rough country up to the high summer pasture ,where the branding was taking place, delivering lunch. The crew needed the truck to haul heavy gear and buckets of Rocky Mountain oysters, so she had no way to get back down the mountain, except by horseback. Only one horse was available, a monster gelding named Big, the biggest damn horse on the whole ranch! They adjusted the stirrups and boosted her up on Big, she came riding down the mountain easy as pie. She loved Montana.
I flew up for a brief visit. She was a little embarrassed at my being such a useless greenhorn and my inability to ride a horse; I’m terrified of the damn things. We went camping instead and did some roadside geology, that’s more my style. We were camping in the spectacular Big Horn Range, between Sheridan ,Wyoming and Yellowstone, having coffee by the campfire one morning when she had some news.
‘I think we’re expecting,’ she said, nervously.
A huge smile crept across my face. ‘You mean a bun in the oven?’ I asked.
‘Yep. Pretty sure about it. What do you think?’ she asked as I embraced her.
‘Wow,’ I thought a minute. ‘We better go home and get married,’ I said.
‘OK. Sounds good,’ she said. And that was it, sealed with a kiss. The next week I flew back to Lafayette, she drove my pickup back.
Back in Lafayette we stood before the J.P. and were married, my old flame Lynn danced at the wedding reception. Little Nick was born the following April, just as oil hit $10 a barrel, and every company in town was either closing or firing staff. By 1988 our daughter Margaret, named for Nance’s mom, was born, we were thrilled. I continued at ARCO, surviving several brutal layoffs. Nance raised the kids and worked on a degree.
Those were great days. Our neighbors were Junior League types, a bit like the Southern girls in the book The Help, the Catholic version. Their names were musical , like Boudreaux, Cornay and Fontenot, and Nance was their adopted token Yankee. These were 1940s vintage houses with single car garages and no pools. Every summer afternoon a big crowd of these girls (the debu-tramps Nance affectionately called them) would be in lawn chairs at our little postage-stamp yard, their kids jumping and squealing in the kiddie pool. Most of these girls were convent educated, graduates of the Sacred Heart academy north of town. We were happy there in spite of the mosquitoes and occasional hurricane.
By 1991, when Thomas was born, the company bought our Lafayette house and moved us to Houston. We were pleased; the company took a $20,000 loss on the house and we bought one 50% bigger on a ½ acre, out in NW Houston. It was great. We had room for gardens, a fish pond, swing set, plus plenty of green grass for running. Our three kids ran like deer thru that yard and the schools were good, Nick started 1st grade there. We had baseball, Cub Scouts, ballet for Margaret, everything people move to the suburbs to enjoy.
I worked with a fine geologist in those days, Jim Blackerby, and we came up with some exciting drilling ideas. More layoffs came, our company was spun off from ARCO and IPO’d, into a small company called Vastar. Our ARCO division had 2300 employees. Goldman Sachs was handling the IPO and told our Vastar CEO you could have only 1000 staff. So 1000 out of 2300 were chosen, and Jim and I were among them. We always survived; not because we were the best but because we were an effective team, and we always had something on the drill schedule. We saw many friends leave however, that was tough. Nance didn’t work in Houston but minded little Thomas and volunteered with Scouts, she was always busy. We were careful with money, taking our kids camping on vacations, never flying anywhere. And always saving for a rainy day.
We Go Overseas
In 1995 we took a memorable vacation. We took 3 weeks at Xmas and drove out to Big Bend, Texas, left our car, and took the bus down to Chihuahua, Mexico, all 5 of us. We loved this high mountain town at the base of the Sierra Madre. Then we took the Chihuahua al Pacifico train west, across the Sierra , to the coast opposite Baja. Exciting! It was the kids’ first time on a train, and my Spanish got a good workout. It made me start thinking about going expat , seeing more of the world. I started to look around for something overseas. Nance was excited about it, she would go anywhere that was interesting.
But these jobs are hard to get. ARCO had almost no international workforce, and you needed a PhD. Sending a technical expert abroad with a big family cost these companies over $500,000 a year so there weren’t many positions. Countries like the UK and Norway insist their own skilled people be hired. Companies like Exxon were sort of closed shops; you had to join them out of university, impress the right people, and maybe get an overseas posting in 20 years. I hunted around and found jobs in Houston but nothing much overseas.
One option was a state owned or National oil company. The most famous is Aramco in Saudi Arabia, thousands of Americans and Europeans work there. Living conditions are pretty extreme, however. There’s no way Nance could work, she couldn’t even drive, and we’d have to put Nick in boarding school. I kept looking.
By 1996 industry hiring was increasing and I was looking seriously overseas, after 14 years at ARCO I’d had enough. Most of my old friends had been fired or quit, new management had come in I didn’t care for. I began to do less and less work and more job hunting. That’s when I ran across an Indian geologist who knew the exploration manager at QGPC in Qatar. He had the guy’s fax number so I put together a one page resume (I’d had only one serious job), and faxed it. I’d never been to Europe or the Gulf, didn’t even have a passport. I had to look on a map to see where the Hell the country was. But if they’d give me a free interview I’d take it.
Turns out ARCO had a small office in Doha and was well regarded. When the QGPC manager got my fax he called the ARCO manager in town and he said, yeah, I know John, he’s good. So almost at once I was invited to come. Nance and I went out, bought me a new suit and I got a passport. She wasn’t invited to come, which was annoying, also serving as my first intro to Arab culture. ‘Take lots of pictures,’ she said.
Fresh passport in hand, I took my first overseas flight; for a country boy it was pretty damn exciting! My visa was a faxed sheet of paper covered with Arabic scribbles and rubber stamps. I read what I could find on the country, which wasn’t much. The country was a small peninsula about half the size of Vermont, with only one city, Doha, the country’s capital. An absolute monarchy run by the Al Thani family, Qatar had recently been shaken by a palace coup. Sheik Hamid Al Thani had kicked out his father, Sheik Khalifa, the year before. Sheik Khalifa had been an old school Arab autocrat, keeping all of his money in Swiss bank accounts. During one of the old man’s trips to Switzerland to count his money, he had been replaced. Now the new guy was trying to reform the place , modernize the country. It was a small oil producer, an “OPEC minnow” it was called, especially compared to Saudi Arabia next door.
It’s main asset and hope for the future was natural gas. Drilling offshore, Shell had found a huge gas field, the North Field, back in 1971, but what to do with it? Gas has to be shipped in pipelines and Qatar was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hostile neighbors. The solution was chilled liquefied gas, LNG. Gas from the wells is cleaned up, compressed and chilled in giant refrigerators, then loaded onto special insulated ships. The ships deliver the gas to a customer like Japan or Korea, then come back empty. It had taken 25 years and billions of dollars of investment to put together the capital and technology to do this, most of it coming from Mobil and the French firm Total, since Qatar was almost broke. As I travelled to Doha, the first cargoes of chilled LNG were about to be shipped to customers in Asia.
All the costs are up-front on an LNG project: wells, compressors, ships, plus a special terminal at the customer end to convert the LNG back to gas. The costs are huge, so are the risks, and once it got going Qatar would be the world’s largest LNG shipper. Companies like Mobil and Total were doing the work; Qatar had no workforce or expertise, and in those days not much money. The job I was considering was on the oil side of the business, in Exploration, looking for new oil deposits.
So in November 1996 I flew to Amsterdam, then landed at Doha’s puny airport. I took the bus from the plane to the terminal like an airport in Podunk, then looked around for my ride. I saw my name, “Jhon”, on a card held by an Arab man in a dish-dash, traditional white robes, with a checkered hood scarf like Yasser Arafat. The dingy little terminal was swarming with jabbering South Asians and Arabs, a few lost-looking white people. The Arab guy drove me to the Marriott in town, and I collapsed, exhausted from a 20 hour trip.
He was back at seven the next morning, I hadn’t slept much. The weather was gorgeous and I’d slept with the window open, the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer drifting in and waking me about 4 AM. What a strange place this was! The smells were especially strange. The Arab men wore heavy perfumes, so a short elevator ride with several of them was quite a sensory experience. It was Ramadan, and everyone was fasting from sunrise to sunset. All restaurants were closed, the hotel restaurant was open for guests only. We went to the office, driving along the beautiful Corniche, or coast road. It was warm and sunny , the Gulf was so blue, and the office was just a few blocks from the water. People were walking along the Corniche, there were sailboats bobbing at anchor. I was a sailor so this was interesting. Doha was small and compact, population 200,000 or so. I could walk from the office to the marina in about 10 minutes. What a contrast to Houston .
I met Dr. Mamdouh, the Egyptian exploration manager and he had a surprise for me, an exam! ‘Please take a minute and answer these questions, John,’ he said. It was a little one page multiple choice test in basic geophysics, prepared for him by somebody. Most were easy, basic technical questions, and I was done in a few minutes. I met with two other staff, one British, and the other, Dr. Mamdouh’s Qatari boss Mr. Rashid, both nice people. They were pleased so they rushed me off for a physical to see if I was employable. By late afternoon they were ready with an offer.
So far so good, but there were problems. The housing they showed me was pretty sorry, mostly old, single story villas from the 60s or 70s. Turns out the shiny new places were leased by Mobil, Total, Oxy, etc.; QGPC got the left over junk. And the offer itself was low, after tax about what I made in Houston. I visited the American school; it was grim, a new one was under construction. Picture taking turned out to be a problem; I got shouted at by a couple of men as I was taking pictures on the Corniche. Evidently they didn’t appreciate visitors taking pictures. As I flew home after 3 days I was torn. It was intriguing, but a mixed bag. Nobody was going to get rich working here; the salary was about $6000 a month tax free, free housing and utilities, free schools, fairly decent medical care. It wasn’t a slam dunk, we had a pretty good setup in Houston. But it sure as hell was different. And cool places like the Himalayas, East Africa, Egypt, Greece and Italy were just a short flight away.
Back home I laid out the photos I’d taken and discussed it with Nance and 12 year old Nick. ‘It’s not big money but it’s a small city, right on the ocean, we can buy a boat and go sailing after work. Work hours are only 6:30AM to 2:30PM, commute is 10 minutes, so I’d be home while it’s still daylight instead of after dark. Six weeks vacation a year with roundtrip airfares for all 5 of us, one set of tickets per year. If you don’t fly home, they give you cash, you buy your own ticket. And almost no tax,’ I said as she listened.
She wasn’t sure. ‘Schools and housing are what matters to me,’ she said.
‘You’re right. Housing isn’t so hot. But they’re building a new American school and the director I met, Bob Conlan, is a great guy. All 12 grades are only about 200 kids so lots of personal attention,’ I said.
Turns out Nance had been doing some research on her own. Neighbors of ours, the Wheelers, had told her forget Qatar , especially QGPC. Over the back fence I chatted with Jim Wheeler, a plain spoken engineer about my age. He was pretty adamant. ‘I was over there with Brown and Root, and it wasn’t too bad. But you should only go over there working for an American or British outfit, not those gov’t idiots. I’ve heard horror stories about them. And you shouldn’t go over there with young boys, those Arab guys are a bunch of predators and they will be after them. Nobody bothers girls but with boys you need to look out.’
I listened, but didn’t really hear him. We chatted a few minutes but he realized that I had decided. He said be careful wished me good luck.
We debated it. Nobody else was offering to hire me overseas and we were tired of Houston. My job was going nowhere. Instead of working I sat and day dreamed about azure waters, exotic perfumes, the call to prayer sounding at dawn, the strangeness and silence of the desert. I had Arabian fever, like one of those 19th century English explorers! If we went, we could finally tour Europe properly, like the idle rich. We could take a month, cash in our airfares and gaze at the canals of Venice. We could visit the souqs of Damascus and Istanbul and float down the Nile. The kids could see places like east Africa and India. I talked her into it. Nance and the kids got passports and we accepted the offer.
Working at QG
Arriving in Doha in April 1997 by myself I was put up in a sort of dorm with other new hires, it was attached to the company health club and had a library and nice pool. Right away I met Don Beenham, a Canadian joining QG’s planning group, plus an assortment of Brits, Scots and Irish with North Sea experience. A key question was how to get beer! It was legal but only with a permit, and it was sold in only a few obscure little outlets. Booze was referred to as “special supplies”. I was told about “Building 47” down by the port, where you could order these critical supplies.
Since I’m a Texan I bought a pickup truck, a used Datsun, and did a weekly booze run with these thirsty Scots and Irish. They had Fosters beer, Aussie wine in a box, almost nothing American. Martin Ryan was a good friend, Irish of course, very amusing fellow. Martin, Don and I explored Doha together, learning about this strange new place. Turns out QG had almost no American staff – this should’ve set off alarm bells. We prowled the Arabic souqs as the weather warmed and then went to the beach a couple times, a place called French beach, north of town. Each month my pay slip came and there were no deductions of any sort, no income tax, no SSI, no health premiums, nada. I was paid in Qatari Riyals, which was fixed to the dollar, and sending money back to Nance in Houston was easy via SWIFT transfer. She was putting our house on the market and tending to endless details, getting the kids’ school records together, seeing relatives, etc.
Work was strange as hell. We were short of offices so they put 4 of us into a conference room. My Egyptian geologist, A.K., had no office at all and was called a “Palestinian”. Each week as people went on vacation A.K. would move into their office and sit at their desk, use their phone, so each week I had to go looking for him. The secretary usually knew where he was. She was beautiful Mona, an actual Palestinian.
‘Hello A.K., how are you? Where are you this week?’ I’d ask when I got his number.
‘John, Sabah al Khayr (good morning). I’m in gas marketing, 4th floor, corner office,’ he’d say. I’d stop by and there he would be, sitting in some manager’s office, who was off sunning himself in Cypress or Lebanon. It was common for managers to “lose” their office to other departments when they went on holiday, so they were happy to have A.K. camp out and hold it for them. That summer he spent several weeks relaxing with his feet on the desk in a beautiful corner office with a spectacular ocean view, holding it for some Sheik. It was like having an office in Malibu.
‘I’m going on holiday soon, John,’ he said as I marveled at the view. ‘Think you could move your stuff into this office , hold it for the Sheik?’
‘I don’t think I could get any work done,’ I said with a chuckle. ‘But as a favor to you, sadeeki, (friend) why not?’ He went the following week and I really enjoyed the Malibu office, watching the sailboats tack back and forth on the bay, sipping a tea brought by a tea boy. What a life! Beat the hell out of working. I thought of my pals back in Houston stuck in traffic, fretting over layoffs and felt pretty damn smug.
A.K. didn’t do much but then nobody seemed to do much. We didn’t have proper equipment for one thing. In Houston my data had been loaded for me into Oracle and I worked a project on a Sun dual-screen engineering workstation. These QG guys had 2 workstations for 6 people and nobody seemed to know how to use them. We also had old PCs, but no network , everything backed up on floppies. I’d never used a PC much but now I had to, either that or a pencil. They had a pile of technical manuals on Oracle and the Landmark geoscience software package, plus the UNIX operating system. Nobody else seemed to want to learn it so I decided to. As the office emptied out for the summer I sat in the Malibu office and read Landmark technical manuals and Unix for Dummies. One reason they were pleased to hire me was that I wasn’t entitled to any holiday, so I could sort of anchor the office while everyone else went home for 6 weeks.
Another task was finding a house. Rumor said a bottle of scotch from the “special supplies” could get you a better company house, but I never tried this. I looked at several and finally took an old Shell villa, 3 bedrooms, with marble floors and a nice yard. It was being remodeled. As the summer heat settled in I’d often drive to the house in my pickup and water the lawn. Once a week I’d treat myself to Burger King, sit outside under a date palm in my yard and move the hose every few minutes. It wasn’t bad, but I sure missed Nance and the kids, being on my own was strange.
Doha in the 90s was no place to be single, there were no pubs, nothing but a couple overpriced hotel bars. There were no single women other than a few British teachers, and they weren’t much to look at. Once or twice we went to the Oasis Hotel where they hung out. They were 30 something, ruddy faced, chubby, sort of like Sarah Ferguson. And each had a table full of desperate single guys buying them drinks! They were in tall cotton, as my grandpa used to say. Local women were hidden away behind high walls, coming out only in black niqab, the head cover that shows only the eyes thru a slit. A single guy would probably go nuts here. Locals and expats never mixed except at work.
We had some Qatari secretaries at work, moving along silently under black niqabs and floor length gowns. Identifying them was hard. Brian, a Canadian friend at QG , got memos from 3 different bosses, each delivered by a silent, black gowned, anonymous secretary. They never spoke to him and he couldn’t tell them apart. ‘I call them the executioners,’ he said. ‘They all look the same to me.’ I was told don’t talk to Qatari women, and never ask a Qatari about the women in his family, that’s forbidden.
There were some expat 1st level supervisors but all 2nd level and above bosses were Qatari. Shell had designed the company back in the 1960s and QG still used the old Shell system of “reference indicators.” I was EXE-3. My boss was EXE. His boss was EX. So a memo might go from EX to EXE, then passed on to EXE-3 “for action please.” Memos flooded the place since the email system couldn’t handle Arabic. Big bosses had 2 or 3 secretaries, one doing English, another doing Arabic, another yakking on the phone.
Meetings generally were in English but memos to top managers and the Minister were in Arabic. Since Arabic is almost impossible for most foreigners to learn, this created lots of duplicate staff and plenty of paperwork. Meetings typically started with the Egyptian QG guys like A.K. coming in, yakking and laughing in their Arabic dialect. Then the operating company guys , usually Brits, French or Americans, would arrive and the language would switch to English. Those Chevron and Total guys were surprised as hell to see me, a white face across the table. Then the Qatari boss would come in and we’d proceed in English. I was about the only western-trained geoscience guy QG had, so they relied heavily on my experience.
The scale of these Gulf projects was impressive. On the crude oil side, one offshore oil field, Al Shaheen, operated by the Danish firm Maersk, held 30 billion barrels, with only 10% or so recoverable due to difficult reservoir conditions. Prudhoe Bay in Alaska is 10 billion. The old Dukhan Field in western Qatar was about the size of Prudhoe, discovered by the Brits in the 1930s and still going strong. You could drive over and visit this old field , a long slender surface anticline hugging the western side of the peninsula, 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. There was a nice beach along the west side of Dukhan with good swimming. I’d never seen an oil field that took an hour to drive across.
Because Qatar was a peninsula it controlled quite a large marine area, this was where most oil and gas activity took place. The Gulf was shallow water, an easy area to operate in except for the hazardous politics. Shell had found three large offshore shallow water salt dome oil fields in the 1960s in Qatari waters. These fields were nationalized by the government in 1970, and when I arrived QG was trying to operate them. The results were poor since QG lacked critical expertise, the fields were limping along way below capacity. QG had no money since all their oil income was siphoned off by the regime, the gov’t returning to QG maybe 5 or 10 cents per dollar of revenue. They managed Dukhan, the big onshore oil field, plus two of the old Shell fields, and that’s it. Difficult oil fields like Al Shaheen field and the new discovery at Al Khaleej were managed by foreigners like the Danes (Maersk), and the French (Elf). Risky activities like exploration, my area of expertise, was done only by foreigners. Every year or two a sealed bid auction was held , foreign companies competing for the right to drill in an area called a block; they paid 100% up front and took all the risks. If the well was dry they walked away with nothing. If they found oil , QG would join them as a partner, based on a negotiated agreement, QG contributing nothing.
But the big story as mentioned before was natural gas , that was the country’s hope for the future . This was the North Field, the world’s largest gas field. Located offshore in shallow water, it held a staggering 1000 trillion cubic feet of gas, many times the entire annual gas consumption of the US. A field like this in the US or Russia would be connected to customers by pipeline. But Qatar was tiny and weak, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hostile neighbors who refused to permit pipelines to cross. After finding the field , Shell couldn’t figure out how to get gas out, so they bailed and left the country. The only option was LNG, a task only a few western companies were capable of. So QG let Mobil, Total and others develop the North Field gas , which was deep, toxic, and difficult to produce. When I arrived in 1997 billions had been invested in the North Field but not a nickel of revenue had been seen, a very risky project for any oil company. The first ships were scheduled to take LNG to customers in Japan and Korea later that year.
On both the oil and the gas side these foreign companies did not work for free; they took a big chunk of the revenue as profit, enjoying a 20 or 30% rate of return. The agreement with Maersk for example forced Qatar to hand over a big fraction of the field’s oil production to the Danes, Qatar got the rest. When a shipment of oil went out, the money was divided into four piles. The cash operating costs, like salaries for the Danes, were recovered first. Then the capital costs for stuff like wells and pipelines were recovered, Maersk was allowed to recover its investments. The third pile was profit for Maersk, they weren’t here for their health. Whatever was left went to the government. The size of the various piles was determined by a complex formula depending on oil prices and volumes.
These arrangements with foreign companies were top secret; the locals might object if they knew such a huge percentage of the country’s only product was handed over to foreigners. This also explained why the foreign oil company staff were so well paid and lived so lavishly. All operating costs, including salaries, housing, first class travel and fancy bottles of wine were deducted by the company, off the top, from the oil revenue. My salary was a QG direct expense, and was paid out of the tiny sums QG managed to claw back from the Ministry of Finance.
Oil prices were low in the nineties and the government share was small, so Qatar had an undeveloped look. The roads going out of Doha were narrow two-lane things full of potholes, it looked like South Louisiana with sand dunes. There were no overpasses and it was dangerous since camels and other animals strayed onto them at night. There was only one first class hotel, the airport was small and dingy. Of course a large percentage of government revenue had been squandered by the previous king.
The new king, Sheik Hamad, was a modernizer and seemed to be determined to do a better job. One of his first moves was to take a QG oilfield, called ISND, and turn it over to the American company Oxy. ISND had been operated by a gang of useless idiots at QG and in no time at all Oxy managed to double its production! Sheik Hamid was very pleased. Some of the first Americans I met in Doha were Oxy guys, laid back cowboys from Bakersfield and Houston.
So I settled in, that summer of 1997, enjoyed the short hours, the Malibu office, and looking forward to Nancy and the kids coming. Griping about an undemanding job paying around $90,000 a year that ends every day at 2:30 is ridiculous anyway. The place was hot as Hell, I discovered. July was brutal and I was new, with no vacation. Everyone bailed from the office, gone for 6 weeks back to Egypt or wherever and I was alone with my Sun workstation and UNIX for Dummies. I felt like a dummy too, during week after week of 110° F weather. A Houston heat wave would have been a cool respite compared to this.
One day I was prowling around in the empty building and discovered in a corner office a cool toy, a 24 CPU Onyx supercomputer, from Silicon Graphics in California. Janusz, a blonde Polish guy from the IT department, was doing something with it. This machine was two huge black cabinets the size of Coke machines, one was the CPU, the other one high speed RAM. On a nearby desk were two 21 inch screens and a jazzy looking purple three-button mouse. These things were used in places like Los Alamos for code breaking or nuclear weapons research; companies like Pixar used them for animation, plus they had oil and gas applications. We heard rumors the Iranians had bought thousands of Nintendo machines and were ganging them together to create their own nuclear research supercomputer, since machines like the Onyx weren’t available to them. The machine had cost a fortune and required a special Pentagon license. Janusz was doing some sort of maintenance , pecking away on the keyboard and griping.
‘This stupid guy, Dr. Taha, who bought this thing didn’t bother to buy software, so it’s useless,’ he said. ‘There was no budget. So now we have a $4 million machine, the only supercomputer in the entire country. The only software we have is for demos, an F-16 flight simulator. You want to try it?’
I sat down in front of the screens, it was super cool. ‘I’ve heard of Dr. Taha. Wasn’t he the Egyptian they fired for having fake diplomas?’ I asked as he started the simulator. It was pretty nifty , like a giant multi- million-dollar video game. Soon I was zooming through the Alps in my own fighter jet. Behind me rows of LEDs on the CPU box lit up showing activity on all the processors.
‘That’s right, a real genius, expert on the Xerox machine and not much else,’ Janusz griped. Suddenly the machine crashed, the screens filled with error messages and it started to re-boot.
‘Oops. Did I break it?’ I asked.
Janusz took over. ‘No, it’s fine . Stupid Dr. Taha insisted it be installed in his office like a PC but there’s no proper cooling system in here , so it overheats and crashes. Better to just use it in the winter. I’ll open a window,’ Janusz said , letting in a blast of humid, salty , 90° air. How refreshing!
Since fake Dr. Taha had been fired and the occupant of the room was on permanent vacation I started to sneak in regularly and play on the S.G.I. ONYX. Unix was installed so I could write a Unix script to calculate pi to 1000 decimal places, nonsense like that, trying to get all the CPUs working at once. It was something to do during a slow time, and nobody was around. It’s not often you get to play on your own personal supercomputer.
The Family Arrives
With their fresh blue passports Nancy, Nick, Meg and Tom were ready to become world travelers! I’d found them a reasonable hotel in west London, a Pakistani place, near the main attractions. They spent a week there in August visiting the British Museum and Hyde Park, and loved it, in spite of a heat wave, the constant smell of curry and howling cats fighting on the dumpster outside the open windows. I was in Doha tidying up our old villa, making sure the A/C worked, arranging the cheap rented furniture and stocking the fridge and pantry. I even had a kitten waiting for Meg. At the arrivals area of Doha airport I pushed my way thru a crowd of south Asians and saw Nick, then Tom and Meg, and finally Nance come thru, followed by two huge carts of luggage pushed by Sri Lankans. ‘Nick, Nick!’ I shouted and grabbed them for hugs.
‘Dad! We missed you so much!’ they said, all talking at once about London and the flight. I hugged and kissed Nancy and tipped the luggage boys, they brought our stuff outside. Everyone talked at once. I walked them out to my Datsun 4-door pickup.
‘This is your truck? Cool!’ little 5 year old Tom said, climbing inside. We drove to the villa, the kids chatting, looking around excited.
‘Pretty hot here,’ Nance said. It was early August and she wasn’t lying, it was awful, much hotter than Houston. ‘So what’s the house like?’ she asked.
‘You’ll see,’ I said, turning down our street.
We unloaded, the kids ran inside exploring the place. It was old and rundown but Nance tried to be positive as she looked around. Suddenly there was an emergency, the kids came shouting & running. ‘Dad! The toilet is shooting water to the ceiling. Help!!’ They had discovered a bidet, each bathroom had one. We went in to investigate; it was a teachable moment.
I turned the water off. ‘This is a bidet. If you don’t want to use toilet paper , after you do your business use it to wash your behind. It’s what French people do,’ I explained.
‘The French must be really gross, Dad,’ 12 year old Nick remarked, looking the thing over. ‘Think I’ll stick to good old TP.’
Margaret disagreed. ‘I think it’s cool. I’ll use it every time, just like a French.’
Nance went into the kitchen, it was pretty bad. ‘Please keep in mind it’s free, there’s no rent, no mortgage. Check out the nice marble floors. Your Ethan Allen table will look nice here,’ I said as she looked around. The kids jumped on the cheap company furniture and tried the TV. Nance and I would have a bedroom w/bath, the boys would share, Meg would have a nice bedroom.
‘And the kitten sleeps with me,’ Meg said, excited. She was 9 and cat crazy. ‘What’s her name?’ she asked.
‘Farah. She’s part Abyssinian, from Africa. See the little tufts of hair on her ears?’ I said.
‘Cool, Dad. Come on Farah,’ Meg said, scooping up the exotic looking brown kitten.
Our shipping container was on the way and we had only a few pots and pans, some ugly plastic plates. The A/C cranked constantly trying to cool the old place. In a few days the bidets were occupied by potted plants. We were home.
The next day we drove in the pickup to the souq, the kids were astonished at all the tiny shops, the jabber of tongues, the strange cars. We went thru several traffic circles, locally called roundabouts, everything was strange and new. We went to 19 Minute Foto and everyone got 20 passport pictures each, every form and permit required a picture. We went out to visit the American school and registered Nick and Meg. Little Tom was kindergarten age and the school didn’t offer it. Instead he went to the Ideal Indian School, which fetched him in a little bus every morning, the only white kid. Nance went for a driver’s test in the pickup and did fine, she could drive anything. I showed her the grocery stores and the little neighborhood shop that delivered, an Indian on a bicycle would bring stuff right to your door in 5 minutes. I got her some wine at special supplies.
Our good friends Don Beenham and his wife Carolyn were settled into an apartment, we went with them to the beach a few times, they were great friends. Nancy met other moms as she started driving the kids to school a few weeks later. Most Americans lived in gated communities that catered to westerners. It was a cloistered life, surrounded by their fellow Chevron or Oxy employees and their wives, all watching each other and gossiping. We lived out in the community and had the real Arabian experience, coming across all sorts of people.
We got an interest free car loan and bought a Hyundai SUV, a 7 seater model with a strong engine, good for trips and dune bashing. The Inland Sea was a large area of dunes and mud flats south of Doha, this was an adventure. Tides would flood this area through a narrow tidal channel, and next to it was a large area of nice sand dunes. We’d stop at a petrol station and deflate tires, go into 4WD and charge across the dunes in a convoy. Finally we’d arrive at the deep, fast flowing tidal channel that separates Qatar from Saudi. There was camping here, great swimming, spear fishing and clam digging.
Fall came, the weather moderated and I bought a sailboat, a 22 footer. It needed new sails and lots of work but I went for it. Now we could sail out to Safliyah island, a couple miles off Doha, a great picnic and swimming spot. We discovered the fish market and bought shrimp and crabs so we could make bouillabaisse, Spanish paella and Cajun gumbo. Pork was forbidden but could be smuggled in by friends. Milk was expensive, but juice was cheap. Beef was expensive, but chicken and lamb were cheap. Nance, a wonderful cook, adapted to this strange new place, and the kids enjoyed the school.
It sounds idyllic but we were very far from home in an alien place and communication was difficult. Internet was by QTEL, a gov’t monopoly, and services like Skype were forbidden. The Internet was slow and expensive to discourage people from using it. The same monopoly controlled phone, Internet, even cable TV , and service was awful. It was an illiterate society; there were no bookstores or libraries, no western newspapers except an occasional London Times or Telegraph. Everything was censored. The little delivery man would actually sit on your front porch with a black pen and censor your copy of National Geo and Economist, a comical sight. The only movies available were Bollywood , or Bruce Willis type action stuff; cable TV was censored and mostly garbage anyway. An intellectual would perish here but for a family man with his own library who wants an easy job and good winds for sailing, it wasn’t bad. I didn’t become an intellectual till I came to prison.
The Early Years
Near Qatar was the beautiful and mountainous country of Oman. This was driving distance if you didn’t mind battling some red tape, a great winter getaway. And I was the red tape master. First I needed permission to leave Qatar, this was obtained via QG’s H.R. dept. Then I took my car info and passport to the Saudi (KSA) embassy, joined the queue and got transit visas. We already had 5 year UAE visas.
The drive began at dawn. At the Qatar-KSA border we were inspected for booze, passports stamped, car papers stamped, lots of stamps. At this border crossing there was the comical “ladies inspection” department. This is a private office where Arab ladies can un-hood themselves and be identified by a policewoman , otherwise they could be anybody, or even a man . A couple times as a joke Nance tried to drag Margaret through ladies inspection.
‘C’mon, Meg let’s do ladies inspection! It will be fun,’ she said. 10 year old Meg wasn’t interested. ‘No way, Mom. You go get inspected, I’ll stay here.’
Then we drove thru Saudi an hour or so and came to the KSA-UAE border. Each border looks like the Korean DMZ, with fences, checkpoints, inspection sheds, ladies inspection, a vast no man’s land. These Arab states fear and dislike each other even though their citizens are closely related and almost indistinguishable. Each is paranoid and fears attacks, espionage or infiltration. You’ve never seen worthless barren land better protected by fences and barriers.
The UAE north and east of Dubai is spectacular. In the UAE we’d drive to the small green city of Al Ain, nestled in a large oasis. The mountains begin here. There are yet more checkpoints and paperwork if you want to visit Oman, usually we did not; the northern UAE had all the mountains and beaches we wanted. Parts of the UAE face the Indian Ocean, which is less salty than the Gulf, with better beaches, turtles, tons of fish; it looks like Southern California.
The nightmarish paperwork and visa mess plus all the ridiculous checkpoints means most westerners simply fly to their destination, but we wanted our SUV for camping and dune bashing. We knew some great secret beaches and camping spots. I was very lucky to marry a woman who loves camping, sailing, biking, anything outdoors, and the kids were always tanned from being outside.
Meanwhile work was slow. Summer 1998 came and oil prices collapsed, gasoline was a buck in the US, the stock market was booming. It was the time of the Clinton economic boom but a deep recession here in the Gulf, the economy ground to a halt with $15 oil. People were fascinated by Monica Lewinsky, the Sri Lankan tea boys especially. Qatar ran out of money and thousands of expats were sent home. Traffic thinned to almost nothing; on Friday morning bike rides we had the place to ourselves. QG never seemed to fire anybody so we were fine.
In 1998 we were finally entitled to a month’s vacation. Nance agreed to a month long summer road trip from Qatar to Saudi, then along the old Tapline road to Jordan. From Jordan we’d go to Syria, skipping Israel because of the visa stamps. Then to Lebanon, swim in the Mediterranean, and drive all the way back. The other American moms told Nance this was madness, don’t do it , you’ll all be kidnapped or killed. Their idea of adventure was go home to Dallas for a month, then on the way back spend a week in Scotland in a 5* hotel . Nance and I scoffed at this idea. Why the heck come overseas if you don’t see anything?
This took weeks to plan, it was an advanced course in Arab bureaucracy. I went to the big fortress-like KSA embassy and asked for visas. ‘Get a Jordan visa first,’ they said, through bulletproof glass. ‘Then we’ll give you a 7 day transit visa to drive across to Jordan .’
Off to Jordan’s embassy, then Syria’s, both small rundown villas. The Syrians were cranky. ‘You know how hard it is for us to get US visas? A bloody nightmare! I was just turned down for one, ’ the guy complained , as they reluctantly took our passports. Finally I had all of them, a big folder of paperwork. Sweet little Lebanon didn’t require a visa, bless them. Even our car required a bunch of paperwork, its own passport called a carnet de passage. Meg spoke some Arabic, I did too, and we had friends to stay with in Saudi, people Nance had met. We were off.
We stayed in the massive Aramco fenced compound in the KSA’s eastern province, several square miles of the American Midwest behind high walls and armed guards, surrounded by extremism and chaos. We got directions on how to find the famous Tapline road. Tapline was an oil pipeline the Saudis built in the sixties to take their oil to the Med, in case the Iranians closed the Strait of Hormuz. It went all the way to Lebanon. They finished the thing just as the Lebanese civil war broke out; now it sat, unused and rusting. We followed it along the Iraqi border to Jordan, staying in cheap hotels, the weather moderating as we drove north and gained elevation.
In friendly Jordan, Nance took over driving. We saw Crusader castles, ancient Petra and the Roman city of Jerash . Nance drove us south along the Dead Sea Highway , pretty exciting since we were 1500 meters below sea level, the hills of Israel visible in the distance across the water. We passed an old Jordanian man , a hitchhiker, it was a hot day. We stopped and he got in, a grizzled old guy without a word of English, a shepherd maybe. Nick was sitting next to him in the crowded car and noticed a pistol tucked in his waistband!
‘Dad, this guy’s got a gun,’ Nick whispered nervously.
I passed the word on to our intrepid driver. She was calm. ‘Relax you guys. I’m sure he doesn’t mean us any harm,’ she said, and after a few kilometers he got out. He gave us a toothless grin and said Shukran (thanks).
Then into Syria, where we visited Damascus and Nance shopped in souq Hammadiyya, the greatest souq in Arabia. At one carpet store in Damascus Nance agreed to go with the owner and look at some special items he had loaned out.
‘Do you want me to come?’ I asked nervously.
‘No, I’ll be fine. You’ll just be bored. I’ll see you back at the hotel,’ she said.
Around supper time she returned to the hotel, in a good mood, laughing. She’d bought a couple of small items. ‘That guy’s funny. To avoid taxes he puts all of his nice carpets in the houses of friends, and brings customers to see them. We drove all over the city. Sometimes people were having a meal on the carpet, he would kick them off and show it to me! They didn’t mind. Everybody wanted me to stay for tea or sweets, it was great. These people are so friendly, they all ask about America. There was this little girl who wanted to sit on my lap and touch my hair, so sweet. Wish I knew more Arabic,’ she said. There must’ve been an angel looking out for Nance, keeping her safe in strange places. We went north to the city of Homs, staying in a hotel for $8 for all of us, a shower was a dollar extra, no charge for kids the owner said.
Palmyra, in Syria, was also fascinating, an entire intact Roman city ruled in ancient times by a rebellious Arab queen. Palmyra was the only watering hole between the Euphrates River and the mountains for camel caravans from the far east. Silk coming west from China passed thru here on the way to Rome, and later to Venice. I’m glad we got a good look at Syria and enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Syrian people. Some countries self-destruct, just like some families do.
Then we went to Lebanon. At the border with Syria a friendly Lebanese welcomed us, the only Americans he had ever seen arriving by car. ‘You guys drove all the way from Qatar? My God, come inside and have some tea. Did your wife do all the driving? Amazing. You must be very modern people. And such beautiful children! Come in , come in!’ he said, going on and on. Lebanon is a little California, a beautiful little country with great beaches and so many great looking women. In the late nineties Beirut still looked pretty trashed from the civil war , burned cars here and there and abandoned buildings with shell holes. Nance was pretty nervous but she managed to drive us through this war zone without incident. The beaches were fantastic! We found a camping place recommended by Lonely Planet, just down the road was a great beach.
The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, controlled by the Shia militia Hezbollah, was another favorite spot , with its great Roman temples from the 1st and 2nd century AD. The Bekaa was one of the bread baskets of the Roman Empire. What a magnificent place! In Europe all of the great Roman temples were knocked down , recycled to build stuff like the Vatican and Hagia Sofia. But in the Middle East they are preserved. We bought Hezbollah T- shirts and drank cold beer, under the frowning posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. We met three young Americans at the only hotel in town, a place with three rooms. Taking the luxury suite for $15 a night, we bought these guys a nice dinner at a beautiful open air restaurant next to a babbling stream.
With oil at ten bucks , 1999 proved to be a big sleep for the oil business. I was busy at QG, loading data to our Landmark system so we could move away from paper and pencil work and use computers. We had large areas of the country inactive and available for exploring if we could find foreign oil company partners. Hardly any companies came by to look at our projects, however. Instead they were merging. Exxon swallowed Mobil to become ExxonMobil; BP gobbled up my old company ARCO , so I became a BP retiree. Upwards of 100,000 staff were let go during these mergers, many of my friends changed careers. QG chugged along, hardly affected at all, although Qatar’s government was damn near broke. At several key meetings Qatar had to admit it couldn’t pay its share of joint projects, the other partners would have to accept IOUs and serve as Qatar’s banker.
At first Exxon, affectionately known as “El Tigre”, didn’t think much of Mobil’s half-completed Qatar LNG projects. But after a while the low-risk 20% rate of return and pro-US policies of the regime won them over. After the merger El Tigre stepped on the gas for LNG, putting its vast technical and marketing skills behind it. ExxonMobil project areas were clustered along the Qatar-Iran border, placed there on purpose so if the Iranians decide to “modify” the border they would run into the well-connected boys from Houston. Often the regime chose El Tigre, Chevron or Conoco over European competitors for projects because of fear of Iran. The Yanks could call the 5th fleet from Bahrain next door, the regime assumed, and sort things out. These companies also wrote big checks to the new American School , it was completed and opened. My three kids enrolled, it was shiny and new, the faculty first rate. No matter how difficult or strange Qatar might be, this fine school anchored us there and Nance made many friends volunteering there and with Scouts. She became a major force in Qatar Scouting and all of us went on Scout campouts to Zikreet, in the hilly western part of the country. Margaret was usually the only girl, but she didn’t mind.
Vacations loom large in any expat’s life, and we were lucky in Summer 1999. Our Canadian friends Don and Carolyn Beenham were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and invited us to stay in their big house in the diplomatic area, next to the Margala Hills. It was a chance to go trekking! Nick went to Philmont Scout Ranch in the U.S. but the rest of us flew to Pakistan and trained for a week in the hills, walking 10 km. a day. Then we took a spectacular 2 week trek thru the Karakorum range near K-2, the world’s second highest mountain. This was Pakistani Kashmir, the great peaks Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum and Rakaposhi were all around us. A fine Pakistani trekking crew of 12 local guys took good care of us. This was not like Nepal with the little trail side hotels but camping, in a remote and difficult area, with dangerous glacier crossings. At one point we climbed from a base camp at 3500 meters to 4500 meters in a single grueling day to catch a view of K-2 , we were exhausted. Tom was 8 and Margaret was 11, and they managed it. But then both started throwing up and felt dizzy, it was altitude sickness. Nasser, our Pakistani guide, insisted we descend. He put little Tom on his back and started galloping back down the trail, I followed with Meg. Back in Islamabad the Beenhams were such fine hosts, we had a great time. Like our Syria trip , this trek would be impossible today.
Winter of 1999 was Ramadan, and the Eid holiday coincided with the Millennium. My Mom came over and we planned yet another epic car trip – to Egypt! People said we were nuts, why not just fly there? Well, pay me Exxon money and I will! There were 6 of us and we crammed the car full and took off across Saudi Arabia, just after Xmas 1999. At sundown each evening we’d pull in to little roadside cafes and break our Ramadan fast on a big platter of chicken and rice, cooked in a pot the size of a hot tub. All 6 of us ate for around $2, the special Ramadan price, and Nance and my Mom looked cute in their headscarves. We stopped by Medina and saw ancient ruins, and the old Hejaz railway blown up by Lawrence of Arabia.
We took a ferry cross the Red Sea from the KSA to Egypt; this was cool, the first time the kids had been on a passenger ship. My mom was quite a celebrity, the Arab ladies on board all wanted to talk to her! ‘How old are you? Are you married? Are these your children and grandchildren?’ They had 100 questions .
Driving in Egypt is a lethal nightmare but Nance did it, kept us alive. We drove down the Nile to Luxor, then the lovely town of Aswan in upper Egypt. We hired one of the local sailboats, a falluca , with Mohammed, a friendly owner, and he took us down the Nile. He saw me dip my hand in to drink some of the Nile water. Margaret said, ‘Dad, don’t drink that!’ but Mohammed was pleased. ‘They say if you drink the water of the Nile you will someday return to Egypt,’ he said as he worked the tiller. On Dec 31 1999 at midnight we were in Luxor, overlooking the Nile from our hotel roof, all the tourist and casino boats blowing their horns. Spectacular! My Mom still talks about that trip.
QG offered me a raise if I signed a new contract in 2000 so I did, we were comfortable in Doha. Nancy went to the housing office and said we would only stay if we got a better house. She pounded the table but in a charming way. They gave us a monster: 2 full floors plus a half story, maids quarters, 6 bedrooms and 3 baths. She loved it. All the kids had their own BR plus we rented out a downstairs BR to bachelor friends. School was going well, Nick was showing a lot of academic talent, Meg and Tom were also doing well. No reason to mess with this situation. We began year four of our adventure very satisfied.
Things were still slow at the office in 2000 but I had one interesting project, the border dispute with Bahrain. If you look at the CIA.gov map of Qatar you see several small islands just off the west coast, these were claimed by Qatar and Bahrain. QG’s Dukhan oil field is nearby just to the south, so there was lots of speculation that the islands might have oil, the dispute had simmered for decades. Qatar had spent a lot of money on lawyers and useless consultants arguing the case and QG staff enjoyed going to the Hague in summer and watching the proceedings. I took what data we had and mapped the area on the computer and concluded pretty firmly that there was no oil under these islands, or in the waters around them. They were worthless, uninhabited things, no fresh water. I told my bosses we should let Bahrain have them.
This was a controversial view, since we were arguing at that time before the International Court in the Hague that the islands were Qatari. Bahrain in their court documents claimed not only the islands, but a huge chunk of the Qatar Peninsula itself, including part of the North Field! They were greedy little bastards! By giving them the worthless islands, we could settle the dispute and North Field development could go ahead, no legal uncertainty. This was my recommendation to the Minister, and it was accepted. The court drew a new border giving the useless islands to Bahrain, the new border running along the beach of western Qatar. This put an end to the junkets to the Netherlands of course, and this annoyed some people; no more Amsterdam Red Light District action for them, no more consulting fees.
There was a big celebration in tiny, feeble Bahrain, dancing in the streets. Compared to this tiny island, Qatar is huge, the superpower next door! They quickly and ostentatiously mobilized a drilling rig on the disputed islands and started drilling for oil. The Minister contacted my manager and asked ‘Is your American expert sure there’s no oil there? If they make a discovery we could have trouble explaining it to the Emir!’ My boss Dr. Mamdouh was terrified but informed him that I was a ‘top technical expert’ and he supported my opinion. It made me a little uncomfortable but I stuck to it . Many islands in the Gulf are oil bearing, the surface expression of deep structures, like Bahrain itself. Other islands are simply reefs or sand shoals; I argued the disputed islands were of this type.
We could see the Bahraini jackup drilling rig from one of our favorite camping spots in western Qatar, and it was winter, so we went camping a couple times and sat on the beach and watched the rig off in the distance thru a telescope , to see if they would flare gas or do any sort of testing. They were drilling in shallow water between the islands.
‘What happens if they find something?’ Nick asked.
‘If they flare gas we’ve got to head to the airport , because they might put me in jail,’ I told them , only half joking. Not long after , Bahrain packed up the rig and left, the well was dry. The Ruler wasn’t angry with me.
QG was a disorganized mess with lots of staff turnover. Hardly anybody competent bothered to renew their 3 year contract as I had done. The company owned a bunch of houses and several were used as informal document storage. I went to one empty villa in particular a few times with my pickup to collect files. I found quite a lot of goodies left by my predecessors. When somebody quit QG their files were gathered up by illiterate tea boys and sent to this old empty villa and just dumped; I found several man years of work that I could use. It was also common to delete all the computer files of anybody who quit, sometimes giving their PC to some useless secretary without examining it!!
I moved a bunch of this stuff back to my office, loaded it to Landmark, doubling the size of the Oracle database I worked with and getting the reputation of a computer guru. One day I was in the bathroom of the villa standing up on the toilet searching high shelves for goodies. Roaches were scurrying everywhere, it was all in a day’s work. I found a big box of floppy disks, a year’s worth of work by some long-gone Canadian engineer, buried in rat shit! I took the floppies back to the office and had the tea boys clean them. In a week I had it loaded and working, people were amazed. On another archaeological dig I found (in a box of dead roaches and junk) several 8 MM computer tapes with red Mobil R&D labels, a project I didn’t even know about. It was some sort of antique format so I took it to the IT department and Janusz helped me load it using an old Sun machine . It was a frikkin’ gold mine: millions of dollars’ worth of reprocessed seismic, the work of a team of 20 Ph.D.s in Mobil’s now disbanded Dallas research lab!! It had been delivered to QP a few years before and had sat for years under roaches and rat shit, nobody had bothered to load it to our computers. What was worse, we were about to hire another contractor to do the same work, it would be pure waste and duplication.
Another time I was at a barbecue at the posh Al Jazzi compound used by ExxonMobil and U.S. diplomats, very luxurious and ultra-secure. An Exxon guy I’d never seen before who knew about my work said he had something for me. We went to his car and he handed me a small package. It was more 8 mm computer tapes! ‘This is data we’ve been working on for the North Field group, I figured they wouldn’t be giving you a copy. They hate you guys with a passion! So I made an unauthorized copy for you. This is top secret; you don’t know me and we never spoke OK? If anybody asks, tell them you found it somewhere.’ I said OK and thanked my anonymous benefactor; to this day I don’t know who the hell he was. It was very cloak and dagger. Using a combination of archaeological digs and cloak and dagger I managed to build a pretty good database in two years. We could do our own technical work now and not look like a bunch of idiots staring at the computer screen saver! I could now find information a hundred times faster than my colleagues with their pencils and rows of file cabinets- some still worked on a drafting table like the 1960s. I could work 4 hours a day and still do twice what these guys could do.
The Embassy sponsored a Boy Scout troop but they needed a Scoutmaster and I volunteered. Nick was a serious Scout and there were 4 or 5 others in Troop 970. We met at our big new villa and it grew rapidly up to 15 or so, we had French, South African, and Egyptian boys in addition to Americans. Between work, Scouts and sailing my boat I had plenty going on. I suggested we take the Scouts to Oman on the road trip described before , everyone said this was impossible. It was a blizzard of paperwork but I was an expert at this, I knew all the procedures. That Spring we took 13 Scouts and 4 leaders in 4 vehicles all the way to the Omani coast on the Indian Ocean. We camped under the stars, explored the desert, body surfed , mountain climbed and explored strange abandoned villages. Then we went shopping in Dubai. We did this trip several years in a row and Nick is still in contact with some of these guys. They often mention these amazing trips.
Oil prices recovered and things were looking up at work. We moved into a better building and finally had a budget, as oil prices rose in 2000-2001. I also had a geologist to work with: Doug Leach, from Calgary. Short, super fit and a red head, Doug knew his business and was pretty outspoken about some of our lazy and incompetent colleagues. QG beefed up salaries and managed to hire several good guys in the North Field group on the floor below us, a couple Canadians and an Aussie. Doug wasn’t very diplomatic and that tended to be noticed more than his valuable work. The Arabs were touchy and extremely sensitive to any sort of disrespect, you had to be careful! Doug and I worked for Dr. Mamdouh, the exploration manager. Like many Egyptians in the Gulf he planned to work 20 years, save money, and retire back home. He knew how to handle the Qataris and several times had my back. We had a new big boss, Ismael, a Qatari in his 40s with an engineering degree from U.S.C. Ismael could be demanding and was known to fire people, he had a tough American style. I got along well with him but he was volatile and had many enemies.
I was on the 6th floor of our new building, the floor occupied by the “DV”, Nasser Jaidah, the big boss reporting directly to the Minister, who had his own building. Below Nasser was exploration boss Ismael, “EX” under the old Shell system. Under him was Dr. Mamdouh, EXE, and then me, EXE-3 and Doug, EXE-4. On the floor below us was the North Field group, who managed the care and feeding of the world’s largest natural gas field. Their boss was Saad, designated “NF”, a young & ambitious Qatari University of Texas petroleum engineer, a contemporary of and sworn enemy of Ismael. Saad and Ismael had crossed paths repeatedly over the years at QG (which had been renamed QP or Qatar Petroleum) and couldn’t stand each other. If I needed something from the NF group I had to sneak down to 1st floor where my friend Marty was, he worked for the “enemy” , and ask him. Dr. Mamdouh often sent me on these “spy missions”, to get information about the other department’s activity.
‘So, your friend downstairs can help us with the location of this new North Field well?’ Dr. M. would ask , almost whispering. I was the only one rash enough to have friends in the enemy camp.
‘Sure Dr. Mamdouh. I’ll go ask him,’ I’d say. Minutes later I’d be down in Marty’s office, door closed, and he’d give me the well location and details. ‘If you need anything more from the well you need a memo,’ he’d say. That was a pain in the neck since it required a signature from both Ismael & Saad; it was hard to obtain since they hated each other.
Around this time our Exploration group made a huge oil discovery! Yes, we found oil and made the country billions of dollars! This absurd episode is a good example of how we worked. First a bit of petroleum geology. The rocks are a series of layers, limestone mostly, and the deepest layer is the Khuff, Permo-Triassic age, about the time of the earliest dinosaurs. This thick Khuff limestone held the North Gas Field, the big mama, found by Shell in 1971. We now had several companies like ExxonMobil developing it, our friends at “El Tigre” . The NF group divided up the North Field into boxes, square or rectangular areas, and assigned them to companies like El Tigre, Shell etc. to develop and produce.
Above the Khuff were the Jurassic “Arab” limestones, these are the big producers of oil in Saudi Arabia. The Jurassic was a strange time. An episode of global warming hit the entire world, vast numbers of creatures in the ocean died and settled on the bottom to form a rich organic mud. Thus was formed the famous Jurassic oil shale layer. You find it in the Gulf, the North Sea, Venezuela, even in Alaska. Two places that lack the Jurassic shale are India and China; that’s why there’s not much oil there. Dukhan Field, mentioned before , had the Jurassic shale layer and nice porous limestones just above it to catch the oil. It’s a classic Arab oilfield.
Above the Jurassic Arabs are the Cretaceous layers; these are the thin limestones you see around Dallas and Austin, Texas, Cretaceous age. A lot of the oil in Iraq and Kuwait is Cretaceous age, Kuwait’s giant Burgan field is an example. In Qatar, we had the 30 billion barrel Al Shaheen Field, which lies right on top of the much deeper North Field. When El Tigre or another operator drilled a Khuff well they first drilled thru the Al Shaheen oil bearing layers (Cretaceous), continued thru the Jurassic layers, (which were barren in this area) , and on down to their deep objective, the Khuff. They would lower instruments into the well and record “logs”, paper graphs, showing the presence of oil or gas and guiding future activities at the well. Because of difficult reservoir conditions and marginal economics, Maersk Oil of Denmark had been brought in to develop the Al Shaheen field. All of this activity was done by foreign companies who had the skilled staff and the buckets of money necessary for this job. Do-nothing QP was basically a spectator.
One day my friend from Boy Scouts, Tom Bene, a drilling engineer with El Tigre, told me they’d drilled thru a ‘hell of a nice oil layer’ in the Cretaceous, on the way down to their Khuff objective. Tom had taken the log (well data) from the shallower portion of this well and sent it across town to Maersk, since they owned the rights. The Danes went nuts! Maersk immediately brought in their own rig and drilled right next to El Tigre’s well, to confirm the oil discovery. The damn well flowed 20,000 barrels a day, 10 times the normal rate for a Cretaceous well!! They broke out the champagne over at Maersk but in fact they’d done nothing, El Tigre had blundered into it by accident. I looked at the location on my computer; gotta admit it was a surprise to me too. Maersk moved in another rig and drilled 24/7, blowing and going. It’s hard to tell when Danes are excited, (these guys are more German than the Germans), but they were on a roll! I heard rumors they were going out into the desert with all their little blond kids , building bonfires, plunging naked into the sea and thanking their Norse gods!! Soon the zone found by Tom was producing from 10 wells, 200,000 barrels a day, they all got raises. At $30 a barrel, you do the math.
Maersk had a clever way of bribing the Qataris: just invite them to Copenhagen for an August meeting, or some sort of ‘training’. These guys got to visit clothing-optional steam rooms and health clubs, quite a thrill!!!
‘You wouldn’t believe it, John!’ my Qatari friend Mohammed “Hash” told me. ‘There’s a park across the street from Maersk and at lunchtime the secretaries go sun themselves, showing their titties, ooh la la!!!’
‘Sounds good, Hash,’ I laughed. ‘Did you go back to the steam room?’
‘Are you kidding? Incredible. I go in there with Maersk guys and all these men and women who don’t even know each other are walking around naked! Naked!! Little children too, old grandmas with their saggy tits! I was freaking out. And the Danish guys, naked, just hanging there, not excited at all! I got such a huge hard on I had to wear a towel, it was so embarrassing. Finally an Indian guy showed up, he had the towel also, I gave him a little wink. He had the same problem!!’ It was quite a clash of civilizations! I was never invited along on these junkets, somebody had to stay back in Doha and work. Needless to say I never saw Hash do any work.
Word got around El Tigre about Tom’s accidental discovery. ‘Your department has all sorts of experts, PhDs, and we have to find oil for you?’ one Tigre manager joked, dropping his boys off for Scouts. ‘And then the useless Danes come in and claim the credit! They didn’t do a damn thing!’ he complained. ‘They ought to pay us a percentage.’
‘Even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes,’ I joked, using a favorite Arkansas expression. ‘Maersk is now saying their science gurus back in Copenhagen found it.’ Better not print what the Tigre guy said, might get him into trouble!
Tuesday nite was Boy Scout nite and it was happening, we had a dozen boys running around the place, we were tying knots and popping popcorn. Nance was making dinner, watching the Today show live with Katie Couric. ‘Hey look at this. A plane has hit the World Trade Center,’ she said when I came in. I glanced at the small kitchen TV and went back out. Then moms started arriving, a couple in tears, taking their boys home. ‘Get rid of the flag,’ one said about our American flag, set up for meetings. We folded it and put it away. Something serous was going on, and after the Scout meeting we watched 9-11 unfold. The Embassy called. Carry on with your Scout meetings but keep it very low key, they said.
Next day we found out poor Dr. Mamdouh was trapped in Houston, unable to fly home. He was visiting El Tigre, kicking off the big regional study, and after a few days managed to get back. ‘As an Arab I’m very saddened by this, John,’ he said in his formal style. Our Exploration group was Qataris, Egyptians, a Malaysian , a Libyan and myself, and it looked like only Dr. Mamdouh, with his 10 year U.S. visa, and I could make routine visits to the US. Several young Qataris in the group whined and complained, they wanted to visit the Texas Men’s Club and other titty bars. But after 9/11 it was impossible.
Many people would’ve come home at this point , given that much of the funding and inspiration for 9/11 originated in the Gulf and most of the hijackers were Gulf Arabs. Some Westerners left the region, afraid of what the future might hold. I remember seeing posters for sale in the souq with Bin Laden’s picture, surrounded by fotos of the hijackers. The Magnificent 19 the poster was entitled, praising him in Arabic and English as a big hero. The newspapers were full of lies about the attack, saying it was the work of Israel. But we stayed. The kids were happy, Nancy was working and loved our new house, we weren’t eager to come back to the States. Travelling around the world business class for QP sounded like fun and I could make some money from the per diem, plus see the family, so I decided not to leave.
Traveling with QP was a great source of graft. We didn’t have expense reporting but got generous per diem payments, especially for Europe and east Asia. Some guys doubled their meager salary with constant travel and pocketing the per diem. Companies would pay for hotel and meals secretly, the QP visitor could pocket the whole thing , nice! When visiting Germany I was told to just be a little slow and let the host company grab the meal check. It worked! I also learned to take out my hotel bill at meal time, put it on the table, sigh heavily and say ‘Boy, hotels here sure are expensive!’ As often as not the host would say: ‘You’re right. Let us take care of it.’ So $500 per day of per diem landed in my pocket, tax free. In Japan it was close to $1000. In Korea they would cover it and a geisha girl would stop by your room! Too bad I never got to travel there! No wonder these QP guys were always on the road, doing urgent company business.
But El Tigre didn’t do this, sorry! On my first trip I took out my hotel bill over lunch in Houston, sighed a few times, but they didn’t budge, they just sat there! Damned useless El Tigre! No three martini lunches either; they had sandwiches brought in every day and lunch was 15 minutes! What about visits to the Texas Men’s Club? Forgeddaboutit- not allowed under Tigre’s strict ethics policy. After work these guys went home to their wives in Kingwood and the Woodlands, they weren’t the titty-bar type. Since they were so bloody honest I moved to a Super 8 type motel to save money and ate at Burger King. Dr. Mamdouh would come along and I’d get us a rental car and act as chauffeur; he was terrified of Houston traffic, especially the Sam Houston Tollway. Tigre’s office was in Greenspoint in NE Houston and I drove us each AM. It was nice being home, and a couple times my mom came down to stay with me at the old Super 8.
Tigre’s office was nice and modern, tucked among pine trees, with no sign outside to foil terrorists. We were escorted up and met on the 4th floor under tight security, our briefcases were searched. In 2002 they still had no Internet, due to fear of hackers. We were shocked. No Internet? We couldn’t e-mail the office, check flights, nothing. The staff admitted it was inconvenient but that was company policy. Of course there were no smart phones either in those days.
‘Internet’s a big time waster and security problem. We don’t want hackers stealing our ideas,’ Tigre’s boss told us. It happened we had our big boss Ismael along on that trip and he was amazed. ‘You have no Internet, no outside email here? Incredible,’ he said.
‘Nope, no chance of spies or hackers breaking in here,’ the host said proudly.
Ismael took the guy into the corridor by the lapels and we heard him shouting, uh oh. By lunchtime a special locked office had been set aside just for us, and AOL installed on a PC! We were all given the door’s combination and a 20 character password, something like %5?/);Pl8& etc. It was more secure than the Pentagon! More shouting by Ismael. He had the password changed to “password” and was satisfied.
I asked for a Sun workstation to be set up for my use and it was done, a 20 character password was generated like the one above, including Greek letters and a few Spanish tilde symbols. I think most Tigre staff used their dog’s name, changing it when the IT guy wasn’t looking. Tigre had quite a bit of old data from the Iranian side of the Gulf, acquired before the 1979 revolution. This is stuff we didn’t own so I spent a lot of time looking at it, sketching what I saw. They couldn’t give us copies but I could look at it and make notes and sketches, those were the rules. Lots of the software features were disabled, I asked about this. They had customized it, many parameters were set by company standards groups and technical managers. Standards and procedures were everywhere; they were like guys on an assembly line, all tightening the same bolt the same way.
The Exxon-Mobil project became my job. We suddenly had a huge rented workforce with access to data in most of the surrounding countries. The El Tigre task force The numbered 20 or so, almost all white guys, half with PhDs, the others with MS like myself. A stimulating group to say the least, and I began looking forward to the trips. We were all storming the mountain at once and it began to yield results. I was wrong became my new mantra. Rather than map just the oil reservoirs El Tigre mapped the younger layers, the Oligocene and Miocene. Miocene time was the opening of the Red Sea, and this event pushed the Arabian tectonic plate into Iran. This shook everything up in the Qatar region. Oil that had been safely trapped in deep Jurassic layers moved up along faults, collecting in Cretaceous chalks, like at Al Sheheen. A vast gas migration event took place as well, and the North Field was a huge container waiting to catch it. We could begin to understand the routes this oil and gas had taken , and when it moved. We could now compare our North Field, the world’s largest gas field, with Ghawar in KSA, the largest oil field. El Tigre was an original Aramco partner company and could make comparisons we could only guess at since KSA data is secret. They let us peek “under their kimono” a little, and the world’s greatest energy region began to make more sense.
‘Everyone at El Tigre has two bosses,’ they explained to me. ‘One is your team leader, who might be from any technical discipline or even a financial type, a lawyer. He has no idea if you’re a good engineer or not. Then you have a skill area coordinator. A geologist might work for an engineer, but his skill area coordinator is a very senior geologist, his 2nd boss. Your evaluation is based on the two bosses’ review of your work. Any time a task force or project team is assembled, the team leader goes to the skill area coordinators and asks for people. And if you don’t like your team leader, the coordinator can get you reassigned.’ Tigre is world famous for project execution, getting stuff done on time and on budget, anywhere in the world, and our regional study cranked along like a freight train. QG could obtain technical experts like me but this project execution culture was totally beyond us. We couldn’t tighten a bolt without a series of meetings and an outside consultant or two. The constant warfare between bosses like Ismael and Saad got in the way of every major project.
By 2002 Nancy was working, clever girl. Although out of the workforce almost 20 years she impressed people at RasGas, a big LNG company, and started doing contract IT work. She was building a company Intranet, learning the S/W as she went. Of course her expat lady friends with their manicures and tennis dates thought this was nonsense. El Tigre and Shell didn’t forbid spouses to work but it was frowned upon, since the company might uproot you at any time and send you to Nigeria or Kazakhstan . She did well and seemed to be enjoying it. Of course this extra $$ anchored us even more firmly in Doha, now we couldn’t leave no matter how I complained. I usually got home before she did and would start dinner; she had a commute and would come home about 4:30. Our gardener from India, Peter, would take the kids to school in the morning and I would pick them up at 3. We had an almost ideal expat situation. My job was finally interesting and she was enjoying work, so we were OK.
One day we had a meeting scheduled but the conference room had been taken over by Yanks, engineers and geologists from Conoco Phillips, working for Saad, the North Field boss. I went in and said howdy, one guy I’d known in Houston.
‘Hey John, we heard you were here. We’re doing a mapping project for Saad. One of the NF wells ran into a big fault, a $20 million dry hole,’ they said. That was news to me, they were keeping it a big secret. ‘The Minister hired us to find all the faults so they don’t run into any more.’
I walked them to the coffee room, introducing them to the tea boy. ‘Sounds interesting. We’ve already loaded the well and seismic data and done a lot of the mapping. Let me show you,’ I told Jesse, their smart young geologist. I showed Jesse my Sun workstation and he was amazed. ‘Wow! You have all the data we need! Our proposal to the Minister includes three months for data loading. How do we get a copy of this database?’ he asked. They gathered around and looked, all excited. I explained the nasty politics between my boss Ismael (EX) and Saad (NF). He ran off to make a fone call.
Next day an Arabic fax came from a Vienna hotel. It was the Minister, at an OPEC meeting, to my boss Ismael: ‘Give these Conoco guys everything you have. They are working for me. ’ Pretty unambiguous. I backed my Oracle database up (4 years of work), loaded it onto their workstations , and Conoco went to work.
‘What sort of bribe would you like?’ Jesse asked later, half serious. They were staying at the Doha Sheraton, billing QP $1000 per day each plus expenses , and they would be there for weeks. ‘Your Minister met our CEO somewhere and said he had a problem with faulting, nobody at QP knew how to map,’ Jesse told me. ‘So our CEO said we’ll send a group of “experts”, sort out the problem. But without your database and all your work we couldn’t do anything. Thanks, dude.’
‘No bribe is needed Jesse. Just tell my bosses I’m good for something,’ I said.
QP was held in such low regard by these Conoco guys they brought their own Sun workstations, airfreight , and even had their own IT guy from Houston to configure them and load data. They seemed to think we were complete idiots, and they were right! All they took from us was my database and 220 volt electricity, plus lots of money of course. Their machines were Sun Blades, they looked just like ours, but they were twice as fast. I had their IT guy check our machines, see what the problem was.
‘It’s true, the machines are identical,’ he said, looking inside one. ‘But you guys have the stripped down $20,000 version, with a weak processor and cheap graphics card; ours cost about $100,000 apiece.’ He pulled out a graphics card and examined it. ‘I didn’t know Sun would even configure a machine like this, must be a custom job just for you guys!! That’s why we brought our own.’ In other words, we had the full sized Toyota Land Cruiser with the weak-ass four-cylinder engine. I suspected fraud. Our machines had come from a local vendor in Doha, some crooked Sheik. Those guys had probably swapped out the circuit boards, replacing them with cheap junk, assuming the lazy QP staff wouldn’t notice.
But then I was in trouble. Ismael my big boss called me in, shouting, saying I was giving away QP secrets to Conoco! I was shocked. ‘But boss. You saw the Minister’s fax. It said give then everything they need,’ I argued. This wasn’t about data, but about power. In essence Saad had brought in Conoco to undermine Ismael, to duplicate the work of our group, to make him look useless. In a normal company Saad would’ve come to Ismael and asked for help, we had most of the work done anyway. And if they couldn’t get along, one of them would have been reassigned. But not in QP’s toxic culture. Outsiders had to be brought in, and I was hanging around too much with them, sleeping with the enemy in effect. I started to think I ought to get the hell out of there.
El Tigre was constantly coming around, shaking hands, giving talks, offering to help with this and that. The ExxonMobil merger had created a technical machine, a monster, with probably the best R&D effort in the industry. Their annual report for 2000 mentioned the North Field front and center, it was a major focus for them. They were in constant contact with Saad’s NF group, of course, but they wanted to help us too. Tigre offered to do a big regional study for us, the EX group, including data from neighboring countries that we didn’t own. Tigre had tons of data from Saudi Arabia, since they were an original Aramco company. They couldn’t give us the data but could give us maps based on it. We signed up for a multi-year regional study, paying El Tigre hourly rates for use of their experts. Dr. Mamdouh and I would be going to Houston regularly to review the results, since Doug Leach had quit in disgust. ‘I hope you don’t hang around here too long, John. Get out before this place drives you completely nuts,’ he said. Wise words, Doug, but I didn’t listen.
A postscript about Doug. He went back to Calgary and a few months later showed up again, consulting for a Canadian company. Ismael saw him at a meeting and exploded, dragging the Canadian boss out into the corridor. ‘I want that guy out of here, don’t bring him back!’ he shouted. Anybody who quit was the enemy. There were numerous other examples. Ron, a British geologist, quit and decided to drive his classic Land Rover all the way back to the UK. While he was in route his evil Sudanese QP manager did some spying and found out who had hired Ron. It was AGIP in Aberdeen, Scotland. This guy sent faxes to AGIP saying Ron was a criminal, and by the time Ron arrived he had no job! He was livid! He told AGIP, ‘QP’s a gang of bloody criminals,’ and after some investigation he was believed. But my treatment was relatively good, so I decided to stay.
2002 was a great summer for us. Nance and the kids went home and spent a month at her family home in southern Ohio. The local Rotary club invited her to give a slide show about her strange desert home, it was a hit. She was a local girl made good. Her Mom was fighting breast cancer, sad to say. Nance and Nick did a tour of universities, Princeton, Duke, Yale, etc. They liked Duke best and Nick planned to apply early decision. In July I crated up 3 of our bikes and flew with them to Paris, Nance and the kids met me there with 2 beautiful new road bikes, Cannondales. My old high school friend Joe had a bike shop in Rogers, he was nice enough to prep them for us.
We planned to spend a month in the Loire River valley, travelling by bike and camping out to save money, relying on Lonely Planet and my rusty French to get along. And we did! We caught the slow train out of Paris , the cheap one with a baggage car for dogs and bikes, sturdy hooks on the ceiling for hanging them up. What a magnificent country for bikes! Vive la France! It was a great month and France has really fantastic camping. French campsites don’t have a place to sit, no picnic table , no fire pit, just soft grass and nice shade for 20 Euros per day. Every morning cooing doves would wake us then a little bakery van would arrive, toot toot. I’d sit up in the tent and wake Tom. ‘Tom, here’s a Euro, go get us a baguette. Say une baguette sil vous plait, OK?’ I’d say, giving him a coin and kicking 11 year old Tom out of the tent. My French was improving and we 5 could travel this way for around 100 Euros per day, including an occasional hotel. We ate well , shopping at beautiful French grocery stores like Monoprix, making delicious salads from local produce and eating lots of pork, every day or two a nice bottle of wine. We used an MSR camp stove and an old aluminum pressure cooker for frying, boiling pasta etc. Even the water tasted better! It was cold well water , not the lukewarm desalinated stuff we got in Doha. By this point everyone in the family was a camp cook. The kids learned to set up our tent on their own, and helped pack the bikes on our travel days. They gained a lot of confidence and self-sufficiency which came in handy a few years later when disaster struck.
You should’ve seen us in Paris! We did it on the cheap. Nearby Versailles has nice camping so we pitched our tent there and rode each day to the train station. We chained up the bikes and were off to Paris. The bike thieves never found us, we were lucky. Nancy was pretty out of shape as the trip began, sore butt and legs, she suffered and complained. Every day or two we’d tour a Loire Chateau and that would revive her spirit. The second week she hit her stride and by the fourth week she was 15 pounds lighter and leading the pack, charging up the hills on her little Japanese Nishiki bike! Back in Doha she was slim and tanned, everyone paid her compliments. My kids often say the France bike trip was the high point of our Qatar adventure.
Work started to get interesting as oil prices went up. We had some inactive acreage that we wanted foreigners to explore for us. This is a sales job, in English, and my Arab colleagues turned out to be the world’s worst salesmen. A typical meeting would include guys from CNOOC (China) , ONGC from India, plus a couple of Russians from LUKOIL. Dr. Mamdouh would welcome them and discuss regional geology , then I would launch into my sales pitch in slow precise English, showing data from the bid area in PowerPoint, answering their questions. They were extremely pleased to see a western-trained technical expert presenting, it made their job easier.
After lunch I sat with them at our workstations and let them look at data, discussing the potential of the area, always selling. An exploration guy who can’t sell ends up working at Sears, it’s how you stay employed. It was a job nobody else in the organization was qualified for. Having digital data loaded and ready to display on a workstation was absolutely critical, they were impressed. One Spanish guy said, ‘This is great. We just came here from Damascus, what a mess! They sold us 700 kg. of paper reports, and now we have to scan it all. You’re saving us sore backs plus months and months of work, John.’
Another guy spoke up, a Russian: ‘We just came from a data room in Yemen, at the Ministry of Petroleum. Have you seen that place? It’s a snake pit. They had a flood last year and half their documents were destroyed. Some of the file cabinets they showed us wouldn’t even open, they’d lost the keys. Demonstrators were outside, shouting, raising hell. This is a much better set up!’
I chuckled. ‘When I came we were doing the same thing, but now it’s all digital. All you take away is a few DVDs, it fits in your briefcase.’
A bunch of them bought the $50,000 data package and evaluated it back in their offices, several then made a bid. A bid consisted of cash up front plus a commitment to do technical studies and drill several wells. As mentioned before they paid for everything, and if they discovered something Qatar would jump in greedily and share it with them. Qatar was unique in that we invited companies to submit bids and do the work. Saudi Arabia next door did everything themselves, that was more typical. Money poured in thanks to my salesmanship but I never saw any of it, of course. I never took bribes either.
By 2003 a new oil boom had started, Chinese demand for oil was pushing the price up. Money was pouring into little Qatar. They began building a new faux -Manhattan skyscraper district in Doha, the regime wanted an impressive skyline. Qatar Airways took off, expanding rapidly, and thousands of beautiful air hostess arrived in Doha. I didn’t chase after these girls but I sure enjoyed the view as they stood outside their dormitories waiting for young Qatari Sheiks. The booze laws were liberalized , drugs and prostitutes poured into the country, the narrow roads were clogged with shiny new SUVs. Traffic became a nightmare. State run outfits like Qatar Foundation sprang up to spend the oil windfall, paying staff twice what sorry old QP paid. Everything was “cost-plus”, which meant armies of overpaid staff, corruption and waste.
Qatar’s glamorous Queen, Sheika Moza, was king of the big spenders. She wanted to see Cats but didn’t want to bother taking her private jet to London’s West End. So Cats came to Doha, and well-connected Nancy got us tickets. It was a great show in a tiny private auditorium, maybe 200 people. Vast sums were spent on tiny US university branch campuses in Doha, a new Education City was being bulldozed out of the desert. Checks were waved in front of the Presidents of Harvard , Yale, Duke. ‘Please open a branch campus, our girls are too shy to come to the evil old US for school,’ the regime pleaded, hungry for status. The big guys said no but Georgetown, Texas A&M and Carnegie-Mellon took the bribe $$ and these small campuses began operation.
Meanwhile the new US military base continued to expand to support wars in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq. We were on a Boy Scout trip when the Iraq mess started, in March 2003, out in the Gulf. My friend Dave Arnell hosted us on his 53’ ketch Iduna 3, an all steel 2-masted sailing yacht, with a diesel engine. Dave was British, from Cornwall, a fine sailor and a great friend of Scouting. I was Scoutmaster, both my sons Nick and Tom were there, Nick was the head scout. We were anchored off Shawara island, 60 miles off Qatar in the warm blue Gulf, staying in a fisherman’s shack on the small, uninhabited island. War was threatening and Dave got a call on the sat fone, better come in. It was spitting rain so Dave brought Iduna as close as he dared to the beach so the dozen of us could go back and forth in the small dingy. Then disaster: the wind shifted, we dragged anchor and a freak gust pushed Iduna sideways onto the beach, we were shipwrecked! Very exciting for the Scouts but a big pain for Dave. We found some shovels , waited for high tide, and all of us dug and pushed, but the 26 ton vessel wouldn’t move. Iduna was undamaged but stuck firmly in the sand. Far above us C-130s and recon planes droned, the war had begun.
Fortunately one of our Scouts’ dads was a VP at Occidental Petroleum, they spoke on the sat fone. Oxy was moving a jackup drilling rig with a huge ocean going tug, the Java Sea, and this massive vessel was in the neighborhood. We moved into the fisherman’s shack on the beach but after two days we were running out of food and fresh water. The Scouts took over cooking, learning how to make eggs Captain Dave style and fetching warm beers for him from Iduna’s refrigerator. We listened to the war on the shortwave radio. Nick organized some Scouts to dig out Iduna’s propeller so when she was pulled free she wouldn’t be damaged.
Then around midnite on the third day we saw a ship come over the horizon, all lit up, it was huge. What a sight; we all gathered on the beach. It was the Java Sea. The Captain came up in a Zodiac, pulling a 2 inch nylon hawser, a friendly British man. Dave chatted with him and wrapped the big rope around Iduna’s bow. When Dave was ready he climbed aboard and said, ‘Please be gentle.’ From the beach the Capitan called the ship, said we were ready. Off in the distance the Java Sea set an anchor and began slowly pulling in the hawser. We stood there on the beach watching , unable to help. ‘Hold on tight , Dave!’ the ship’s Captain told him with a smile as the rope tightened. ‘Hold on Captain Dave!’ we all shouted. Dave held on , one hand on the wheel the other on the rigging. Iduna was his baby and the Java Sea was 100 times bigger.
‘One meter,’ the Captain said softly into his walkie-talkie; the ship took in a meter. Nothing happened. ‘One more,’ he said. Iduna stirred in her sand bank, Dave nervously holding on. One more meter , and she was slowly pulled into the water, floating free, and Dave started the diesel. She was OK! We got on board Iduna and motored out to where the Java Sea was anchored, the ship’s Filipino crew was on deck smiling and waving at us. Many had sons about the boys’ age that they hadn’t seen in months. We cheered and thanked the crew of the Java Sea. We sailed back to Doha, cleaned up Iduna, thanked Captain Dave and had a hell of a sea story to tell!
(Not many teenage boys can tell a tale of being shipwrecked. They’re grown men now, many with families; as I sit here in jail I think about them. I hope they tell the story of Iduna and Captain Dave to their kids.)
The Iraq war had disastrous effects that nobody managed to foresee. The Saudi King had read the situation correctly: he told Bush Jr. knocking off Saddam will allow the spread of Iranian influence in the region. He was right, but post 9/11 who could believe the Saudis, the promoters of the perverse brand of Islam that made 9/11 possible? Bush’s war cleared the way for Iran in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Saudis were right, and the war massively increased the Arab states’ paranoia about Iran. They began to feel encircled by the diabolical Persians. Soon Iranian weapons and advisers were all over Iraq, many of our troops would die as a result. And this had major implications for me a few years later.
Nick graduated and was admitted to Duke, I think he lived in a Duke sweatshirt the last few weeks of high school! Sweet Tom was a fine French horn player and got to play in the orchestra on Nick’s special day. Nick made a short speech and Tom played his horn, we were proud of both of them. Nance put an All my money goes to Duke sticker on her small Ford, scooping up compliments about the clever boy. It was literally true; all her salary would go to Durham, and costs were zooming up in Qatar, especially rent. Rent on a villa like ours went from $2000 to $6000 a month, and electricity another $1000. We begin to be financially squeezed as costs in Doha zoomed up but our salaries were fixed. Thousands of new arrivals doing similar jobs to ours were being paid a lot more money, and provided with housing, so rent wasn’t an issue. Five star hotels filled up with expats waiting for houses, their kids running up and down the corridors, all expenses paid. It was the beginning of a wild unsustainable oil boom.
But that wasn’t all. Nance by this point was starting to drink and often slept on a couch downstairs, several people noticed it. When we went to buy “special supplies” we always bought about double what we needed. I drank only one beer per day, so I asked her why we needed so much. Nance told me she was re-selling it to some Filipino friends , but I never met these people. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t raise the subject with her. She was still working and doing fine at a demanding job during the day, but at nite while I slept on the second floor she prowled the downstairs and drank. One evening while driving with Nick that sweet reserved young man brought up the subject.
‘Dad, have you noticed mom’s drinking? It’s getting really bad, my friends are noticing it,’ he said as we paused at a stoplight.
I made light of the issue. ‘Sweetie, every morning she gets up and goes to work and does fine. Doesn’t seem like a big deal to me,’ I said. He never mentioned it again until after I was arrested. We were living in a fundamentalist Muslim country, there were no rehab facilities. ‘Drunks’ did not officially exist in Qatar. And we needed to stay overseas to afford our luxurious lifestyle, our servants, plus college for the kids. The next day when I mentioned the idea of going back to Houston, Nance absolutely vetoed it. ‘No way in Hell am I going back there and scrubbing toilets,’ she declared.
Several times I came across a stash of empties, beer cans or wine bottles in a closet or trash can, not mine. She blamed the Indian or Sri Lankan house boy and we fired several for ‘drinking’ . These poor guys boo-hooed like Bollywood extras, declaring their innocence as I sent them on their way. Seems like everyone we hired had a drink problem! That’s what love is: two people mutually blind to each other’s problems, problems perfectly obvious to other people. I was blind to her drinking, and she couldn’t see my growing boredom and frustration.
Nick bought an IBM Thinkpad and was off to Durham, I sent the first semester’s fees, $20,000 . Nance continued to drink and buy furniture, the giant villa seemed to have an infinite capacity to absorb “stuff”. Just for fun I counted the couches and sofas one day; we had a total of 6, and the 3rd floor wasn’t even furnished, we couldn’t afford to cool it! I reminded her all her salary went to Duke, but she couldn’t stop buying stuff, it became a sort of fixation. She went to Dubai with Exxon ladies and bought several rooms of heavy teak furniture from India, and had it air-freighted to Doha. She spent a fortune. Did we need it? No. The villa looked like a furniture store. Since Nick was gone I suggested we move to an apartment, but we couldn’t fit all our junk into one. She scoffed at the idea. She loved the big impressive place; it was beautiful, people oohed and aahed. I admit I enjoyed it too.
There were problems but everyone has problems, right? We were blessed in so many ways, it was easy to ignore problems. Meg was growing into a beauty and Nance threw a great sweet 16 party for her, dozens of girls were there including pretty Qatari girls from the American school. She was a “girlfriend” sort of girl, inseparable from her friends Krysha, Summer and Christina. Both Meg and Tom did reasonably well academically and were friendly, well-adjusted kids.
Summer 2003 came and we took the last of our big family vacations, to Italy. This was a great trip, a month again. We took backpacks and went camping in Tuscany, the Italian Dolomites and the island of Corsica, hiking and seeing the sights. For the first time Nance declined to join us on some hikes, she just didn’t have the drive she used to. She loved Venice and Florence, the kids and I preferred Corsica and the Alps. This was the last time the 5 of us went somewhere together, so I look back on it with some sadness. The kids were growing up and Nance was losing interest in this sort of travel, camping out, doing strenuous stuff. She’d gained weight from all the drinking and didn’t enjoy outdoor stuff much anymore. She would never again go to the beach with us, sailing, or on short bike rides, no matter how much I asked.
While Nick was at Duke, I took Tom and Meg on a great car trip to Jebel Shams in Oman , the highest point in Arabia, for 10 days or so in the Spring of 2004. I even let Meg drive a little. Nance could’ve gone with us and during the ‘90s she would’ve been the first out the door, but this was the 2004 version and she was slowing down. I asked her to come with us but she refused. Maybe she was sick of me, I don’t know. We never had one of those ‘Why do you seem so unhappy?’ conversations. Perhaps if I’d just sat with her and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ we could’ve sorted these things out. Like many long time married couples, we’d gotten out of the habit of really talking. Even a couple of good fights might’ve helped bring issues into the open but we hardly ever argued. We were like congenial roommates, each with our own floor of a vast house, the maid scurrying around cleaning, Meg and Tom off with their friends somewhere. A couple that fights is still together, after a fashion. I think we were afraid to fight, afraid of what it might dredge up.
Nance’s mom Margaret Sr. was getting sicker, that was probably also a factor. My mom was visiting me in Houston during an El Tigre visit and Margaret Sr. was also in Houston for treatment . We drove down to some apartments people use who are being treated at M.D. Anderson. It was a beautiful spring day, the day the Space Shuttle crashed just north of us in East Texas. Her situation was serious but she was brave, cheerful even, her husband Chaz there supporting her. I think Nance felt awful not being in Ohio to look after her mom, they were so close.
Her job was interesting and challenging. This was a lady who had joined Ross Perot’s Company EDS as a teenage secretary in Ohio, and had been trained as an account manager in San Francisco and Dallas. She got up every AM bright eyed and cheerful and made $50,000 a year at Q-CHEM, a big chemical firm. The American owners, Chevron and Phillips, wanted US-type standards and procedures adopted, HR stuff like hiring relatives and annual leave policy. The American CEO put Nance in charge of writing these procedures in simple clear English on the company Intranet, and then promoting their adoption by management. This proved to be very difficult with the local Qatari managers, who were accustomed to hiring their cousins and granting people bonuses or vacations on the fly. The whole idea of policies and procedures was foreign to them. In their culture, a big Sheik grants favors to his friends and punishes his enemies, all with a wave of his hand. What is this nonsense about procedures?
‘Am I a manager or what?’ the Qataris would ask her when she questioned them, getting all puffed up with their self-importance. ‘I’m using my managerial discretion, that’s what I’m paid for. A monkey from India can follow your procedures,’ they complained.
She was a master diplomat. ‘Of course you have discretion, but your employees talk. If you let somebody go on vacation who joined last month, what about the guy who has worked for you a year? By following procedures on stuff like holidays we can avoid a lot of problems, reduce staff turnover,’ she explained. She was also trying to enforce the use of English in meetings, since the workforce and customers came from two dozen countries. She posted signs in the meeting rooms English Only Please, and there was griping. This required more diplomacy. She had a tough job and she liked it, but some days came home really beaten down. Usually I was home first and had dinner started, she could kick her shoes off and relax a bit while I cooked.
Nance was always volunteering for stuff, had plenty of friends. But every night she was on her favorite couch downstairs, sound asleep. Clearly I didn’t do enough, but it’s hard to drag someone that functions at this level off to rehab. As later events will show, she was not the sort of person that readily asks for help.
We needed to be back in the US for Summer 2004. My sister Juju and her husband John had bought a lovely old plantation style house in historic Eureka Springs AR, not far from my dad’s old trailer park. The kids stayed with me there and Nance went to Ohio , the first time we’d vacationed separately in 20 years. It was a great, relaxing time; my mom felt fine and Julie was operating their big place as a bed and breakfast. For the first time I took my kids thru the place where I grew up, showed them our old house and White River, all the exotic trees my dad had planted, the places I used to play.
It was great hearing about Duke from Nick and he had a summer job washing dishes for extra money. He was getting an Ivy League liberal education, the first in our family to do so, gaining exposure to so many cool ideas and interesting people. Little Tom enjoyed Eureka and played his French horn in front of an historic hotel for tips. Juju and I discussed where our dad might be, somewhere in South Texas, she suspected. He’d been gone over 20 years and had never met my kids, living off somewhere by himself. He was in his 70s living on his investments, but his health must be failing. Would he even want to see us? I wondered. Maybe not. We weren’t sure what to do in this odd situation. His awful behavior, verging on madness, had helped drive both Juju and me out of the family home before graduating high school, and neither of us had had a smooth or easy time of it. We weren’t sure about exposing our kids to this strange old man. He had some money still, but neither of us wanted it.
Thru 2004 oil prices rose and money poured into Qatar. LNG was being delivered to Japan and Korea from the North Field, and oil production was way up due to the Maersk shallow oil discovery. The Danes was going full blast to develop it. The new skyscrapers around our humble little QP building sprouted like mushrooms, filled with consultants and experts earning $1000 per day plus expenses, eager to help spend the loot. China’s demand for oil seemed insatiable and some predicted it could go to $100 a barrel. Anybody with a western passport and any sort of legitimate (that means non-QP) experience quit the company; entire departments were being wiped out, replaced by Egyptians and other useless people. Operating companies like El Tigre and Maersk could raise salaries to retain people but not QP, too stupid. At one point , El Tigre offered to rent some technical staff to QP for $60,000 a month per head! I saw some of the resumes of these guys and the invoices, it was shocking. I had to train some of these El Tigre guys and get them oriented on our geology and databases, and they were making twice my salary! I began to feel trapped.
Turns out I literally was trapped . It was illegal for me to change employers, I could only resign and leave Qatar! I would have to uproot Nance and the kids from school, and move ourselves back to Houston. There was no enthusiasm for this so I tried a half measure-change departments.
I went to see the friendly Qatari production boss who took care of QP’s 3 big oilfields. A bunch of guys had just quit his organization and gone to Aramco. He wanted me but it could be done only if my boss Ismael would release me.
I went to see him and he wouldn’t. ‘You know I can’t replace you John, we can’t seem to hire anybody right now. There’s no way I can release you to another department,’ Ismael said. ‘And if you continue to pursue this idea there could be problems. You might be taken off the Exxon project,’ he said . You could always rely on Ismael to be direct.
‘But it’s been 7 years, Mr. Ismael, I’m tired of EX. I need something different,’ I said. He shook his head, sorry. As more and more people quit, the more “locked in” the rest of us became, like an army whose troops are deserting. This sort of bullying and coercive behavior wears you down and when I was told I couldn’t even change departments at QP I became increasingly angry.
I was still making cool trips to Houston but by this point my routine work back in Doha didn’t amount to much. The industry was hiring but QP had such a toxic reputation it might take a while to find anything in Houston. Internet bulletin boards had sprung up bashing QP, guys like Doug Leach were going around telling everyone what a wasteland it was. QP had given up on recruiting in Houston but sometimes ran ads in a Calgary paper. A bunch of Canadian ex-QP guys bought their own classified ad next to QP’s, saying call us before you consider these guys. It takes hard work over a couple decades to make this many enemies.
As a result when somebody quit it was secret, they couldn’t tell you where they were going. Some simply went on “vacation” to the UK or elsewhere and resigned by fax, these were the “runners.” Others went to Aramco , which was fully aware of how QP treated its staff and was taking advantage of it.
But first I tried Maersk, the Danes knew my work and were friendly. They had recently provided us with dozens of Excel spreadsheets , the whole company was very engineering and spreadsheet driven. These things were hard to use, hundreds of pages of numbers. But I knew a better way. I was using GIS (geographic information systems) software, from Silicon Valley, which merges spreadsheets with very attractive, intuitive maps. Google Maps uses GIS, for example. I loaded a bunch of Maersk data into GIS and showed the map to a Maersk manager one afternoon in my office. I had a spreadsheet displayed on the left screen, and on the right screen you could see the same data in map view , a cluster of good wells here, not so good over here. ‘Wow. That’s so great. I wish we could do this,’ he said. ‘Nobody at Maersk does this.’
I got up and closed the door . ‘You could if you hired me, Hans. I know you guys are hiring, ’ I said . He chuckled and leaned in close whispering. ‘QP would kick up all kinds of shit if we did. You know how Ismael is, he could delay our well proposals. The only way would be if you quit, work someplace for a year, and then join our Copenhagen office. You could never come back here, they might spot you. Copenhagen is a beautiful city , you’d like it. If you’re interested, I’ll make some calls,’ Hans said. We were whispering like a couple of criminals. QP was like the Soviet gulag, and I was conspiring to escape!
I thought about it but it would be two moves, pretty onerous. I learned any company with business in Qatar was afraid to hire me. In effect, I was on a blacklist. So in addition to the damage to my reputation from working here, there was a long list of firms afraid to consider me.
A Canadian company had an office in Doha, the manager was a friendly guy. I heard they had an opening in Vietnam but wouldn’t even discuss it! ‘Ismael would kill us! No way, John, I’m sorry,’ he said, horrified at the very idea. It seems I was in a sort of prison before I even set foot in jail. After making myself indispensable to the functioning of EX, I was now trapped by it. Being the only white guy left at QP was proving to have a huge downside.
By 2005, my last year of freedom, I was feeling increasingly angry and disoriented. Finally I told Nance I needed a new job and this would involve moving. She didn’t care for Houston but said Saudi Arabia might be OK. We had friends at the huge Aramco “camp” in the eastern province , several square miles of American suburbia surrounded by fences and high walls. She knew there was no alcohol there. Was she planning to go on the wagon? Once again I never asked. I contacted a couple Aramco friends, recent defectors from QP, and they said come on it, the water’s fine. A Canadian headhunter called, a guy I knew, he said he’d set up an interview in a few weeks. QP had nailed all the doors and windows shut but they couldn’t close this one.
Meanwhile activity was heating up on the giant North Gas Field, offshore Qatar. This enormous field would produce for a century or more. QP had Conoco, El Tigre and Shell drilling all over the field. On activity maps I noticed Qatar had several rigs drilling simultaneously, but on the Iran side of the field there was nothing going on, it was dead. Shell was moving 1000 engineers into Qatar and had paid mega $$ to double the size of the American school, which was being hastily done. Meg and Tom were spending half the school day in porta cabins, brought in to handle the boom-town growth. The textbooks were Xerox copies, the teachers a bunch of unqualified temps. A wild unsustainable boom was on and all the newcomers seemed to be richer than us old timers, who were still working under contracts written in the 90s.
The North Field gas was finally starting to make money, a lot of money. Back in 1967 Qatar and Iran had drawn a border thru the Persian Gulf, half way between the Qatari and Iranian coastlines. This “dividing up the sea” is normal in oil producing areas. Such a line was negotiated between UK and Norway so the North Sea could be developed in the ‘70s. Because Qatar is a peninsula, they had been granted a very generous portion of the Gulf seabed , far larger than the country’s actual land area. By sheer luck, when the North Field was found by Shell a few years later in 1971, tiny little Qatar ended up with about 75% of the gas , Iran only 25%.
Flash forward to 2005. Qatar’s portion of the Field was littered with new wells drilled by the foreign operators. Iran’s part was dead in the water, no activity. The Qataris were producing gas and making buckets of money delivering LNG with their fleet of new ships. Iran lacked the skilled foreign staff and technology needed to develop their portion, and were under sanctions. Iran’s a big country, so if it developed the field they would be able to deliver gas by pipeline to nearby Pakistan, India, Turkey and eventually on to Europe. But it was dead, nothing going on. In some cases El Tigre had drilled right on the Qatar-Iran marine border, just a few hundred meters this side of the line, and had found a rich, thick gas layer. It looked like the underground gas layer was thickening and improving as you approached the border. These “border wells”, were very exciting but top secret, of course. None of this data was shared with Iran. As the border wells went online they would pull large quantities of gas under the border, “stealing” it in other words, but perfectly legal.
This principle is called law of capture, and dates from the early days of the oil industry. The law of capture says if I drill a well on my land and produce oil, it belongs to me, even if it’s right on the fence with your land. Your response is to drill your own well and capture some of my oil. Under the law of capture , Iran should respond by drilling some border wells of its own, steal some of our gas. But they were under sanctions and broke, all they could do is watch. They were like a farmer too broke to plant corn, watching his tiny neighbor get rich.
It was at this point I started to go off the rails, dear reader. This seemed to me like more unfairness, more mischief by the Qataris. Here was a tiny, arrogant country scooping up money by the bucket full and a neighbor 20 times larger, with a huge population, relatively poor. Maybe there was a way I could re-balance the scales a bit, make things a little less unfair. And if there was some money in it, that would be even better. But what did I have? Only technical data from wells and seismic surveys, the raw material of geology and engineering. I didn’t have financial data, forecasts, or PowerPoint presentations, the sort of stuff management looked at and made decisions with. If the Iranians somehow got hold of my technical data they’d have to assign a team to evaluate it, it would take years. Maybe they wouldn’t even want to bother with it.
Now a skilled and determined hacker at this point would’ve prowled thru the PC servers, snooping thru the managers’ folders, vacuuming up all the PowerPoint files, PPT being QP’s default method of summarizing technical info. They weren’t very well protected. But I didn’t. I lived and worked on the UNIX side, the land of arrays of numbers, supercomputers and technical nerds. PCs seemed like cheap toys to me. This spying notion was a nutty idea anyway and put it out of my mind.
Aramco was interested in me, especially my IT skills. Over the years I’d morphed into a sort of data evangelist, passionate about getting data on people’s desktops and bridging the yawning gaps between software packages. They invited me to Bahrain, where Aramco interviewed people. I flew to this tiny country and Aramco managers drove over from the Eastern Province on the KSA-Bahrain causeway. Bahrain was “neutral ground”, easier to visit than the KSA itself. At the Gulf Hotel in Bahrain I got a surprise: two other QP guys, geologists from Malaysia and Indonesia! ‘John! What the hell are you doing here?’ my Indonesian friend Raji asked me, laughing.
‘Oh nothing. Taking a little vacation,’ I smiled as we shook hands.
Raji laughed hard. ‘Vacation? On a Tuesday morning? You dirty dog! I’m on vacation too, from those dorks at the production dept. Ismael will shit a brick if he finds out you’re here!’ he said, laughing, a very amusing guy. Raji was ex-Shell Indonesia and highly qualified, obviously employed at the wrong place.
‘I tried to join your department Raji but Ismael blocked it,’ I said as he sat down. We ordered fresh squeezed orange juice, no doubt made somewhere in back by the hotel’s indentured servants.
‘Yeah, I know,’ Raji said. ‘We tried hard to get it approved but no way.’ Just then the Aramco HR guy came and we shook hands with him.
I sat with the Aramco guy first. He was a friendly young Saudi with perfect English. He asked my age, I told him 49. ‘OK let’s see. Aramco has three payroll/ benefit schemes; US$, Euro and local currency. John, you go under the US$ plan, and here’s a brochure for you, showing pay levels and US tax rates. There’s no Social Security deduction, of course. Our pension plan is excellent. We’ll give you an annuity computed by Price Waterhouse when you retire. We’ve got retirees in Barbados, Aruba, Maldives, you name it. Lots of nice places. Look it over and then the technical guys will chat with you,’ the HR man said. I took the brochure and went back out . Raji saw the green brochure covered with dollar signs and whispered, ‘I bet they give me the local currency package since I’m not a white guy,’ he mused sadly. He’d heard the local currency package was being offered to Asians and was similar to QP pay scales.
‘Raji, let’s chat a minute,’ the HR guy said. They vanished into a room.
A few minutes later wiry little Raji re-emerged, levitating a foot or so off the ground, a huge smile on his face. In his hot little hand was the Euro brochure, and he was dancing like an Indonesian John Travolta ! ‘John! He said my salary would probably double, since the Euro is so strong, so try not to have a heart attack! Holy shit!’ he said plopping down next to me and showing me the brochure. ‘I gotta call my wife, tell her to start packing!’ he said laughing gleefully. Seconds later he jumped up and went looking for a phone. It was the best day in Raji’s entire 18 month QP career!!
The technical discussions went well for both of us, Raji went first. They asked about my data management activities, the big El Tigre regional project in Houston, it was brief and friendly.
‘Raji says you help train people at QP,’ the exploration manager told me. ‘We’ve got a large training department, and our IT department has seen your CV, they also want to meet you. Aramco can give you a broad range of opportunities.’
‘And I can move from group to group within the company?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely. You’re not a prisoner at Aramco. We want you to have a variety of experience,’ the boss assured me. Aramco had no high school so Meg would have to attend boarding school in the US or Europe. Tom could live with us in Saudi Arabia. We had discussed this with Meg and it was fine with her. She and Nance were going to Ohio for the summer and they could choose one. Aramco would pick up the tab, plus fly Meg to the KSA round trip, twice a year. We shook hands, had lunch, Raji could hardly get any food down he was so excited. ‘I can’t wait to tell those guys I quit,’ he said with a laugh.
After the interview I took a taxi downtown for a beer . Several USAF types were there and I bought them a round. One was a helicopter mechanic and he’s just come from the Negev desert in Israel, involved in fighter jet training. He told me the following story: ‘Every year we have these exercises, dog fights , over the Negev Desert,’ he said. ‘Our guys against the Israeli IDF, they’re the best pilots in the world. And they always beat us, it’s just a question of how badly . Well, this year we flew against them, shot lasers at each other, guys in a bunker keeping score. Our Top Guns against theirs. And they beat us, of course.
‘After the exercise, our pilots came to the bunker for debriefing, and after a while the Israeli pilots’ van pulls up. They get out and they’re ALL WOMEN!!! I nearly pissed my pants.’
I laughed at his reaction. ‘Good looking?’
‘Yeah, a couple damn nice looking. You should’ve seen our pilots , though. It was like getting your ass kicked by the second string. Big time humiliation,’ he laughed.
That was Spring 2005. Of course, QP knew about these “one day vacations in Bahrain”, they tracked our movements. The fact that new hires like Raji were vacationing in Bahrain was alarming but QP did nothing, inertia kept them from acting. They could’ve tried to match the Aramco offers but the Minister said no, we don’t want these traitors and turncoats anyway. When he quit, Raji would be replaced by an Exxon “loaner”, El Tigre billing the government $60,000 a month, 10 times Raji’s salary.
Nobody was trying to steal QP’s Egyptians, those chair-warmers weren’t going anywhere. Same with the useless local guys, the Qataris. Back at EX dept. the following day it was the same old Keystone Kops. By now we all had nice Sun workstations with Landmark software, costing QP $200,000 for each copy. I had put all our data in Landmark and it was easy to use. We had had very expensive training that these guys had snoozed through, plus I had trained them. We also had software emulators so from any PC you could login to the Unix server and view any of our data, you didn’t need to be a Sun user or even have a workstation. But our boss refused to use any sort of computer. Dr. Mamdouh would call an Egyptian crony and ask ‘A.K., what year was well NWD-1 drilled?’ A.K. would get a couple other cronies going on it and look for the paper final well report, locked in somebody’s office. These 3 Stooges would search and search; finally Mamdouh would call me, interrupting my day dream of being a secret agent. ‘Let me look, Dr.’ I’d say opening Landmark’s well manager, pulling up the well. ‘1969,’ I’d say in 15 seconds. The data was on a spreadsheet that I had put on everyone’s desktop. The data was on GIS maps. The data was in Landmark. The damn data was everywhere. Meanwhile the Stooges were downstairs waking up the security guard to have him open offices to find that paper report! A half hour later they would come rushing in to the boss’s office with the report, what nonsense. And this was after millions had been invested in hardware and software. This happened a dozen times a week. Is my job reduced to this, answering these nonsense queries from a guy who can’t use a computer? How is it that I’ve put up with it for so long?
A couple of weeks later the Saudi offer came, a 50% salary increase, but of course Nance couldn’t work so we’d be even financially. ‘It’s better work, the bosses are American, Brits, it’s run like an American oil company. The biggest problem is work for you, there probably isn’t anything,’ I explained as she looked over the offer and brochure.
We had visited the Aramco compound in Saudi on our trip to Syria. ‘The houses are small, half of what we have here. We’ll have to get rid of half this stuff,’ she said, looking around at all the furniture. We had maybe two 40-foot containers of stuff, a full 18 wheeler load.
‘Well, we can decline it and go back to the US,’ I said.
‘No, let’s go. You’re suffering at QP, I can tell you’re unhappy. How much time can I spend out of Saudi Arabia?’ she asked.
‘Maximum 6 months. If you’re gone more than 6 months I have to resign, they don’t want single guys there. So you can spend 6 months in Ohio, then come join Tom and me in Saudi,’ I suggested.
‘OK, probably I need to . My mom’s in bad shape, she has maybe a year to live. We’ve got to start selling things. I’ll take some photos and post it at the grocery. Tell the new hires at your office to come by and take a look,’ she suggested.
I chuckled. ‘The sort of people we’re hiring these days have nothing, a cardboard suitcase and a fake degree. This stuff’s expensive. Some Shell people might be interested.’
‘And I’ve got to find a boarding school,’ she said, sitting with Meg at the PC looking at websites. ‘Are you OK with your girl going away?’ Nance asked as they browsed thru several.
‘No, I’m not. It stinks,’ I said sadly. ‘But I’m losing my mind where I am. And the American school here has gone downhill, it’s nothing but a construction site. The teachers are all new, teaching in porta cabins. There aren’t enough textbooks. It’s a mess,’ I complained. ‘If we go to Aramco, she could go to boarding school in Switzerland. You could learn to ski, Meg.’
‘Switzerland? That sounds so cool!’ Meg said.
‘Or West Virginia. Look at this one,’ Nance said. ‘Just a few hours from Ohio.’
So we took the offer and the family was off to Ohio for the summer. They visited schools in Virginia’s horse country and settled on Linsley, in West Virginia, founded in 1830, Ivy Towers tucked away in the W.Va. hills. I continued at QP, all by myself in the Gulf heat , which increasingly seemed like the future for me, especially if Nance planned to spend 6 months a year in the US. Sounds lovely – every year we’d have a 6 month trial separation! We hadn’t been real husband and wife for quite a while and maybe this was the outcome she was working toward. We’d try Saudi Arabia, try to make it work.
Meanwhile I was going through the lengthy ordeal known as quitting QP. Lots of people were quitting, the HR Dept was busy processing them out. Leaving the company/country was so complicated a joke memo had circulated a few years before, composed by a British expat who had gone through this daunting process. I got a copy of this. Attached was a second page with 12 squares for rubber stamps, four rows of three, each box with Arabic scribbles.
Congratulations, the memo began, on leaving old QG! A wise move my friend. But after giving notice to leave you have to fill out the attached form, the 12 stations of the Cross. I hope you have plenty of beer tucked away and a couple of weeks to complete it.
The first box in the upper left is for the library. Yes, there is a library, and even if you’ve never been there you have to trek across town and up three flights of stairs to get a stamp from the library in this box. So go take care of it and take your wife to lunch afterwards.
Box number two is to certify that you have no company dishes and silverware, curtains etc. Probably you do not-I don’t think the company has issued silverware since 1970. But you need a stamp. The company furnishings warehouse is hard to find but has a friendly Indian man without much to do and he will stamp it for you. It’s a long trek , so maybe take the afternoon off, take a sandwich, and have a beer afterwards.
Box number three is for the ‘special supplies’ office, the only part of QG we couldn’t do without! Go by special supplies, make a final purchase, pay your bill, and get a stamp….
On and on the memo went, pretty comical. When the last box is stamped the author recommends get roaring drunk, probably a good idea.
June came, brutally hot, awful, and the office emptied out. I decided to skip taking leave, QP would pay me cash for it when I resigned in a couple of months. The family was in the US so the big villa seemed emptier than ever. There wasn’t much to do. I did my best work as a team and everybody competent had quit or was on holiday.
Downstairs in the North Field group they were crowing, bragging about the newest El Tigre gas well, drilled right on the Qatar-Iran border, just barely legal. It was the thickest, richest, juiciest section of the Khuff they had seen, it would flow 100 million cubic feet per day. (A typical U.S. gas well flows maybe 5 million per day.) Somebody ought to tell the Iranians about this, I thought. Why not me?
At home in the vast empty house I fired up the PC , popped open a beer and wrote:
Dear Sir: I work for a Qatar government agency with access to valuable well and other engineering data from the Qatar North Field. I can provide you with some of this information at a reasonable price. Please do the following:
- A meeting is not possible. There is a drop-off site up by the Ritz Hotel, on the coast road (description). You can leave money or instructions for me there.
- You can also contact me by email at *******@hotmail.com
- If you want to proceed, leave $1000 in the location in #1 and email me.
I liked the name especially, like Carlos the Jackal, the famous terrorist. I carefully folded the letter and not leaving fingerprints put it in an envelope. I recalled John Le Carre’ novels, those guys always tucked secret message in newspapers and went walking with their umbrellas thru London. Not very practical here. I addressed the envelope to the Iranian Embassy, Doha, and put it in my briefcase. Tomorrow I would decide whether to post it or not. I went to bed, curling up with Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Would I have the nerve to post it? And if they responded, what then? I wasn’t going to give them anything very sensitive, just stuff I could get my hands on easily. Posting the letter was probably a crime and I’d never committed a crime before, never been in a court room except for jury duty. This was dipping my toes in the water. If I’d wanted to I could simply drive to the Embassy of Iran with a box of stuff and say, ‘Here you go.’ But that wasn’t my style. We would go slowly and see what happens.
The next day was baking hot, early June, and the office was quiet. Several other guys had taken those odd Tuesday or Wednesday vacations in Bahrain, the secretaries and tea boys were whispering about who would bail next. The Minister had been consulted about this rash of departures by key staff and had pounded the table, ‘We will not be competing with Aramco on salaries,’ he was quoted. ‘No counter offers.’ Key projects in the North Field were now being held up, there was nobody on the QP side to evaluate them, just the chair warmers from Egypt. Could you bring in ExxonMobil temporary workers and have them take our places, evaluating ExxonMobil proposals, in effect El Tigre negotiating with itself? We were rapidly approaching this absurd situation.
Mid-morning I recalled my letter. Should I post it or toss it? I could post it and then ignore any response if I chose. This job was really a bore and being a spy sounded exciting, even a sort of pseudo-spy. What the hell, let’s post it. It would liven up a dull Doha summer, give me something to think about. I left the building and crossed the street to a letter box, there was a cop asleep in a Land Cruiser beside it. I opened the box and dropped in the envelope.
Back home that afternoon I grabbed a beer and read the Herald Tribune. A German fellow wanted to buy my sailboat, so I took him for a short sail and we made a deal. I would miss sailing and many aspects of Qatar living, but I had to escape this do-nothing job. It was another long, lonely summer in Doha; it was all the downside of single life without the compensating pleasures. The country was crawling with hot single women. Ladies of the evening had virtually taken over the Ramada Hotel, the place was starting to look like Dubai. Qatari Sheiks would start a fake airline and get government permission to import a few dozen hot girls from Sri Lanka or Belarus , as “air hostesses.” These girls were suddenly everywhere. Even tea boys at our office were bragging about their nights out with Chinese girls , and these guys made $200 a month! For big spenders Qatar Airways girls, Bollywood wannabes, were selling themselves for extra money. I don’t see how Nance could’ve caught me but I never got involved with this. I certainly noticed them but never approached any.
Things improved later in June when my sweet Nick flew in, he had a summer job teaching English in Doha. The pay was great, around $30 an hour, and no tax. The big house wasn’t quite so empty now. He was bursting with new ideas and told me he’d decided on a major: geology. At Duke this was called EOS , earth and ocean sciences. I was taken aback at first.
‘Are you sure, Nick? It’s a boom and bust business. Right now it’s great but when you finish a Master’s, who knows.’ I said. The MS degree is the basic working degree for a geologist.
‘But it’s the family business, dad. I’d be the 3rd generation Downs oil man,’ he said with a smile. I couldn’t help smiling at this. I had no idea this sort of thing mattered to him.
‘OK, then. I hope you don’t end up in Libya or some place, kidnapped by terrorists. The future of the business is places like this,’ I said, meaning the Middle East.
‘That’s OK. The Gulf is fine, I grew up here. I’m taking Arabic next semester. I’m thinking about Nevada Las Vegas for grad school, I miss the desert, ’ Nick said. He had a network of old school friends in Doha so he was gone most evenings. I was very impressed with this young man and pleased he would give the family business a go. He was the first in our family to go to a “name” school and was a far more diligent undergrad than I ever was. He had taken a couple of Duke’s famous “great ideas” classes, taught by professors like the writer Reynolds Price. It was great to hear him mention Andre Malraux, existentialism, complexity theory and Franz Kafka. He talked about cranking out 20 page research reports on economics then coloring his face blue and going to a Blue Devils basketball game, drinking beer , shouting himself hoarse. I enjoyed hearing about it.
I stopped by an Internet café every week or so to see if my Iranian friends had responded, there was nothing. They were thinking it over perhaps. By mid-July Nance was back, without Margaret but with Tom, it was great to see them. Margaret would start boarding school in a few weeks. Aramco’s movers showed up and were amazed at all our stuff, they knew how small Aramco houses were, little 3 bedroom duplexes. We started selling stuff and sent Tom’s school records off to the Aramco middle school, he would be an 8th grader. Nance resigned her job and I gave a month notice. My big boss Ismael called me in and asked why I was leaving, I said it was only money. No need to bring up all the other problems at QP. He asked me to brief the other staff on our data and how to access it but there was almost nobody around to brief. I spent an afternoon with Hussein, a friendly Egyptian, showing him where all our backup tapes were stored. If a project crashed and wouldn’t restart they could read in an 8mm tape. I told him I would make some additional tapes and keep them in a drawer in the computer room in case they were needed.
Nance suggested I take a short vaco and I asked 14 year old Tom to come with me to Lebanon, we could ride bikes. He was a strong and healthy teenager, lots of fun. I got us tickets to Beirut, we would be gone the first 2 weeks of August. Then I’d come home, work 2 more weeks, then off to Saudi where Tom could start school Sept 1. Meanwhile Nick and Meg would be in school in the US.
A Message from Iran
I think it was Aug 1 I checked Hotmail again at the café and got a shock – a message from my Iranian friends! I had used the code phrase “car parts” for “data” in my letter and this Hotmail simply said “We’re interested in your car parts.” Wow, I thought. Took them two months to respond. It was from somebody called Iran_Kassim, with a Hotmail address; who the hell was this? I closed the browser and we left on vacation.
We packed our road bikes, I borrowed Margaret’s green Cannondale. We landed in Beirut at 5 AM and took a taxi thru the dark, ominous looking city, thru the northern suburbs, taking the coast road north to Amchit, a tiny village hugging a mountain slope. It was perfect weather, the Med looked great. At Amchit there was an old run down campsite I knew about, the taxi unloaded us. The price was right, $5 a nite, we could cook on a fire and sit on a cliff above the Med, enjoying the stars. It was a delightful combination of the cliffs of La Jolla and Mad Max: a gorgeous natural setting of ocean cliffs in a chaotic, half-destroyed country . It was harvest time in Lebanon, fresh fruit was everywhere; there were even sweet grapes you could pick from vines above your tent. Lebanon is also the Arab world’s babe magnet ; the place was crawling with pretty young women and the beaches were great.
It was one beautiful day after another. Every morning I’d wake Tom up and we’d have breakfast and do a morning ride. The mountains began about 100 feet from the campsite , and up we would climb, in our lowest gears, up and up, looking over our shoulder at the sea. Magnificent, and what a work out! We paused for breath at an old Maronite church and then continued up, into the pines and cedars, climbing about 500 meters according to the GPS. Finally we’d stop and rest, drink some juice and zoom back down. Tom liked stopping at a store for fireworks, available year round in Lebanon. Back at the campsite the fireworks would occupy Tom a while .
Thinking about this wonderful spot has helped sustain me during my years in jail. Later in 2005 in deep solitary I’d pace the floor and imagine zooming down the hills toward the sea with Tom, or walking among the Cedars of Lebanon. ‘You’ve got my body pretty thoroughly locked up, Mr. Jailer,’ I would say. ‘But my mind is my own, and it’s with Tom, back in Lebanon.’
Tom wasn’t much of a reader but back at the campsite I gave him Lord of the Flies and say read it! Tom found an Internet café in Byblos just down the road and I emailed Iran_Kassim, saying give me a list of what you want , what specific items. I figured if this was a prankster or cops they’d have trouble preparing a specific list of data items, it takes some knowledge of the field to do this.
We got back to Doha mid-August and were busy, helping the packers and selling furniture and appliances. Since the Aramco “camp” was a little Peoria, Illinois it was wired 120 volts, so we had to get rid of 220 volt TVs and such. I met with my coworker Hussein at work and we practiced managing and restoring projects from our inventory of backup tapes.
I had one last data management task and it was urgent. Dr. Mamdouh had a memo requesting some data from a Canadian firm, Talisman Energy. Talisman was exploring for shallow oil in an area where the North Field companies were drilling for deep gas. Talisman needed the shallow data from these deep gas wells , otherwise they couldn’t map and couldn’t evaluate their area. ‘John, please go see your friend “downstairs” and see if they have this data. Talisman says it’s urgent,’ Dr. Mamdouh said. By “downstairs” he meant the NF group, the enemy camp. So I went down to “Dave” in the North Field and asked to copy it. I showed him the memo requesting the data.
‘I don’t give a damn what you take, I just quit,’ Dave said, angry and disgusted. ‘Burn the place down if you want to. Here’s the password, go for it,’ he said handing me a Post-It note.
I took the request down to the 1st floor computer room and logged in to Dave’s North Field account, browsing thru the folders to find the wells in the memo. I planned to transfer the data on to 4mm tapes, the industry standard, we didn’t use thumb drives or flash drives. I popped in a fresh tape and copied the data for Talisman.
While that was copying I browsed thru several other directories, there was lots of potentially useful stuff. Normally for our group (EX) to get it from NF it took a memo and weeks of waiting , but I was already logged on so why not scoop up some more? It would save my colleagues the trouble of memo writing. There was no business justification for this separate data for EX and NF anyway; we worked for the same company and did our activities in the same geographic area of offshore Qatar. A more modern company would have a single common database, which employees of both groups could pull data from. So I copied a few more tapes. Was I also thinking of Iran_Kassim? Yes, I was. Some of this data might be of interest to them, who knows. When I finished I took Talisman’s tape and gave it to Dr. Mamdouh with his memo , then took the others, plus a few more from the tape drawer , and took them home in my briefcase. I had about a dozen tapes, a mixed bag, some of it old junk, some of it new.
August dragged on, hot and miserable. Our passports were in Houston being stamped for Saudi Arabia, a laborious process. They would come by FedEx with our air tickets in a few days. The house was emptying out, these movers were excellent, real pros. Everything about Aramco was first class, nothing like cheap-ass old QP, where you had to move yourself.
I don’t remember much about my last week of freedom, sorry to say. The events that happened afterward were so horrible, perhaps those memories of ordinary life are overwhelmed. It was hot, I remember that part. Nick wrapped up his work teaching English in Doha and got ready to go back to Duke. I vaguely remember chatting with him about geology . Most of their field work was along the coastline, digging trenches in the sand studying beach erosion. In the winter when the snakes were asleep the professor drove them into the Appalachians of North Carolina and let them pound on the hard rocks with their rock hammers, rocks 300 million years old.
‘Duke’s an artsy-fartsy school, Dad. It’s not very quantitative,’ Nick said when we were out on the bay sailing one afternoon. We were using a sailboard, taking turns with it in gusty winds. I noticed how much stronger Nick was than his old man. It’s not easy keeping up with a 20 year old. ‘But one of the geology TA’s just got a job offer, $100 grand a year from an oil company.’
‘Damn, Nick! Get one of those jobs, OK?’ I said, laughing, as we turned the board into the wind.
‘I plan to Dad. I need an MS first, someplace with a serious program, not a bunch of English lit majors. Pretty sure I can get an RA at Nevada, they’ll pay for everything. And after that, let them throw money at me. At Duke everyone’s so rich it’s not polite to talk about making money, you’re supposed to go off to Kenya and feed the orphans. People listen to NPR and live off grandma’s trust fund,’ he said with a chuckle.
Back at the house everything was in disarray, packers were working. I dug in a box and found two items. The first was my dad’s old slide rule in a leather case, a beauty, made of bamboo with a glass slider. He had used it at Texas A&M and I had used it in undergrad school, before the HP calculators came out. The second was my old rock hammer from the University of Arkansas, a special one awarded to me when I graduated top of the class. Nick had no idea how to work a slide rule so I gave him the rock hammer.
‘Wow Dad, thanks. I’ll take good care of it,’ he said, looking it over.
Meg was at boarding school. She emailed us a few pictures, it was OK. Little Tom was helping us get ready and saying bye to his friends. My last week of freedom was ordinary, it was nothing. As I write this I would give anything I have to enjoy such an ordinary, uneventful week. A day’s freedom would be a delicious indulgence. I can’t imagine what an entire week would be like.
August 25, 2015
That morning, that awful morning where our story began, I got an email from Iran_Kassim. It was foolish of me but I read it at home, sipping my morning coffee. ‘Come to the drop location, we have some money for you. Bring all the information you have, we will evaluate it. Cannot provide list for security reasons.’ My heart was pounding as I read this. There it was, they wanted me at the drop location up by the Ritz. Impulsively, acting in a sort of daze, and without taking any data , I drove up there and you know what happened. I was caught.
We entered the State Security complex, a large area of buildings and manicured gardens. It was Friday AM, the weekend, the only activity was our own, plus some gardeners watering plants in the heat. That AM I had simply put on tennis shorts and a T-shirt, acceptable clothes for a westerner in summer . As we drove along in the police Land Cruiser I looked down at my bare knees; I felt naked next to these guys in Arab dish-dash, full white gowns with head dress. I felt naked, vulnerable. We stopped and got out, I wasn’t handcuffed or anything, no frog-marching. We walked into the huge silent complex.
Inside was a vast reception area, high-ceilings , marble floors, brutally cold A/C; a picture of the Emir and the Heir Apparent on the walls, the guys State Security works for. Their job was to keep the Al Thani family in power. They were also the spy catchers, doing counter espionage, keeping an eye on foreign embassies.
They put me in a small interrogation room, 2 guys were going to interview me. The “Boss” was a fat Qatari, 40ish, poor English; the other guy “#2” was younger, in his thirties, taller, dark, good English. He did most of the talking. They took my ID and began filling out their paperwork. They brought me a cup of tea.
‘We need the password to your Hotmail account,’ #2 said. There was no reason not to so I provided it. Somewhere nearby was a computer with Internet, I heard them typing on it. They came back, whispered something to my interrogators. They were pleased. They asked me questions, #2 writing in Arabic on a note pad. I didn’t see any recording equipment.
‘Good, that worked,’ #2 said as his boss looked at me. ‘It was us sending you email messages, I guess you know that now,’ he said. Presumably they had gotten hold of my letter somehow.
Should I be silent or talk? What could I say? They seemed to know everything. These two were friendly, well trained in good-cop technique. I tried to focus and see if there was any alternative to simply confessing. Should I just simply refuse to talk? Of course there were no Miranda warnings and no Fifth Amendment. Could I simply shut up until the police revealed what evidence they had? Perhaps. But if I cooperated they might simply let me go, I could drive home, Nance would be none the wiser. After all, I hadn’t given any information to anyone.
‘May I contact my embassy please?’ I asked.
‘After. Just answer a few questions,’ #2 said amiably. ‘You haven’t been charged with anything, no need for embassy.’
I admitted to writing the letter and sending the emails, which they knew already. I told them I was unhappy at QP, it was a difficult organization and Ismael was a problem. #2 scribbled away in Arabic while his boss whispered questions to him.
‘Have you ever travelled to Iran or spoken to Iranians about this idea of yours?’ #2 asked.
‘Have you visited their embassy?’ he asked.
‘No. Never,’ I said.
‘Have you received money other than the $1000 we left for you?’ he asked. I truthfully said no.
‘Who else is involved in this?’ #2 asked, his pen scratching away on the pad.
‘Nobody,’ I said.
‘Have you given any data or information to anyone? Sent any data out of the country?’ he asked.
‘No,’ was my truthful answer.
‘Is there anything at your house with a bearing on this case?’ #2 asked.
‘Yes. I have a few data tapes,’ I admitted. I suspected they would search the house regardless. The tapes I’d made were in my bedroom sock drawer. In fact my “plan”, if the word applies, made no sense. We were going to Saudi Arabia in just few days. How could I possibly deliver anything to Iran_Kassim, and be paid in such a short time? He took weeks responding to emails. I couldn’t take the tapes to the KSA, they’d be found and how could I account for them? The whole half-baked idea had collapsed. It never would’ve worked anyway given the time constraints.
There was no sense in trying to hide things from these guys. They’d set me up. They were annoyed that I hadn’t handed over any “goods” at the drop off point , like a drug sting. It seemed to me that I might as well cooperate, maybe they wouldn’t press charges and just deport me. #2 finished up his scribbling and they stood up. ‘Let’s do a road trip,’ they said and took me outside to their shiny new Nissan Maxima. We drove off, the cops in front and me seated in back. They both chain-smoked and #2 drove like a maniac, flashing his headlights at cars in front, zooming around them.
‘Do all you guys smoke and drive like this?’ I asked, searching the back seat for a seatbelt.
‘Absolutely. It’s a job requirement,’ friendly #2 laughed, zooming around cars. ‘Your case is a strange one. The Iranians thought you were some sort of crazy person, by the way. They called us, and said ‘We got this letter offering data. You might want to follow up, try and catch the guy.’ They had no interest in what you had. They gave us the letter and we emailed you,’ #2 concluded. The Boss said something.
‘My Boss wants you to have his mobile #, give it to your wife. She can call and find out what’s going on,’ #2 said. Boss passed me a slip of paper, I thanked him. We pulled up to the house, several other vehicles were there already. I was just sort of drifting along at this point, shocked , in a daze. It was around supper time, I remember; I was feeling hungry. I’d been out of touch with Nance for 8 hours. A dozen plainclothes cops were there, a big State Security boss was there, he thanked me for my cooperation. What could I say? You’re welcome, please don’t take me out into the desert and shoot me? It was their friendly attitude that disoriented me; it was like the “bad cops” were on holiday. Perhaps they were all getting bonuses for finally catching a spy. And an American to boot, a big fish, not some useless tea boy who pinched a laptop. They were having a good day, lots of smiling.
We trooped up the stairs of the house to a somewhat different reality. Nance and Tom were on a couch, together, a fat Sudanese policewoman watching them. Nance was distraught, in tears. ‘What the hell is going on, John? We thought you’d had an accident, were lying dead somewhere. I’ve been calling all over, even the hospital,’ she said thru her tears as police entered our bedroom. Little Tom looked on silently, terrified.
‘It’s OK. There’s some data missing at QP, that’s all. It will be sorted out in a day or two,’ I said, not very convincingly. I showed the police the sock drawer and gave them the dozen data tapes. Nick was in his room packing, his flight was that nite.
‘Get Nick on that plane, OK? Get him out of here,’ I whispered to Nance. She didn’t seem to hear me so I repeated it. She said OK.
The house was swarming with police. They took our PC and dug thru a box of CDs. I noticed they took Sting and Britney Spears CDs, I guess they were suspects too. Plus a bunch of old useless floppies.
‘Look at all these police! Are you under arrest? Oh my God,’ she said.
‘I don’t think so. It’s not a big deal, I’ll try and call you tomorrow,’ I said. They let me change clothes, I put on khakis and a long sleeve shirt, work shoes. We got back in our convoy of vehicles and left. We looped thru town and I showed them the QP building, a couple QP security people were there. We went up to my office and they took that PC, rummaged thru drawers. I had given them the only evidence that mattered and they weren’t sure what else they might find in my office.
Their big boss came in. ‘We need to take all confidential material,’ he said importantly.
I managed a smile. ‘Well you better bring a truck. Everything in this building is confidential,’ I said. I was getting the impression from their comments these cops were after QP, not me. Maybe I was being used by QP’s enemies within the government. Now they had proof of poor management and leaks, they could use this in their turf battles with the Minister. Anyway, we left. Hauling away 6 floors of file cabinets and computers was a bit too much for my new friends. Back to the vast , silent State Security complex we went.
It was now about 10 and they showed me to a jail cell, one of several empty ones down the corridor. Guess spy catching wasn’t going well, I was the only catch. It was quiet in the cell and I undressed, they took my belt and shoes so I wouldn’t hang myself. Strangely enough I slept well.
Morning came, they brought me breakfast from McDs. I washed and dressed and we were off again, the same two guys, Boss and #2 in the Maxima, me in the back , driving like maniacs at 80 mph on the empty roads. The offered me a cigarette. I said no thanks, I’ll just breathe the air. It was Saturday. Boss had advice for me, #2 translating as we drove.
‘Later you’ll see the prosecutor. Answer his questions, tell him you’re sorry about all this. That should do it, I don’t think there will be charges. Here we are,’ he said as we pulled up to the new 7 story Public Prosecution building. I still wasn’t handcuffed, still wasn’t under arrest. We went in and up to the 7th floor. I sat in a small waiting room and drank tea while the cops went and searched the empty building for somebody to come in and prosecute me. The tea boy brought me a local English newspaper and across the front was Hurricane Katrina, devastating New Orleans. My God, I thought. What a mess that is. Other news: more Americans killed in Iraq, weapons from Iran were blamed for a lot of it. Ouch, I thought. That’s not helpful. Finally the cops came back.
‘Change of plan. Looks like they’re not open today. Come with us, please,’ #2 said and we went back out to the car. We drove, fast of course, along the Corniche and toward the Industrial Area. We were going to some other location, not back to State Security. We paused at a walled compound before a blue gate with a guard shack, a sign warning No parking or photography. We drove in. This was a military base with a jail, a different place. I noticed my car was already there. We went inside, the two cops signed for me and left, I wouldn’t see them again until my trial.
I was taken down to a room, #6, sitta in Arabic, and was given lunch in a tackle box and a milky tea. ‘Bang the padlock if you need anything,’ a Pakistani guard said, a friendly guy with good English. He brought me toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a small towel.
‘Can I make a fone call?’ I asked.
‘Maybe tomorrow. Just relax. And I need your glasses and shoes, ok? And your ring, too,’ he said, noticing my wedding band. I handed over the items. The room was large, as I’ve described, a foam mattress on the floor. I sat a minute, then blind, in my sock feet, began to pace, back and forth, back and forth. I wondered about Nance and the kids, wondered if Nick had caught his flight out. It was Saturday and Sunday was a work day. No doubt this would be sorted out, as #2 suggested. I’d go to the prosecutor on Sunday, spend the morning having a tea, doing mea culpa , then back home. In a few days we’d be off to Saudi Arabia, this whole mess forgotten. After all, I hadn’t harmed anyone.
The friendly Pakistani kept an eye on me, coming by every hour or so to see if I was hanging. A doctor came by, a nice Sudanese. ‘Get me my reading glasses, ok? They’re plastic. Can you bring them please?’ I asked thru the bars.
‘I’ll try to,’ he said. And he did. Later I was taken out, no longer blind, down the corridor to the exercise/ TV room. This place was large, with free weights, exercise bike, some fancy treadmills and weight machines, most of them didn’t work. Out a door was the courtyard, about the size of 2 tennis courts, a masonry wall around it. I had 20 minutes to use it . I slipped on my shoes and braved the heat outside, the sounds of construction were all around me. This part of Doha was being completely rebuilt. I went around the courtyard a few times then came in and tried the TV. The Hurricane was story #1, the Superdome disaster, the 9th Ward, awful. I thought of Meg in West Virginia, had she been told about me? Nick was probably just landing back in Durham, what was he thinking? How was Nance holding up? A disaster like Katrina had hit our family and I wasn’t sure how we’d survive it. I had the TV room and courtyard all to myself, I couldn’t hear or see other prisoners. ‘Khallas,’ (finished) they said. Back to my room.
In the morning I clacked my padlock.
‘Kam?’ they asked. Which #?
‘Sitta. Shay haleeb,’ I said. #6, milky tea.
‘Ok, ok’ they said. It came. ‘You have prosecutor today,’ the Pakistani said.
They took me to Public Prosecution again, I went up to the 7th floor. Still no handcuffs I was relieved to see. The place was busy. Just as we got off the elevator a tall, beautiful Asian woman, in tears, confronted us, a Malaysian perhaps. ‘Does anyone here speak English? Anyone?’ she sobbed. ‘I can’t find my husband.’ Nobody responded. ‘Has anyone seen my husband?’ she asked, wiping away tears.
She looked right at me. ‘Can you help me?’ she asked.
‘No idea, Miss. I’m one of the accused,’ I said, a poor attempt at humor. The cops with me spoke not a word, simply brushing past the poor girl.
‘Can’t anyone help me, please?’ she begged as we walked away. ‘Anyone speak English?’ It was unsettling.
I met the prosecutor, Ghanim Al Sulaiti, and his bearded Indian translator. We sat around a table, an old bearded scribe joined us and wrote whatever Ghanim told him to with a scratchy pen in longhand. Ghanim was friendly, around 40, a Qatari, recently trained in the US. This was more good cop. They brought me a tea and he started firing questions at me in Arabic, the translator translating of course, the scribe scratching away.
He began with my background, my family, much of the info in the earlier chapter. My wife, my children, my education, on and on.
‘Is all this really necessary? I covered it with the police,’ I asked several times.
‘We’ve got to be thorough, Mr. John. So when did you come to Qatar?’ he asked. By lunch time we’d covered my whole life history, my job at QP, my bosses, everything but my secret spy plot. A nice lunch arrived from Subway; we took a short break and I read the English newspaper about New Orleans.
Ghanim the prosecutor had my letter, copies of my emails, the tapes from the sock drawer, even video taken by cops at the drop-off point. What did he need me for, he knew everything. Why ask any questions at all?
‘Tell me about this letter you wrote,’ he said, taking it out of an envelope. I tried to recall the words and he prompted me here and there, scoffing at much of it. ‘No wonder the Iranians thought you were nuts. Tape on a light pole? That’s as old as the hills, Cold War stuff. And Hotmail? That’s not secure, a child could hack into it. Anyone else involved in this?” Ghanim demanded. Of course there was no one.
But they came, thick and fast: Trips to Iran? No. Other money we don’t know about? No. Did you meet Iranians in Lebanon? No. What were you doing in Lebanon? A vacation with my son. Where else have you been lately? I told him about Bahrain, meeting with Aramco. Meet with Iranians there? No. He even had the $1000 payoff in crisp new $100 bills in a clear plastic envelope. Recognize these? Yes, I know about those. The guy had insatiable curiosity and he kept firing away, he didn’t like all my “no” answers but he had no evidence to contradict them. These guys had orchestrated the whole business and knew more about my “crime” than I did! Finally I was tired , so he let me go. I went back to room 6, did my pacing, enjoyed a milky tea and tried to decompress a little. Did the embassy know about me? I was sure Nance had been burning up the fones. I clacked the padlock and asked about fone. ‘Tomorrow, inshallah’ they said.
The next day was Monday, back to the prosecutor. He had a “remand” paper for me. I would be kept for questioning up to 4 more days then I must be released or charged, Ghanim explained.
‘Probably we will finish tomorrow and release you,’ Ghanim said. I felt a little thrill at this and said a silent prayer. Ghanim asked me about QP, about the EX group under Ismael and the NF group under Saad.
‘Ismael and Saad have been rivals for years, they can’t stand each other. But at the working level between the two groups there’s a lot of cooperation, informally. If I need to know where a new NF well is located I’d go ask a friend and they’d do the same for me. Sometimes my boss Dr. Mamdouh sends me down there to find out stuff, informally.’
‘What about the data transfers between Qatar and Iran?’ he asked.
‘Every few years we trade well data with them. They send us a fax, say they would like several wells on our side, we negotiate a data trade. This is a standard industry practice. We have data from a dozen or so Iranian wells from earlier trades, they have some of our wells. All this happens at a very high level of course and both sides pledge to keep the other’s data confidential,’ I said.
‘So why did you think they would pay money for your information?’ he said.
‘Good question. It was a stupid idea. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m just glad no harm was done, nothing was leaked to anyone,’ I said.
Ghanim smiled. ‘So you were crazy? You’re pleading insanity? I’m not so sure Mr. John. The case is strange I admit, but you were up to something. Perhaps you were offering them an appetizer, the main course to come later,’ he said.
‘That would be difficult. I start work in Saudi Arabia next week. Saudi customs would find the tapes, then what? How do I account for them? There’s no way I could obtain and deliver more info in just a few days,’ I said.
Ghanem listened. ‘Go on,’ he said, taking the tapes out of a large zip lock bag and laying them on the table.
‘Besides, look at the tapes. See the Landmark label? These are backups from the Landmark system, software the Iranians don’t have. Landmark is an American product, it’s owned by Halliburton. Even QP needs a special import license to purchase this software . Most of these tapes would be useless without the Landmark software,’ I argued. This wasn’t 100% correct but it might help my case.
‘Nonsense,’ Ghanim said. ‘We’re talking about Iran! They have a whole nuclear program, hundreds of scientists. They can decode anything like this.’
I drew him a cocktail napkin sized map of Qatar and Iran, drawing in the border and showing the size and location of the North Field.
‘But if they did, then what? What action do they take?’ I argued. ‘They can’t move a rig across the border and start drilling in Qatar. These guys are broke. They can’t even afford to drill in their own portion of the field. After a dozen experts decode these tapes and study the data for a year, what do they do?’ I asked, Ghanim listening to the translation. ‘What do they tell their bosses? We took 10 guys away from bomb work and spent a year decoding the Qatar tapes. Our conclusion: there’s a Hell of a lot of gas in Qatar! We should move a rig in and start drilling. Of course that would be impossible. That must be why they rejected my proposal.’
Ghanim didn’t seem convinced, only puzzled. What the Hell was this guy up to, he seemed to be wondering. The day was over; I said bye and went back to jail. Maybe tomorrow I’d be sleeping in my own bed, I thought, as I lay on the floor on my cheap foam mattress. Still no fone; they told me tomorrow, inshallah again.
The next morning Ghanim wanted to know about passwords. ‘The data on the tapes, some of it comes from EX department and you’re authorized to have it, correct?’ he began.
‘Right’, I said.
‘What about the other stuff?’ he asked.
‘I had a memo authorizing me to copy data from the NF data files for Talisman, a Company here in town. These NF wells were in Talisman’s project area, they needed the data. But I admit, once I’d done the Talisman job, I wrote several more tapes of NF data, they were unauthorized. I regret doing that,’ I said.
‘So, how did you get the password to enter the NF files?’ he asked.
‘From a friend at NF I can’t name. I don’t want him to go thru this,’ I said, refusing to name “Dave”.
Ghanim frowned. ‘We need a name. Don’t stop cooperating now, we’re nearly done with you,’ he said menacingly.
‘I’d rather not give his name. Funny thing is, the password is written on a post-it just above the computer screen. You can send someone to verify it. Security is very lax at EX and NF. All of our data is technical, and as I explained before nobody’s likely to want to steal it,’ I said.
‘That is , until you came along,’ Ghanim noted . I admitted that was true. We sat in silence a moment.
‘It’s been several days. Don’t you think I need my embassy now?’ I asked politely.
Ghanim laughed . ‘You think they will help you, after you tried to help Iran, their great enemy? No way. The US embassy has been told you’re here, they already know. You know my friend , in a national security case we can keep you in jail 2 years, no charges, while we gather evidence and look around for your friend with the password. Please keep that in mind.’ The room grew chill. We took a tea break and some visitors stopped by for Ghanim. There were 3 Qataris in white dish-dash, grim faced, had the look of power. I waited outside reading the newspaper, then they left. I went back in.
A cold north wind had blown in, these guys must’ve come about my case. Ghanim now had trouble making eye contact, he was nervous. Perhaps he had just been yelled at by the mysterious three. ‘Looks like we won’t be finishing up today. Tomorrow we will continue,’ he said, gathering up his papers. This looked ominous. I was taken away.
Back at the jail I asked about phone, they said tomorrow of course. Would the embassy stop by? Could they even find this place? I asked for pen and paper and they brought it. I sat and wrote a detailed explanation of my situation, a brief version of these pages. I took the paper, folded it tiny and shoved it into a crack. If I got a visitor I could pass it to them, my family would know what was going on.
The next morning I went back , Ghanim was all business again. No more jokes. ‘We’re interested in your motive for your project. You say it wasn’t about money. Mostly you say you were angry at your management, upset about conditions there, correct?’ he asked.
‘Yes, that’s generally true. I felt trapped, ’ I said. I described my attempts to change jobs.
‘If you wanted to punish QP and damage Qatar then this data must be somehow valuable to Iran. Tell me how Iran can use this info to harm Qatar,’ he said. Apparently this was critical for him to make his case against me.
I struggled for an answer. ‘If they had the money and technology I guess they could plan wells along the border region, across from the ExxonMobil wells. But they lack the money and technology,’ I began. ‘You notice Qatar has given American firms the drilling rights along the border. If Iran tries anything they would have Mr. Bush to deal with.’
‘Anything else?’ he asked.
‘Well, if this data is useful, why didn’t they try to negotiate something with me? Why did they reject my proposal?’ I asked.
Ghanim had no answer. He didn’t like it when I posed questions. He pulled out an official looking paper and presented it to me. ‘Tomorrow we’ll do a little road trip, go up to your spy-novel drop off point. But now I must inform you you’re being charged, with conspiring to deliver secrets to a foreign state, maximum penalty 20 years. When you get back to jail you can call your Embassy. That’s it, Mr. John,’ he said, gathering up his documents.
I was led away. At the elevator the Indian translator turned to me, patting me on the back. ‘Don’t worry too much. Those are just the charges. Trust in God,’ and he left.
I was now charged, so I wore handcuffs outside to the car and we sped in silence back to jail in the suburbs. The police were silent, the whole mood had changed. I gave them Nance’s mobile #, she could visit me now. I was shaking when I got back to the quiet solitude of room 6 and asked for a shay. I sat on the floor and tried to stop shaking, tried to think calmly. I’m charged. That means a trial, which might take a year, cost a fortune. Aramco was history, maybe my whole career. Nance and the kids would have to get by on our savings until I get home. I almost dreaded her showing up here; my God, what would she say? This was the first night I didn’t sleep soundly.
The next morning breakfast came , no prosecutor. Guess there was no road trip. Instead at about 9 I was told ‘visitor’. I tucked my folded confession paper in my underwear and went to the exercise room to wait. There were two shabby black couches there for visitors.
In they came, Nance and 14 year old Tom. I hugged sweet Tom but Nance, her face all red and puffy, declined to hug me. They sat on the couch opposite. She was furious.
‘I brought you some clothes. The Embassy guy tried to come with me but they sent him away, said they had no paperwork. I’m trying to track down our passports so we can leave. Aramco called, cancelling the job. Now they want $10,000 for all the packing they did. What else? I’m looking for a lawyer for you,’ she said as if going thru a checklist. ‘Oh yes, we’re being booted out of our villa, we’re moving to a hotel, that’s lovely. The landlord is renting it for three times the rent we were paying. So, things are great. How are you?’ she concluded.
‘Here, take this,’ I said, passing here the note. ‘I’m so sorry for this mess. What I did was stupid but not really criminal. I didn’t give info to anybody, sweetie, and they caught me in a sort of sting operation. Good chance this will be resolved and we can go home.’ I gave her a brief verbal summary of what I’d done.
Tom spoke up. ‘It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, Dad. You didn’t give them anything?’
‘Nothing. It was the cops, pretending to be Iranians. Let them calm down, they might just decide to deport me,’ I said.
Nance wasn’t convinced. ‘We’re trying to get home, my mom’s sick on top of all this. Now your mom has taken to bed, might have to go to hospital. I’ve tried to downplay it but your mom and sister are horrified. And now we’ve got to go. The FBI at the embassy wants to interview us. Isn’t that great?’ She said bitterly, getting up to go. Tom came close for another hug, I told him I loved him.
‘Can you bring me a few books Tom? You guys can come each week. And try to get the embassy to come, OK?’ I asked, turning to Nance . ‘And please, fax my note to Julie, let them understand what’s going on. I’m so sorry you guys. I was really stupid. ’
She wasn’t done. ‘After some prison, you need a head shrinker. Your dad’s a lunatic, now it’s showing up in you. I don’t know if our marriage can survive this. Anyway, the FBI awaits. So long,’ she said refusing to be hugged. Tom came in for another hug, his eyes filled with tears. ‘I’m so sorry Tom,’ I whispered . ‘It’s OK Dad. We’ll sort it out,’ he said bravely. They left.
The FBI? My God, I thought, back in my room. I was shaking, even a shay couldn’t calm me down. I paced a while. I even prayed a few minutes, Please help my family. Forget about me, Lord, but please help them. Help them survive…..
My time in solitary became a period punctuated by weekly visits and fone calls. The first call Nance picked up. ‘My fone is tapped, the lawyer said, so I can’t say anything. We’re bringing you some books, a box of supplies, clothes; looks like you could be there a while. See you tomorrow,’ she said angrily , hanging up.
A few days later, in early September, an Embassy guy finally showed up, one of the temporary hires the Embassy used during summer, when the real staff are on leave. He had a standard disclosure form, how much to tell the media in case they call, how much to tell friends and family. I told him don’t tell anything to anyone at this point. He stayed just a few minutes and left .
Next visit Nance visited , she had a power of attorney form, which I signed. I asked her how the FBI discussion went. ‘They said they checked for any big money transfers, there weren’t any. No travel to Iran, of course. They asked me if I’d seen any big money stashes, I said of course not. They also called and interviewed Margaret and Nick. The FBI said this doesn’t look like much of a case under US law, but these guys are angry. Looks like powerful people in the government want you jailed.’
Tom spoke up. ‘The FBI guys wanted to know about our Lebanon trip, they asked if you had met with anybody there. I told them no, we were together all the time, and we stayed at a place for $5 a night. They laughed at that part.’
I chuckled too. ‘Yeah Tom, we’re some sort of big times spies, aren’t we? Did you tell them about the big bundles of cash and the beautiful women we met?’
‘Oh yeah, for sure,’ Tom came back, laughing.
Nance wasn’t amused. ‘I had to pull Tom out of baseball because everyone’s gossiping. It’s awful. One rumor we heard said you were being taken to Saudi Arabia for execution. Rumor says you gave Iran boxes and boxes of secret stuff, the crown jewels etc., probably you’d been spying for them for years. Another story said the whole family had been taking summer vacations in Iran for several years, I had to laugh at that one.’
‘That sounds like that movie Spy Kids,’ Tom chuckled. For a second the mood was lightened, we were a family again. I felt a little warmth in the cold room.
‘I told one guy at school to shut up, stop spreading rumors,’ Tom said proudly, coming over and sitting next to me. ‘I’m signed up for 8th grade on line, should be fine. We’re staying at the Solheim’s place starting next week.’
‘That’s great,’ I said, giving him a hug. ‘You study hard.’
‘Tom’s music teacher Mr. Seay has been so nice , has him coming to school for music, but they won’t even let me on the campus, I have to drop him off,’ Nance added. ‘FBI said this could take a while to sort out. You could be here a year, they said.’ They stood up, visit was over. I got a strong hug from Tom.
‘Thank you for helping your mom, Tom. Do all you can to help, OK?’ I whispered to him as we embraced. They left.
Books, books! Next day I got my Bible, Don Quixote and Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire , plus a book on microbiology, a French dictionary, a bunch of random stuff. It looked like she was pulling books at random off the shelves for me. The clothing box included peanut butter and homemade cookies (forbidden), a mobile phone(forbidden!), long undies(OK), detergent(OK), plus lots of books(OK). She included a bunch of Tom’s boxer shorts; much too small, so I returned them. You could tell her panicked state of mind from this, poor thing.
Next visit was around September 12 . They smuggled me a tiny folded email from Meg.
Dad: Tomorrow I leave boarding school and go to Arkansas to enroll, staying with Aunt Julie in Eureka Springs. It will be great to see her and go to your old school. I’ll show the stoners how it’s done…. I don’t care what you’ve done or how long this takes. You’re our only Dad and we love you! The lawyer sez it might take 6 months. If so we’ll be fine, and see you next March. You taught us to be strong and independent and we are, so don’t worry about us. I love you, Meg.
This note was so precious to me! I must’ve read it 100 times and ended up saying it like a mantra. I pasted it on the wall with toothpaste so I could read it while I trained. I trained and trained , running outside and lifting weights. I lost weight rapidly from the stress and got nimble as a monkey! I could climb up on my sink, then swing over and stand on top of the sturdy wooden bathroom door of my room, my hand touching the 12’ ceiling. I stood up there and looked out the small dirty window at the building next door. There was nothing to see. The Sudanese doctor had me remove my shirt and counted my ribs and vertebrae , he was worried. They began checking my meal boxes to make sure I was eating. I was, but was burning up calories studying , exercising and worrying .
Nance and Tom came again; she looked a wreck, stressed out. She had another long speech for me, another mental checklist. ‘I got you a lawyer, here’s his card. He’s a Lebanese man, Mr. Gebran Majdelany, very well connected. We’re now at the Solheim’s house, they’ve been great to take us in. All the expats, the Exxon people, are avoiding us, they say they can’t take the risk of offending the government. The Embassy is making another push to get our passports, QP’s holding them. Have you told them everything? They might be waiting for you to admit some more crimes, then they will let us go. The lawyer sez they can keep us trapped here indefinitely if they think you’re holding back information, we could end up homeless. It’s a standard technique,’ she said, pausing a second . Sweet Tom came and sat next to me and held my hand.
She continued. ‘Your lawyer Maj says any case involving Iran is a nightmare, you could spend a year just for the trial, plus jail time and not luxury jail like this, prison, real prison. We’re waiting on our passports then we’re out of here. My mom’s sick again so I need to go spend time with her.’
She waited for me to say something but what could I say? I’m sorry? I’d said that already. Her face softened and she looked at me. ‘You holding up OK? You look so thin,’ she said, the first time she’d expressed any concern for me.
‘I need to eat more. Worrying burns up calories,’ I said. ‘How are Nick and Meg?’
‘Nick’s at Duke, worried sick about you of course. He tried to drop out and get a refund but they said no refunds, sorry. He’s gone to financial aid and they’re putting together loans for him. Meg is staying with your mom, going to high school. Granma’s basement is all ready for us, plenty of room. She sez school is fine, easier than here. They send their love of course,’ she said.
‘And I’m fine,’ Tom chimed in. ‘Online school is fun and I can come to campus to play my French horn. Mr. Seay the music teacher has been great. He sez hang in there, Dad.’
‘We’re battling against the stupid rumors that everyone is spreading,’ Nance continued. ‘We were at the bike shop yesterday and I saw Ed Davis. He’s the one spreading that rumor about your impending execution. I told him it’s a lie, quit it! John never gave anything to the Iranians, never even met with them. It was nothing but illegal entrapment.’
‘I thought Mom was going to kick his butt,’ Tom said laughing. ‘She was really angry.’
I laughed too, proud of how she’d stood up for our family.
They had more books, including a massive geophysics textbook full of equations. The guards had taken my pen and paper so I went to work , using a bar of soap to derive the one dimensional wave equation, and Fourier’s wave theory. I hadn’t looked at this stuff in 20 years but it was coming back to me . Using the bar of soap I covered the wooden door with equations, it looked like my hero Richard Feynman’s blackboard during his days at Caltech. I would stand in front of the door and go thru the solutions, in both time domain and frequency domain, lecturing to nobody. This was my field, and I was determined to re-learn more of the mathematical underpinnings. Perhaps in a year or so I could go back to work as a geophysicist.
I composed phantom emails to Nick and Meg: I’m studying hard, you guys do the same, ok? This disaster might well bankrupt us so do well, crank hard. I’ve destroyed whatever safety net we used to have, the one we built from years of saving money. You guys are like immigrants, with nothing but your brains and my name.
I got a couple of emails, Tom brought them tucked away in his underwear. Nick was worried about me but enjoying geology, doing field trips on the North Carolina coast at the Duke marine lab, examining the beaches of barrier islands like Kitty Hawk. I was more worried about Meg, going to high school in an Arkansas town, population 3000. Almost nobody went to University from that place, a half dozen out of a senior class of 30 or so , miserable. The girls got pregnant and the boys drove trucks or worked at Wal Mart, Nance said. She told me Meg had a new best friend : a 17 year old girl, a junior, with a baby, who lived with her boyfriend in a trailer! Our virginal, foreign-educated Meg must’ve seemed like some exotic tropical flower, blown in from the Old World. I prayed Meg’s good sense and advantageous upbringing would counter the influence of this trailer-trash. It wasn’t going to be Starr’s Hollow from the show Gilmore Girls. This was the southern version, more like the Dukes of Hazzard.
Nance had already gone online and looked at the balance on our IRA and other accounts, we were joint owners so she could easily get money. ‘You should find about $400,000 there, go easy on it because withdrawals are taxable,’ I advised. ‘There’s enough money in our HSBC account to get you home, then get some tax advice, ok?’ She wasn’t in the mood to accept my advice but at least she listened. ‘If this takes a while, you should complete your degree,’ I suggested. ‘It might turn out to be a good opportunity for you.’
She flared up. ‘That’s great, advice from a jailbird! I think I’m finished listening to your advice,’ she said. ‘By the way next week is our 20th anniversary, you probably forgot. Maybe I can bring a cake to the jail.’
That was it, she left. I paced for hours afterward. What an ordeal these visits were! I sometimes wished she’d stop coming, or just go home. The anniversary visit, September 29, that would be tough. What woman wants to spend an anniversary like that visiting some fool in jail? Each week she brought me a few more books; now I had a small library, plus vitamins, fone cards, detergent, a few emails from the kids and my sister Juju.
It wasn’t all bad news. My mom was getting her ‘second wind’, according to Juju. I laughed when I read it. ‘One morning last week she jumped out of bed, made herself a Folgers coffee and decided to live! I found her at her desk scribbling away, looking for envelopes and stamps. She’s gone to work writing letters about you to Congressmen, the State Department, newspapers,’ Juju said in an e-mail. ‘Now she wants to learn the computer! Imagine! Meg is giving her lessons.’ I had to smile, imagining the two of them at the PC. In her younger days Mom could type 80 words a minute on a Remington manual typewriter. This was great news, and in 2015 as I write this she’s still my fiercest advocate, still going strong.
Fall weather came. Every 30 days I left in a prison van, handcuffed, and went to the court for a 5 minute hearing; “30 more days” was the invariable judgment. I always asked for bail. No bail. Also every 30 days the embassy wanted to see me. The prison van took me back to State Security HQ, the huge walled compound I was first taken to. I was escorted down the vast empty corridor to a large, opulently furnished conference room where Ellen from the State Dept. , and Maha her assistant , were waiting. Ellen was in her thirties, an experienced diplomat and good Arabic speaker.
‘You’re losing weight,’ kind Maha noted as we shook hands. She was younger, a very attractive Egyptian lady. They knew the basics of my case and had gone by to hear the prosecutor’s version.
‘Why in the world did you cook up this ridiculous plan, John?’ Ellen asked. ‘It must’ve been boredom. I hear people over at QP are going nuts, bored , nothing to do. You’re in a hell of a mess.’
‘I’m really sorry Ellen. It is a mess. Can you help Nance and Tom get home?’ I asked.
‘That’s our main focus,’ she said, getting down to business. ‘Just stay alive until they’re gone and we can do more for you. Maybe they’ll drop the case and you can get home around Christmas or early in the new year. Eat more, OK? You’re wasting away,’ Ellen said. The meeting was brief but I thanked them for their efforts. They took me back to the jail .
Well, it wasn’t much of a happy anniversary on the 29th. It was an awful meeting, but I was glad to hear Nance had the passports and Ellen had been to the Attorney General to clear the way for their exit. Our US nationality was helping us. If they had been non-Westerners I’m sure they would’ve been kept in the country until I confessed where the “secret money stashes” were, maybe name a few accomplices. There were even reports of women and children being jailed, to pressure people into confessions. This is much more effective than torture and doesn’t leave any marks or bruises.
They were going soon, and that was good. At their last visit the following week I took Tom aside and hugged him hard. ‘Look after your Mom, OK sweetie? You and Meg help her. And study hard!’ I said, our eyes filled with tears.
‘We’ll be fine dad, I’m glad we’re going home. Maybe Mom will calm down a little bit, she’s had a hard couple of weeks. Take care of yourself,’ he said.
‘You’ve grown into a fine young man. I’m proud of you, Tom. I’ll see you in the Spring, OK? So long.’
‘See you soon Dad. Don’t worry about us. Love you, Dad,’ Tom said.
‘I love you too,’ I said. They left, Nance refusing to hug me or kiss me goodbye, nothing. She was angry and wanted out of there.
I gave Nance a final list of stuff I needed and she dropped it off a few days later. I was now alone with the problems I had created, which is only just. A man who creates a mess should be left alone to fix it. Perhaps if I didn’t get home Nance or one of the kids would come visit me in 2006.
I had no inkling of it at that time, but I would never see Nancy the Ohio girl again.
‘A Game of Ping Pong ’
A week or so later I called the lawyer, the old Lebanese fellow, “Maj” people called him. He was in his eighties but still practicing and knew everybody in the government.
‘The trial will take a year or so, then there’s the appeal. You’ll probably be found guilty, but at the appeal we can get the sentence reduced, maybe to time served. Right now prosecution is preparing its case and soon we’ll be able to see their evidence and prepare a response,’ Maj said in good but accented English.
‘Can you come see me?’ I asked, stunned by this news. A year? Then an appeal? My God. What happened to 6 months?
‘No need. In the Spring we’ll know the charges, the evidence, we can come see you and prepare something. Just relax and we will see you in a few months,’ Maj the lawyer said. ‘In the meantime let’s be careful what we say, your phone there is monitored. Good bye.’
After Nance was gone my only communication was the monthly embassy visit and lawyer calls. I could call the lawyer once a week and speak to Swalna, his Sir Lankan secretary. I could dictate an email to her and she’d read any she had to me. She was wonderful, and really helped us stay in touch. No international calls were allowed from the jail. And no visitors other than family, and they were all home.
I felt a sense of both relief and sadness when they left. No more visits, no more of that awful stress.
November came, the weather cooled, I worked out a pleasant routine. My weight stabilized and I got more muscular, I could do a half dozen chin ups, 30 or 40 pushups, dozens of sit ups. I daydreamed about escaping. Lawyer Maj said relax: ‘You’ll get credit on your sentence for your time in jail. If you go on bail you earn no credit, so stay put. We’re keeping track of your case.’
Then the game of ping pong started. The guards came to my room, austere barren #6, and said pack up, you’re moving. I gathered my few books and clothes and went down to room 9, tissa. Tissa was pretty luxurious. A western style toilet, not a squat pot. A proper single bed with mattress and sheets, no more sleeping on the floor. A window with a view of a “lovely” parking lot. A friendly Sudanese guard brought me shay haleeb. ‘I think somebody going out,’ he said with a wink. An officer came by and asked where my passport was, this was strange as hell. What about a year long trial? Was Maj crazy?
I also got an hour exercise/ TV, up from 20 minutes. Tissa seemed to be the ‘graduation room’, the place they put you before you were released. I asked the embassy about this strange new situation, it was news to them. ‘Sometimes charges are dropped and accused people are simply deported, this happens,’ Ellen said. ‘Best case scenario you could be home for Xmas.’ What an idea! The family would be in Ohio for Christmas, and I daydreamed about walking down their street, looking for the modest house in the hilly town overlooking the Ohio River. I’d peek in the windows and see the Christmas tree, maybe hear somebody playing the piano. Then I’d knock on the door. This daydream sustained me for quite a while.
Being in tissa put me in a good frame of mind. A couple guards came by and said ‘Call my brother in New Jersey, OK Mr. John? Tell him I need a visa, ’ and such. I called Maj the lawyer, it was news to him. Just relax, he said. But how could I relax? Something was going on behind the scenes to resolve my case and maybe I’d be deported. Next door to tissa was ashra, # 10, and I’d heard the guy there speaking some English. One afternoon the guards were snoozing and I heard him next door. ‘Ashra. Ashra. Can you hear me?’ I whispered.
I heard him moving around. ‘I hear you. You’re the American, right?’ he whispered back. This was the first time I had exchanged words with another jailbird.
‘Yes that’s right. Where are you from?’
‘Palestinian. They think I’m a terrorist.’ There were boots coming, trouble. ‘Absolutely no talking, Mr. John,’ the guard said. I never spoke to Ashra again.
Then a couple weeks later the guards came, grim faced, and shifted me back to sitta, nasty old #6, back to squat-pot and mattress on the floor. What had happened? Orders, they said. Maybe I wasn’t graduating. Then a week or two later, I was sent back to #9; then a week later back to 6. A struggle was going on behind the scenes. I suspect the Attorney General was trying to deport me, but my powerful enemy the Energy Minister (also CEO of QP) was determined to see that I hang. The Minister is a Royal, the King’s uncle, so he prevailed. I never saw luxurious #9 again.
Winter came , not much of a winter but it was windy with temperatures in the fifties. Nance had left me some sweets and a couple of nice sweaters, and Nick’s Canadian friend Kevin Donahue came by with socks, trainers, other stuff, so winter wasn’t bad. I walked and walked outside and caught a few minutes of Katie Couric every nite. Some books arrived, the law firm’s driver had brought them out. Several of my Mom’s old French books were missing, I complained to the Sudanese Dr. about this. This guy was great. He went personally to the jail Capitan and pounded the table, demanding the books, then brought them to me.
‘Whatever comes from a man’s mother is sacred to me, Mr. John,’ he said, extending his brown hand thru the bars with several small hardback volumes. ‘My mother died when I was a young man. You are very fortunate at your age to still have a mother,’ he said. I didn’t feel particularly fortunate at that moment but I thanked him. I held them in my hands like treasure; they were her French books from 1948 at the Univ. of Oklahoma! Favorite French Poems, Pere Goriot, Les Miserables, small hardbacks in French with her handwriting in the margins. Just holding them I felt closer to her, closer to home. I plunged into French, a language I’d learned and almost forgotten. Differential equations, French lit, Arabian geology , Arabic language , that was my course list.
What’s a day like in extreme solitary? Not as bad as you think. To a scholar, a man of solitary temperament, it isn’t bad. Now I’m in regular prison and I sometimes miss it. Day begins with shay haleeb at 6:30, the thump of the breakfast box, rattle of my padlock. I’d get up and wash my face and sip tea, put on my shorts for exercise. Breakfast was ample: 2 eggs, juice box, 2 triangle cheeses, Arabic flat bread and a tiny slice of cake.
I had regular habits so they’d come get me for exercise, 7 to 7:30. Into the exercise room, change the channel to BBC, check out the hot Indian business reporter girl. Grab a couple 5 pound weights and go out and jog with them, 4 or 5 times around. Then back inside and lift a barbell with 20 pounds or so on it, watching news from Iraq, Bush’s disaster. I recall seeing that idiot Paul Bremmer announce “we caught Saddam.”
Meanwhile more Americans were dying. Iraqi Shia militias were being equipped by Iran, our troops were dying as a result. These weapons, the explosively formed penetrators, were sending molten slugs of metal thru Humvees, massacring our guys. I saw scenes of funerals in places like Michigan and Texas. I saw the new section at Arlington, children’s drawings on the fresh gravestones, little bottles of Jack Daniels, cans of Budweiser. One drawing by a little girl, she’d written: ‘I love you daddy, and I miss you so much.’ I wept like a fool at this, thinking of my own daughter; it was embarrassing. A few rows over were graves from my parents’ generation, nobody visited them anymore. Bush’s war was turning into an open-ended disaster. Change the channel. Speeches in Congress by John McCain and Lindsay Graham, denouncing Iran and their notorious weapons. The news was so grim I was glad when they said Khalas, finished. Back to my room and shower.
It was about 8:30, time for my textbook on Arabian Geology. After an hour of this I’d pace a while to cool my brain, then plunge into geophysics, a massive book of theory by the Turkish professor Oz Yilmaz. I’d do my Feynman dance, writing equations with soap on the wooden door, explaining each step to an audience of zero. After an hour an imaginary school bell went off in my head, ding ding, change topics. This took me to lunch, another tackle box. Then the cleaner would come and sweep.
I would eat lunch (piece of chicken, rice, yoghurt, fruit) then take a nap, a good one hour. I knew the time by the position of the patch of sun on my floor, unless it was cloudy. Then I’d get up, take off my shirt, grab a fun book like Larry McMurtry and sit in my rectangular patch of sun on a folded blanket, moving every 15 minutes or so. Gus and Woodrow got me thru many lonely hours of jail – if you’re ever jailed take them along! Afterward, do a serious walk, an hour or so, really grinding out the cycles back and forth in the room. My Sudanese guard told me I’d soon be out, ‘You can walk all the way back to America!’ he laughed. Little weak on geography, but I appreciated the sentiment.
As the sun faded and sunset call to prayer sounded, I’d wrap up, get ready for evening. I had no radio, newspaper, TV, Internet or charming companions. No chessboard, no pen and paper, no crossword puzzles. Sometimes I was sick to death of reading and just couldn’t do it anymore! I came across the Italian phrase dolce fare niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. I had to learn this, although my time at QP had given me an excellent introduction. By supper time I was relaxed, reading one of Mom’s French novels .
When I felt lazy I’d think of Nick, grinding away at Duke, staying up past midnite. In an e-mail from Nick that Swalna read to me he’d said: ‘…It’s almost midnight and I have my physics to look at, no rest for the wicked. Hope you’re doing OK dad, take care of yourself. I might take the next semester off and come help you with your trial…..it would be great seeing you. I can’t wait to give you a hug.’
By 10 PM I was beat and had them shut off the light. I knew it was morning in North Carolina and Arkansas, eight time zones away. Perhaps it was a cool winter morning across the South, my native land, the land of my ancestors. So I said a little prayer, wishing them well, hoping they had a good day and were safe. You young guys run the world for a while, I’m tired. Good night and I love you, I would say to Nick, Meg and little Tom. Could they tell when I was thinking about them? My scientific side said no, but as a father I hoped so, maybe just a little.
Prison movies like Shawshank with their colorful characters and guys working at jobs don’t capture the emptiness and tedium of enforced solitary, absolutely nobody to talk to but the guy who brings lunch and a short weekly phone call. It was a monastic life, like those New Yorker cartoon showing a guru sitting in front of his cave sanctuary, wild mountains all around. Books became my existence. Books that used to put me to sleep in minutes when I was free were readable now. Writers like Darwin or Gibbon that used to knock me out I could get thru and remember. Perhaps my brain was adapting to sensory deprivation; I was becoming a jail savant. I read Henry James, Chaucer, Anna Karenina and stayed awake. Something was going on with my grey matter.
That last one made me laugh, then cry a little. Nance had taken a thick paperback of Tolstoy’s classic camping in some dunes south of town the year before. A sand storm blew in and knocked our tent down, filled every crack and crevice with sand, we had to evacuate. In 4WD we plowed thru the dunes in a convoy, finally making it back to the tarmac road. Back home we shook sand out of everything, finally getting to bed about 10. I was reading to the kids. She wasn’t tired so she put on her favorite cotton nightgown, smoothed out the fresh clean Ralph Lauren 300 count cotton sheets, and got in bed with her favorite Siamese cat, Blue. I came in just as she reached over on my night stand, grabbed Anna and opened it. Something like a kilo of fine brown sand poured out of it, she and old Blue were covered! How I’d laughed.
I lay back on my jail mattress thinking of Nance and opened Anna, and could still smell the desert and even her, maybe, just a bit.
We had another bedtime ritual that was funny. Sometimes on the weekend I’d go sailing by myself and stay out really late. Usually after stowing the sails and hosing everything off I’d take a quick midnite dip in the Gulf, although the warm salty water wasn’t very refreshing. It was quiet and peaceful. Back home I’d come upstairs, get undressed and climb into bed without showering, still covered with salt crust. I’d snuggle up with her and give her a little kiss.
‘Why don’t you shower, salty dog?’ she’d mutter.
‘Oh, come on. I thought you liked your salty dog,’ I’d say snuggling close. ‘Ugh, you smell like the sea,’ she’d respond.
‘You should’ve come with me tonight, the moon was beautiful and the flying fish were everywhere,’ I’d say, trying to seduce her. She would move to the other side.
‘You saw flying fish?’ she’d ask sleepily as I moved closer. She couldn’t escape me, I was the salty dog!
‘Yeah, it was great. At one point a big container ship passed by me , leaving this trail of glowing plankton, it was a gorgeous pink color,’ I’d say. ‘Remember the aurora borealis, when we were flying to the UK last winter? The colors reminded me of that.’
‘Hmm. Tell me more, salty dog,’ she’d say.
I wasn’t allowed to speak to my family and the brief emails read to me by Swalna , the lawyer’s secretary, were from Juju and my Mom, mostly saying everything’s fine. Nance and the kids didn’t seem to have much to say to me. But one awful day the truth came out. Juju had written this email , and she’d let it all hang out. Nance is out of control, she wrote, drinking, driving drunk, not getting the kids up for school. She was spending money like crazy, liquidating our retirement accounts. Juju and her husband John tried and tried to reason with her but she was becoming increasingly paranoid. She was refusing to send any money to my lawyers. Tom and Meg were skipping school, Tom was running with a bad crowd. It was a catalogue of horrors! It was obviously difficult for dear Swalna to read it to me, I thought she might be choking up as well. When she finished she paused a moment on the fone and said softly , ‘Is there any reply?’ I just stood there, shaking, stunned. The air was punched out of me, I could hardly breathe. ‘No Swalna,’ I said, fighting back tears . What could I possibly reply to that? I thanked her and said goodbye.
Back in my room I paced and paced, trying to absorb the awful news, wondering how much of it to believe. Was Juju exaggerating? Perhaps a little, she was emotional. But even if half of it was true it was a terrible burden for all of us, especially poor Nick. What must he be thinking? He was probably wondering which of his dysfunctional parents he should go help. How could he possibly concentrate on school? I couldn’t help but feel angry at Nance. What the hell was she doing? We’re already in trouble, so why was she adding to it, making it worse? She could live for years on our retirement accounts, so why squander it all? And she was neglecting our children, this made me angry.
In December I heard Nick was taking a semester off, he’d be coming in January or February 2006 to help with my trial. Christmas came. Nance took the kids to Ohio, it might be her Mom’s last Xmas, a sad occasion. Her brave fight with breast cancer was coming to an end. Nance had bought a house in Eureka Springs, my Mom’s basement was not very comfortable. She planned to live there until I got home.
Winter came to Doha, cool and pleasant, great weather. I had a warm wool sweater and khaki pants, warm wool sox. There were no jumpsuits in this jail, we wore our own clothes, thank goodness. I went to court every month to get another 30 days detention, no bail, and my lawyer never came. I heard the lawyer and my family were negotiating fees, they were trying to charge us double or triple the normal fee since I was an American facing a life sentence. At one court session, a Sudanese judge with a turban presided and refused to do the usual rubber stamp 30 days. ‘You must bring him to a trial 180 days after arrest,’ he declared, that was in 2 or 3 weeks. The prosecutor complained it wasn’t enough. They were having trouble finding a crime in my activities, I suppose. The guy who visits a bank, looks around, drives by it, thinks about robbing it, but then doesn’t do it, and doesn’t tell anybody about it, is hard to charge.
The prosecutor had a tough task. The tapes in my sock drawer had never left my custody; I hadn’t given them to a friend or buried them in the desert, or posted them on the Internet. Keeping backup tapes is normal procedure in many places. Why didn’t I bring any secret data to the drop off point? That was annoying. Their sting operation had failed, the drug dealer had shown up to the meeting with nothing. I paced my room afterwards thinking about my case, wondering when my lawyer would show up. Nance had argued on her last visit, ‘The case is about intent. So work on intent, OK?’ Ellen had made the same point.
The biggest problem was the what if question. I could only be found guilty if this info, if delivered to Iran (the ifs are multiple here, you note), would cause grave harm to Qatar. Leaking a list of customers and prices would have this sort of potential for harm, or leaking proprietary technology loaned to Qatar by a third party. But as I’ve argued, it was difficult to see how this information would give any sort of competitive advantage to Iran.
Here’s another analogy, I’ve got plenty since my case is so strange. Imagine you counted all the bricks on Doha scenic Corniche, then try to sell this info to a foreign state. It’s probably a secret – every damn thing in Qatar is a secret. The foreign state sez no thanks, and anyway ‘you’re nuts.’ You are arrested, for offering state secrets etc. But where is the harm to Qatar if such secret info is leaked? How does it harm the country? Ghanim the prosecutor had drilled me hard on this issue so I knew it was important.
The Embassy struggled with it too. Their legal eagles said, ‘Well, maybe companies like El Tigre would stop working with QP if these leaks had taken place. Maybe they wouldn’t bring their proprietary technology. Maybe the country’s bond rating would be affected. Maybe projects would be canceled.’ Maybe this, maybe that. They were reaching, like the prosecutors. The fact is no harm had come to the country, and no harm was likely to come, even if my foolish plan had succeeded.
One final point. Iran isn’t shy when it comes to gathering intelligence, they don’t hesitate to approach people or pay for information, particularly from the US or Israel. I’m sure they’d have been interested in military or diplomatic info from Qatar, stuff like the Wikileaks cables. But I’m a humble scientist and didn’t go roaming around various networks and servers, gathering up goodies. I’m not Edward Snowden.
Perhaps the farming analogy is best, I come from an agricultural state after all. Imagine you’re working on a prosperous cotton farm, the plants are 6 feet high, the bolls are thick. Harvest will be fantastic. At the end of the field is a tall grey concrete wall, 20 feet high, like the Israeli separation barrier. One night you find a gopher hole under it and with a little digging you pop up on the other side. It’s barren, nothing but weeds and some bushes , it’s all going to waste. You run to the old wrecked farm house and wake up the owner. ‘Hey Mr. Farmer. Pay me $10,000 and I’ll tell you all about the cotton crop on the other side of the wall. I’ve got inside info!’
The grizzled old farmer grabs his shotgun. ‘Who the hell are you?’
‘I’m a spy, old friend, calm down! I’ve got info to sell,’ you say.
‘You must think I’m a damn fool. Of course I know about the cotton over there. But I’m too broke to plant, no money for machines, my well has dried up. Why would I pay money for something I already know? Now get the hell out of here!’ You crawl back thru the gopher hole and cops are waiting. If I weren’t facing death by firing squad the situation would be comical!
Finally the 6 months mentioned by the Sudanese judge was reached, I was hauled back to court. This time I was brought before a very senior judge, a Qatari, in a room with dozens of people: QP, Ghanim the prosecutor and his staff, State Security, a huge gang wanted to look at their spy. I simply stood there like always, unable/ unwilling to make eye contact, and asked for bail. No bail, the judge said, granting Ghanim 6 more weeks to get ready. The meeting finished and I was taken out. My lawyers were AWOL, of course. In the corridor, Ghanim and his bearded translator stopped me. He shook my hand, smiling, asked how I was doing.
‘Just a couple of points Mr. John,’ Gahnim said. ‘I’m sorry there’s no bail but each day is credited against your sentence, so that’s good. You have two good lawyers working on your case. We are waiting for some technical reports on the evidence. Some of these reports are in your favor, by the way. We will start soon,’ and that was it. Ghanim was acting as my pro bono lawyer, I suppose. Back to familiar old sitta, room #6, luxurious #9 was a dim memory.
The Sudanese Dr. Came and checked only, and asked if I needed anything. I asked him please check my box, bring me a couple more books. He went to check.
A few minutes later he was back. ‘Mr. John, we have a problem with your books. All the titles are about death. Death in Venice, Death of a Salesman, it’s nothing but death. Why did your wife leave you this sort of books? As your Dr. I can’t bring you any books of this sort I’m sorry,’ he said sadly.
A few weeks into the New Year Ellen with the embassy had me brought to the prosecution building, I sat there waiting in a tiny waiting room. Suddenly the elevator dinged and Ellen and Maha the translator got out, followed by my precious Nick!! I gasped for air, my heart pounded , my eyes welled up. I couldn’t believe it. He was here , in casual clothes with his backpack, listening to Ellen. She brought him in.
‘I brought your Duke student, John,’ Ellen said with a friendly chuckle. ‘You two are spitting images, I knew at once who he was. He’s an impressive young man. I’ll give you a few minutes.’ She left and we embraced. My God, it was so good to see him. I was speechless with gratitude for several minutes, just hugging him.
‘I’m taking a leave of absence, Dad,’ Nick said. ‘With your trial and Mom’s drinking I can’t focus on school anyway. I’ve got a job teaching English here and I’m staying with my friend Hisham, from Egypt. Ellen says I can visit you every week.’
‘Wow, that’s great Nick,’ I said thru tears. He was always so organized, such a clear thinker, unlike his confused and pathetic old man. He continued, ‘Mom refuses to pay your lawyers so Granma cashed in some stock. They were trying to overcharge us. We talked them down to $100,000 and they seem satisfied. Duke said take a year off, no problem, and I’ve got a financial aid package when I return. And oil prices have gone nuts, so good chance I’ll be able to find an oil and gas job. They’re throwing good money at some recent grads.’
‘That’s great. I’m sorry my mess has caused you to miss a year. Maybe you can do some work on line, do some reading,’ I suggested.
‘No problem dad. But can you tell me why? Why did you do this? Was it money?’ Nick asked.
This was a question I dreaded, and I had no good answer. ‘Maybe a little. Mostly I just felt trapped, cornered like an animal. Your Mom sez I need a head doctor, she might be right. It was anger, boredom, feeling trapped,’ I said , ashamed of the inadequacy of my explanation.
He thought a minute. ‘Would’ve been a lot easier if you’d gotten a girlfriend and a Porsche, the usual sort of midlife breakdown. I went to see Maj, the lawyer. He said you’re already “condemned”, he used that awful word. Do you have a defense in mind?’
‘I do. We’re not helpless here, and with you I feel even stronger. I need to get some memos from QP’s files, get a couple people to testify. I think we’ll do OK,’ I said, trying to keep up our courage.
Ellen came in with Maha and sat with us, she’d talked to Ghanim. ‘The problem is the tapes in your house. You need to be able to explain those, John. Work on that. How’s your Arabic?’ she said.
‘Progressing. I study it every day,’ I said.
‘Good. Then you might consider making a statement in Arabic to the court, expressing regret, that you didn’t intend to harm the country, etc. Think about it, OK?’ she said, sitting down with us. ‘The Energy Minister has commented about you in the Arabic press,’ she continued , showing me the article. ‘This is signaling by the Minister about how serious this is. You’re not named, but he refers to this business as a near disaster. This guy is the King’s Uncle, the #4 man in the regime. He’s seriously angry.’
Nick was taking notes, Ellen continued: ‘We’ve looked for similar cases. The only other recent spy case was a Jordanian working in Qatar. This guy sent some sensitive info to Jordan via email and was given 25 years. Turns out he was a nephew of the Prime Minister. Jordan’s King Abdulla personally flew to Doha to ask for him after 6 months, he was pardoned. Cases like yours are very unusual. So I sure hope you can account for those tapes,’ Ellen concluded.
‘We’ll sure try,’ I said.
The Trial Begins
I had had 6 months and change of deep solitary, no sound but a dripping faucet and the guard’s boots, deep immersion in my studies, entertained by the sound of my own breathing and heartbeat. I might not have been my own best friend, but we were getting well acquainted. Now I was being moved to the other end of the complex, something resembling normal jail.
A friendly Pakistani guard helped me gather my things one morning from silent sitta and moved me down the corridor, past the exercise room, past the entrance. Then past some offices I’d never seen, left, then right, then down two steps to another wing , there were maybe a dozen rooms. They were the same size and layout as tissa , with nice single beds, private bath with a window, but the entire front was bars. This place was set up for socializing. The world poured in thru these bars, all sorts of yakking and noise, and I could see other prisoners – my God! It was quite a shock. Several of these guys were on trial, others were here for other stuff. Some rooms held 2 people, guys who wanted to be roommates. The rooms to my left and right were occupied by noisy Qatari guys, calling to each other. I could see them only when I left the room for fone or exercise. As I arrived, one reached his hand around the wall separating us with a cookie, I took it. ‘Shukran,’ I said, thanks. A free standing cabinet like a large gym locker was shoved into place in the corridor, just beyond my reach, for my stuff. I hung up my clothes, stashed my xtra books and some treats like cookies Nick had brought. The rooms were all clustered here, not strung out in a rat’s maze like deep solitary. I was still locked up 23 hours a day but it was a party atmosphere at times, guys shouting at each other in Arabic and telling jokes.
I found out this was Qatar’s most luxurious jail, the one preferred by Sheiks and people with wasta, connections. 6 rooms surrounding me were jolly local guys who’d partied a little too hard, hash had been found, they had been jailed. The leader of this rat pack’s dad was a big sheik and had made a call. They’d been shifted from nasty drug jail to here for 30 days. No charges or paperwork, nothing. They were bad boys and this was punishment. A couple had been here before.
A guy across from me spoke good English. I was nervous about talking to people, this was such a shock. People! Other jailbirds! This would take some time to adjust to. My first reaction to all this stimulation was to hide. I escaped into my bathroom, closing the door so nobody could see me, it was quieter. Then it was exercise time, I had to come out. A guard came and opened my door. They stopped yakking and stared at me. ‘Where are you from?’ the guy across asked.
‘The USA,’ I said. I looked at the guard, was he angry? Not at all. Yakking was OK, it was encouraged.
‘Wow, really? You’ve just come from the other side? We heard they had an American over there,’ he said as I laced up my shoes. He translated for the others.
‘Yeah. See you later,’ I said.
I found out later people from deep solitary, when brought to trial, freak out, talk to themselves, stare at the ceiling and can’t engage with a lawyer. In other words, nuts. This yak-yak jail was designed to get you ready for court, or maybe release.
‘So why are you here?’ I asked the guy across when I got back. He was a friendly Jordanian, about 30, not one of the party animals.
He chuckled. ‘This is a little vacation, one of Al Jazeera’s employee benefits,’ he replied . ‘I’m just a simple camera man, I’m not political, but we made somebody angry, some Sheik. I don’t even know who, exactly. I’ve got 2 weeks left, then back to the office, with back pay. In the West I’d be fired, but A.J. gives you a little taste of jail then back to work. You?’
‘Well, it’s a national security case, involves QP. Can’t say much,’ I said.
‘Damn. An American? And you’re a real blue-eyed American too, I can tell, not an Arab-American. You Yanks are our sponsors, you defend the regime! Shocking,’ he said.
‘Well, when you get out check the Arabic paper. The Energy Minister has commented about my case, he’s behind it,’ I said.
‘Al Attiyah? My God, he’s a hard bastard. I’ve been told never cross him,’ the Jordanian said, shaking his head. He switched to Arabic and told the party animals, they were impressed with the trouble I was in. There were low whistles and tut-tut sounds, they used the word Amriki, American. I got another cookie from the guy next door, I said ‘shukran.’
The party animals were an amusing bunch but awfully loud, switching from sitta to here was like emerging from a cave in Nepal into Times Square. We had the same food, the tackle boxes, which I thought was fine. Plus I had juice and cookies brought by Nick. But these guys wanted to strike! Jordanian told me one afternoon. ‘Hey, Amriki , listen. We’re refusing the food. These guys here want KFC, so don’t accept the food, OK? We’re on strike.’
‘KFC?? Are you serious? What if we end up with nothing?’ I asked, shocked.
‘It’s all arranged . Refuse the food, OK?’ ‘OK,’ I said.
We refused the food and there was a shouting match, the jail manager came. He stood there like a maître’d with a pen and note pad while the young Sheiks shouted their order. In half hour, there it was! I could smell it. The cookie man passed me a couple pieces plus fries, we had Cokes, it was more sensory overload! Delicious. I guess all the tackle box food was tossed. In the morning the party animals were told they were going out, maybe keeping them was too much hassle. It was really quiet after they left, no more KFC or pizza. A couple of “real” prisoners like me came in, plus the Al Jazeera guy stayed.
Meanwhile I was going to court, I was nervous. I tried to calm myself, telling myself court is the way out of here, the way home. I would finally see the charges, meet my lawyer, see what I was up against. Nick was in town and could visit me each week, he might be there. I dressed and went in the shiny new GMC Black Maria to town.
I arrived, court was busy. I went and sat in the court room with a couple of policemen. I was approached by a pudgy Qatari man in his forties. ‘My name is Nasser, I am your lawyer,’ he said slowly , in poor English. I looked at him, couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘Let’s go sit,’ he said.
‘What? Who?’ I asked, still rather dazed.
‘I am your lawyer, Nasser’, he said slowly, presenting his card. ‘I work for Mr. Majdelany. Do you understand me? I’m your lawyer.’
It finally got thru to me this was my lawyer. ‘You’re my lawyer?’ I asked, like an idiot.
‘Yes’, he chuckled, taking out a pen and paper. ‘Today you will plead. Now tell me, did you give anything to the Iranians?’
‘No, nothing,’ I replied.
‘Did you give anything to the police, when they catch you?’ he asked.
‘No, nothing at all.’
‘Good. OK- not guilty. Plead not guilty, understand?’ he said.
The 3 judges came in, and Ghanim the prosecutor. The head judge, flanked by two others, was the youngest, a Qatari, maybe 40s, all business. Another judge wore a turban, he was probably Sudanese. The third judge wore a suit and looked Egyptian. Ghanim was on their far right at the same level, up on the big L-shaped dais in the front. I noticed the 3 judges and Ghanim, all representing the State, were elevated a couple feet. Nasser, my brave advocate, was on my right (the judge’s left), at a sort of flimsy card table set up at floor level. I sat on the left side of the courtroom in the first row of audience seats with a translator, Waleed. There was room for maybe a hundred people but there were only a few policemen. There was no jury of course.
Ghanim stood up and read the charges, it was a full page, in Arabic. They paused while Waleed took the sheet and quietly went thru it in English. The worst charge carried a maximum penalty of death, that was an attention grabber. It was something like “gathering secret information for a foreign gov’t with intention of harming Qatar’s National Security and Economy, by unauthorized access to government computers.” For this information gathering, you could be shot by firing squad, regardless of whether or not anything was actually given to anyone, or any harm was done. I was stunned by this draconian charge. And it was more or less what I’d confessed to. “Information gathering” sounds like journalism; guess that explains why the tiny “Hermit Kingdom” of Qatar has no real journalists or independent newspapers. Information gathering could include strolling along the port taking fotos of your girlfriend, or hiking in the desert. I wondered if there had ever been a prosecution based on this North Korea style law.
Finally Nasser the lawyer gave me my cue, my speaking part in this State-sponsored drama, and I said ‘Not Guilty’, which was translated by Waleed and noted by the judge. That was it. ‘We will come see you,’ Nasser said as I left. Nick wasn’t there and no media, this was going to be a secret trial. Nasser got a copy of the charges, the list of prosecution witnesses (over 20) and asked for bail – denied, as usual. It was over, back to jail.
A couple days later I saw Nick , my sweet doppelganger! The guards knew who he was visiting, he’s a somewhat handsomer version of yours truly. He brought vitamins, sweets, textbooks from Duke, the Le Monde newspaper, the Economist, several bags of goodies – a feast for body and mind! He’d taken two semesters of Arabic at Duke and brought his text books, plus the new Baumol Econ text used all over the Ivy League, and a big modern astronomy text loaded with pics from the Hubble Space Telescope, plus…. Well, you get the idea. It was a lot.
I hugged him while the useless, ignorant guards looked over this precious loot. We sat down together. ‘Instead of you following in my footsteps, now I can follow in yours, Nick,’ I said. ‘You’ve brought me some wonderful goodies. No time to chat with you, sweetie, gotta go study! Bye!’ I joked, pretending to get up and leave.
He chuckled. ‘I bet you’ll have fun, dad. Here’s one more thing,’ he said, looking around, making sure the guards were occupied. He passed me a small MP3 player powered by AAA batteries. ‘I put a bunch of stuff on it, plus you can record stuff. Enjoy.’ I tucked it into my “smuggling shorts,” a pair of swim trunks with a sewn-in jock strap, perfect for contraband. This jail didn’t do thorough body searches or use scanning, so smuggling was easy. I passed him a couple of small folded notes about my case, he could type them and e-mail them home. Nick had met Nasser and been by his office for a chat , they struggled along in an English/ Arabic mix.
He had more news. ‘One more thing. Ellen from the embassy is going, her replacement is Tim Ponce, a very nice guy. He’ll be watching your case. He said they have a lawyer and can send him to watch your trial,’ Nick said.
‘Hey, that’s great. I’ll watch for him,’ I said. Moments later I hugged him bye and like a miser counting gold went to my room to examine my new books, and try my MP3. For a guy raised on Dancing Queen and We are the Champions, the music Nick had chosen was a bit of a surprise , but I listened, hidden in my private bath, out of sight of the others. There was REM and the Cranberries, some NPR and BBC podcasts, plus some strange Indy bands I’d never heard of. I ordered a shay haleeb , listened to the Cranberries, and began my long infatuation with economics.
And astronomy, my God, how this field has changed since I’d studied it in the 70’s! Back then we knew the earth was 4.5 billion years old from dating of ancient rocks and meteorites. But the Universe appeared to be much younger, 1 or 2 billion years old!! This strange paradox occupied everybody, we discussed it in seminar. And black holes – were they real? Now in 2005 we know the universe is 13.5 billion years old, thank goodness, and giant super-massive black holes form the heart of galaxies, with nearby stars and gas clouds whizzing around them. This was great! Go ahead, you useless bastards, convict me if you want. I’ll eat your damn food and study this wonderful stuff!
Astronomy, Econ, Arabic, Shakespeare , plus exercise. I couldn’t grow tomatoes or play tennis like my hero Nelson Mandela but I could study, listen to music and work out. I had treats also. I’d grab a shay and an Oreo and read about galaxies, about game theory and the Nash Equilibrium, about Keynes and John Von Neumann. My dad had read Maynard Keynes and anytime I would use an expression like “the long run” he would laugh and quote Keynes. ‘In the long run, Keynes said, we are all dead!!’ he would say with a chuckle. I was also reading Shakespeare, focusing on the history plays, guys like Richard III. I was recapitulating my grad school days.
One morning I was digging for sox in my cabinet outside my room and the guard was distracted. I dug in a box and found several pens and a notepad, absolutely forbidden items! I hid these under my mattress and thought about doing some writing. A bit later I tucked myself away in my bathroom out of sight of everyone and opened the small spiral notebook. Nance had left messages for me in her lovely handwriting!
This was a surprise. On one page she’d written: ‘Hey Sweetie- there’s a book in this, you know…. Write it! I’ll be your editor.’ My eyes filled with tears, I searched the other pages. A little further on she’d written: ‘Hi Sweetie- hope (not really) that you’ve reached his page and know we still love you!’ Finally near the end there was: ‘Love you! Keep your chin up!’ I tucked the precious notebook under my mattress and stared at the ceiling, thinking of her, wondering about the struggle she was going through.
Nasser and Majdelany came by, the gaunt old lawyer and his Cousin Vinny sidekick. Ghanim and his boys were under pressure now, things started to happen. Maj was tall, old and stooped, around 80. He was an old fashioned Lebanese with courtly manners, brought up in the French education system.
‘I can’t come to your trial but I can plan strategy,’ Maj said, in his slow deliberate way. ‘Nasser will do your trial work. Turns out the prosecutor can’t read most of those tapes from your house,’ he said.
Nasser laughed and gave me a wink. ‘That’s right. Even with QP helping, they can’t read them,’ Nasser said.
‘Good! They’re all dirty movies, maybe,’ I said with a smile.
‘Maybe so,’ Maj said. ‘They’re still trying, but they’re out of time, they must proceed with what they have or drop the case. The labels on the tapes don’t appear to make much sense. Did you do something to the tapes, some sort of code?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘But it’s not like reading a CD. You need a certain tape drive, you need to know UNIX, and most of their trained people have quit.’
‘Tell me how you got access to the North Field data. That’s what the case is about,’ Maj said. I repeated the story: ‘I needed some data for the Canadian company Talisman, had a memo prepared and went to “Dave” in NF and he said take it, I just quit. The password was on a post-it above the screen so I used it, got the data for Talisman plus some other stuff my group EX might use.’
‘And where is Dave?’ Maj said.
‘Perth, Australia,’ and I wrote Dave’s real name and employer. He took it and left.
Back to court a few weeks later, the 1st session. Nasser was in a good mood- the U.S. Embassy had sent a lawyer! He was there with Maha, the Embassy translator, plus Nasser, Ghanim and a few others. The lawyer was the Embassy legal attaché; he Introduced himself and asked me how I’d been caught, and if I’d given anything to Iran. I gave him a thumbnail sketch, whispering, while the court staff filed in.
‘So you guys plan to come to the trial?’ I asked eagerly.
‘Yes, we’ll be coming to the first few sessions, see how it goes, ’ he said. Nasser was thrilled to see them: this case was becoming political and he needed political support. The judges came in and sat. The head judge scanned the crowd. ‘Who are you people?’ he asked the lawyer and Maha in Arabic.
Brave Maha stood up. ‘Your honor, I have a letter here from the Attorney General of Qatar saying we can attend,’ she said holding up the paper.
‘This trial concerns National Security secrets, you people leave. Get out!’ the judge shouted. ‘Out, out!’
Maha tried again but the legal attaché had her by the sleeve and was literally pulling her out of the courtroom! ‘Please your honor, take a look at this letter,’ Maha said to the angry judge as they vanished from the room. She was so brave! I admired her greatly. So much for the Superpower’s representative and political support. Poor Nasser looked glum but prepared to proceed, shuffling papers on his flimsy little card table while the judges glared down at him from above, and to their right Ghanim smirked. If they were planning to try me fairly, why throw these people out?
There was more, justice lovers. Nasser asked politely if the court would please bring the tapes, the only physical evidence in the case , to the courtroom. The judge said he’d consider it. Nasser wanted to stand there, pick up each tape, and say ‘Can you read it? What’s on it?’ And Ghanim was opposed, of course. Nasser had heard only 4 out of 12 could be read, a disaster for the prosecution. The rest had inscrutable UNIX directory locations written on the labels, like Landmark/ NF2/ NFD3/ MISC, not very informative. As I’d written each tape I had labeled them with the place on the disc the data had come from, just as you would with any backup tapes. The labels made no reference to Iran. And neither of my PCs contained any such references or other info.
Instead, Ghanim produced a report on the tapes, in English, prepared by his “experts”. These gurus had listed each tape and simply written “secret information” next to the ones they couldn’t read! How did they know? And if they couldn’t read them, how could the Iranians read the damn things? In the US the case would simply be thrown out at this point since the only physical evidence is useless. But this case was being pushed from above, it had legs. Tapes aren’t like CDs or a thumb drive , they’re tricky to use. There are a dozen brands and formats, all incompatible, and a Brand X tape usually can only be read on a Brand X machine. Plus you need an expert who knows UNIX commands like TAR and HexDump. Nasser repeated his request to see the tapes and sat down.
The first witness was the fat friendly State Security cop, Boss, who interrogated me. He described my arrest.
‘We had a source inside the Iranian embassy,’ he began . ‘He told us about a strange letter that arrived and provided us with it, so we contacted the accused….’
I sat upright, shocked. Say what? Source in the embassy? This was pure bullshit! Boss had told me on the drive to my house, the Iranians had called them! They were lying to the judge, and Nasser just sat there, listening! I shifted in my seat, unable to breathe. Ghanim knew perfectly well this was a lie. During my interrogation he had acknowledged Iran had made the first contact, we had discussed it. Yet he just sat there, smiling, listening. Obviously Ghanim didn’t like the idea of the Iranians calling the cops , it weakened the prosecutor’s case. So he must’ve coached the cops, told them cook up this business of a “source”. No way these idiots have some “source” in Iran’s embassy, the idea’s absurd. If there is such a source, he should be there in the court! It’s a secret trial after all, his identity would be protected. A key part of my defense was the simple fact that Iran had rejected my proposal. But this would never be stated in court.
Except for this big lie the police testimony was reasonably accurate. I sat there, looking over at Nasser, wondering if he would object, but he just shuffled his papers and listened. I whispered to my translator Waleed, ‘Is it OK if I speak?’ ‘No, that’s your lawyer’s job, ’ he whispered back.
So this was great. The key physical evidence was being hidden , the damn cops were lying and my lawyer just sat there! And my country’s representatives? Booted out, by a tyrannical judge from a country smaller than the State of Vermont! And this was only day one. As we broke up Nasser approached me in his judicial robes.
‘You gave nothing to Iran, right? You gave nothing to the police,’ he enumerated on his fat fingers, making sure.
I nodded. ‘And the tapes are useless; most of them can’t even be read,’ I added.
‘Right. We’re doing OK. The judge said something about media coverage. Tell your family to be quiet, it could cause us a problem.’
‘OK,’ I agreed.
‘This is a minor case, don’t worry,’ he said, patting me on the shoulder, his phone ringing.
The new embassy guy, Tim, came by the next day, a nice young guy in his 30s.
‘I’ve met Nick, he’s great. You must be very proud of him,’ Tim said as we sat, sipping tea in a conference room in the secret police headquarters.
‘Did you see the newspaper article placed by the Energy Minister?’ I asked. He had a copy, and I finally got to see an English translation. One of the Arabic Sate papers featured a photo of Minister Al Atiyyah, the Energy Minister and the King’s Uncle, giving an “interview.” In Arab media this means he summoned Indian reporters, read a statement, and dismissed them like tea boys. He said secret police sleuths had caught a very dangerous spy, working for an unnamed country, who had caused a “near disaster”. The embassy had faxed it to my family in Arkansas with a translation and commented this was a bad sign, the case was becoming more political. Al Atiyyah was the #4 man in the regime, he had the power to influence any judge.
‘Yeah, too bad,’ Tim said. ‘I’m afraid your case has gotten political. The Energy Minister’s article is a signal of his interest in the case. And the charge, my God. Death penalty. We’ve reached out to them and they’ve taken that off the table. Your lawyer Maj has been coming by giving us updates. There might be media interest in this, do you want us to make any comments?’ Tim asked.
‘No, not at this point. Nasser warned me, no media, don’t make the judge any angrier. They might throw Nick out of the country. He’s on a one month tourist visa, they could decide not to renew it,’ I said. He nodded.
‘OK, we’ll keep the option open. Media attention might help you but it’s risky. See you next month,’ Tim said.
Back at the jail I had a new neighbor , a friendly young Palestinian named Hamid . The guards called him Hamid Filistini. He was my first jail friend, a QP IT guy with excellent English. He agreed to teach me Arabic and we became friends.
‘So, what’s your case about?’ I asked him. The guards brought us shay.
‘I’m not accused of anything. I’ve been held over a year as a witness to a crime, ’ he replied sadly. ‘My wife and kids are really suffering,’ he said showing me a couple of family pictures. Hamid told me the following strange story.
Hamid was involved in a notorious suicide bombing case. In Spring 2005, six months before my arrest, an Egyptian IT engineer, also a QP guy, tried to destroy an English primary school with an explosive-laden Land Cruiser. The school, in the Doha Suburbs, was surrounded by a concrete wall and he attacked at night during a staging of a Shakespeare play. He crashed the vehicle into the wall and it exploded, killing a poor Brit who had stepped outside for a smoke. The Egyptian was killed . This blast had resonated across the city, we had heard it even though we lived a couple miles away. Within weeks, International schools and embassies all had concrete barriers and cameras around them, security checkpoints were everywhere.
The morning after the blast my friends the secret police descended on QP’s IT building and arrested everyone they could find who had ever said hello to the Egyptian bomber. Dozens of people were taken for interrogation and sorted according to nationality: Brits and Europeans in one room, Indians in another, Arabs in a third, plus a few Qataris. Interrogations began. In a day or two the Westerners and Qataris were released – they couldn’t possibly be involved! Over the next few weeks some Indians and others were released, going back to their jobs. But poor Hamid was in the Arab group , and was still in jail a year after the event, along with a few others. Clearly whoever had helped the Egyptian was gone, perhaps long before the incident. Poor Hamid had no info to offer them; his crime was having the bomber’s name in his phone and having worked with him on an IT project. He had been held for a year without charge and they could continue to hold him for another. He had no powerful embassy to speak for him , of course. Hamid Filistini was a good friend and an inspiration to me. I gave him a thumbnail description of my case, he had seen the Minister’s article.
‘So you gave nothing to anyone?’ he asked while we stood at the bars. I could see only his hands, he was in the room on my left .
‘Did you have a helper, someone the prosecution can use against you?’ he asked.
‘No, nobody.’ He thought a minute.
“Sounds like a hard case for them. You didn’t conspire with anybody?’ he asked. Again, no.
He laughed . ‘Is it a crime to have data in your underwear drawer?’
‘Not sure. If so, it’s a minor one, careless handing of confidential data or something,’ I said. Nasser had said something similar at the previous hearing.
I had many discussions with Hamid and he described to me some of the Guantanamo style interrogation sessions he had been through. He had been forced to stand for hours, no sleep; they had threatened his wife with all sorts of terrible abuse. He had been through a much worse experience than me, yet he remained optimistic, supported by his strong Islamic faith.
Meanwhile back at court I needed Atticus Finch in the worst way but all I had was my Arab version of Cousin Vinny. It got worse! Turns out the defense has no power of subpoena in Qatar! There was no discovery process. No voir dire. Ghanim could send his cops anywhere and cart off documents, if he chose share some with the defense. But the defense could not. To get the Talisman memo authorizing me to visit NF’s data area, Nasser suggested have a secretary at QP steal it from the files and fax it! That was his form of subpoena.
‘Have your son visit the secretary,’ he whispered, during a break in the proceedings . What, and get him charged too? Probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway, it looked like the verdict was arranged. I never tried to do this. Nick had tried to contact a couple of QP colleagues to see if they would testify for me but they were absolutely terrified, refusing to take his calls. A memo had circulated around QP warning everyone to avoid any contact with me.
Meanwhile, wily old Maj worked up an alternative legal theory. Ignoring intent, which is un-provable anyway, what was the crime? Letters and emails aren’t criminal. Reduced to its essence, the crime was my having tapes at home, under my control, but unauthorized. A law covers this, called Administrative Fault , like when a clerk takes home his company’s financial books or leaves them in a taxicab. This involves maybe 6 months of jail; it’s basically being careless. So Maj submitted a brief saying our client is guilty of Administrative Fault, but his other intentions weren’t clear. Our client never told anyone about his plan, he didn’t conspire with or tell anyone, the brief said. There is nobody who can testify to his state of mind. Reduced to its essence, he had confidential materials in the wrong place, but under his control. And he gave them to no one.
I thought this was pretty clever. Without a witness who says he told me about this plan, tried to recruit me, asked me to steal information ,offered me money , intent is almost impossible to prove, even in a kangaroo court. People don’t stand in front of the firing squad for simple intent, but for crime, and Administrative Fault was about the extent of it. If the court agreed I’d be found guilty of this and be deported; I’d already served the 6 months. It might give them a face-saving way to get rid of me.
The Trial Continues
The next few court sessions Ghanim trotted out one useless witness after another who droned on about the PC versus UNIX operating system and security procedures. Nobody mentioned the NF practice of Post-it notes on the screen with the password. It was boring and useless; these guys didn’t know me, and knew nothing about the case. The judge was getting bored, and a little annoyed at this endless string of witnesses. They lacked a witness that could provide dramatic testimony about meeting me in a dark alley to discuss the plan. And to their credit they didn’t bribe somebody to come in and say this.
Then a guy I did know, Chris from the North Field, came in. This colorful, friendly old Brit , he was around 60 with decades of UK experience, came in, swore on the Koran and gave me a little wink. Ghanim asked him ‘What do you know about this business?’
‘What business? I’m afraid I don’t know anything, it’s all a big secret,’ Chris said with a chuckle.
Ghanim looked annoyed. ‘It concerns confidential QP data found in the accused’s house. That’s what the case is about,’ he said.
Chris rubbed his chin. ‘Hmm, well, if he’s got confidential data in his house he should be dismissed,’ Chris said. I chuckled at this. Dismissed sounds better than the firing squad – bully for old Chris! Please dismiss me!
Ghanim frowned, he didn’t appreciate the bantering tone. ‘Well, what if he’s in contact with a foreign government?’ he asked.
‘Hmm, that sounds like politics to me,’ Chris said. ‘Not my department; I’m an engineer, I deal with data. I never dabble in politics.’ Several people in the court chuckled at this. Ghanim sat down, fed up with this uncooperative weakness.
Now it was Nasser’s turn. I had written some questions to ask these technical guys.
‘What sort of software do you use in your work?’ he asked Chris.
‘We use UNIX, that’s the operation system. We use various other packages, Landmark for example, ’ Chris said.
‘Landmark?’ Nasser asked. This was important.
‘Yes. John’s group EX was mostly Landmark, that’s American software.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Chris,’ Nasser said.
We took a short break and a new translator came in, an Indian fellow who knew Nasser. I had seen him moving around the corridor helping people, he was a nice guy. He sat next to me and muttered: ‘I’ve heard the judge talking about your case, you’re going to be convicted.’ Nasser came and sat with us and listened.
I was astonished, what could I say to that? ‘But don’t worry, your case is going to appeal. The appeal court will reduce it, maybe release you. So don’t worry OK?’ the guy said, patting my knee.
‘Is that true?’ I asked Nasser. He shrugged, noncommittal. Then the court resumed.
The next witness was Saad, the young North Field manager and sworn enemy of my boss Ismael. Ghanim asked him about the tapes that contained North Field data.
‘Was the accused authorized to have the info in these tapes?’ Ghanim asked.
‘No. Absolutely not. He stole this information from us,’ Saad said.
‘Repeat that please?’ Ghanim said, the court tensing up, going silent.
‘He stole that from us,’ Saad repeated. This was evidently Ghanim’s key witness. This was what he’d been brought in to say, and the little scribe wrote it into the record.
Then the key question of harm to Qatar came up, one of the what if questions. ‘Mr. Saad, what harm would there be if this data had been given to outsiders?’ Ghanim asked, the court silent.
Saad thought a minute. ‘Well, if it had been given to Shell or Conoco, companies we’re in negotiations with, it would’ve given them an advantage. That would’ve been very bad,’ he said. Ghanim frowned and shuffled his papers. This obviously wasn’t the answer he wanted.
Ghanim continued. ‘But this case is about Iran. What if they had gotten hold of this data? What harmful effects would occur? How could they harm Qatar?’ This was a key component of the prosecution’s case.
Saad paused, rubbed his chin, searching for an answer. ‘Well, we have no joint ventures, no business with Iran. Once every quarter a committee on operations and safety meets, I’m on it and there are some Iranians. We discuss drilling and other activity along the border. It might give them an advantage in those discussions,’ he said. Some committee no one had heard of? That’s it? That’s the harm? What about canceled projects, the country’s bond rating, the downfall of the government? Their “skyfall” doomsday scenario involves some obscure committee on operations? This case is about to collapse, I thought. Ghanim didn’t seem very happy but Saad was an honest guy, he didn’t make up nonsense about the sky falling if Iran somehow obtained the data. Nasser seemed pleased but had no questions.
Ghanim saved the best for last, Energy Minister Al Attiyah himself came to the courtroom! ‘Shows they don’t have much of a case,’ Maj had commented over the phone. ‘But he’s the Emir’s uncle, the #4 man in the govt. Shows how serious they are.’ During a break I was gazing sadly out the window at the city I used to know so well when a jeep pulled up, four guys with machine guns got out. The big guy had arrived.
The Minister was smiling and rotund, 60ish, with armed bodyguards he left outside in the hallway, an entourage of a half a dozen suits. He came in and shook my hand, Nasser’s, and swore on the Koran. Everyone else had spoken standing up but the Minister was given a chair.
Ghanim asked: ‘From your position why is this a serious matter, Mr. Minister?’
He spoke softly in Arabic. ‘It’s serious because companies coming here, bringing their technology, have to be convinced we will keep it confidential. In fact I sign myself an agreement to keep data secure. A leak of this sort undermines my credibility, the credibility of the country,’ he said calmly. He was well prepared.
‘But isn’t it true data of this sort is often exchanged between countries?’ Ghanim asked.
‘Of course it is, but that’s in places like the North Sea, between the UK and Norway. Between Qatar and Iran it’s very difficult. Maybe in 100 years we could have full exchange of data,’ he replied. The Minister made a persuasive case, I had to admit he had a point. But was this the “near disaster” the Minister had mentioned in his newspaper propaganda piece? Sounds more like embarrassment than disaster. Nasser asked him a couple of easy questions, nothing of substance. The session ended.
As we left Nasser handed me an email from Juju, I tucked it into my underwear (I was becoming a pretty good smuggler). Back in my room I hid in my bathroom as usual and read it. It was devastating, even worse than the last one: ‘Has Nick told you about Nance’s condition?… She’s drunk every day and the kids are missing school. She’s spending money like crazy. I’m trying to get her into rehab but she’s angry at all of us, can’t stand to be in the same room anymore… Her brother Tom came down from Ohio to talk to her but I found out he’s a drunk too!! Nobody else from her family will help us. Is there any way you can contact her, call her, anything? I’m not sure if she’ll talk to you but I’m out of ideas. There was a huge fight over your legal bills, Mom stepped in and sold some bonds to pay Maj. Mom sends her love, says she’s fine and can’t wait to see you.’ Imagine how I paced the floor. Nance drunk, the kids skipping school; my family was all I had left and I was losing it.
Nick came and we sat together on the couch and I asked him straight up if he’d been hiding things from me. ‘It’s a bad situation, Dad. I didn’t want to burden you any further during your trial. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I should go home and deal with Mom, or come here and help you. I figured I could be more help here, maybe help get you home and you can help Mom. Don’t take Juju’s note too literally, I think it was written in the heat of battle,’ he said, a young man trying calm me down , dealing with two impossible situations. And he was missing school too! My God, I’d destroyed everything with my stupidity. My private bath was a good place for shedding tears and I shed a few on that occasion. I was sad and miserable but I also felt very proud of Nick, my young soldier.
Well, dear reader, there’s no more hopeless feeling than to sit in jail and watch your family fall apart. I was never very successful professionally but I was proud of my family, it was one thing I could point to as an unambiguous success. Now it was collapsing and I realized we would probably never live together again. Even if by some miracle I were released I’m not sure Nance would have anything to do with me, she might tell me to go to hell.
That week Nick got on the phone to Tom and Meg, tried to find out what was going on. He was firm with his siblings, told them get up and go to school. On the MP3 player I recorded some messages for them. Nick and I met again and discussed it. ‘Tom’s running the streets with some hoodlums, he’s gotten into minor trouble. I think I’ll look into taking him back with me to North Carolina, Dad. He can go to high school in Durham. I might have to fight Mom for custody. What do you think?’ he asked. We sat together on the couch sipping a shay .
‘Wow, drastic move. You think it’s necessary?’ I asked.
‘I’m looking into it. Meg is about to graduate, she’s nearly on her own. But Tom has 4 more years of high school and I can’t just leave him with Mom. Durham has a good science magnet school, might be just the place for him,’ Nick said.
I smiled. ‘So you want to raise a teenager? You’re brave.’
He wasn’t joking around. ‘I don’t think I have a choice, Dad. I’m doing triage at this point, trying to save as much of the family as I can. Aunt Juju will let me use her lawyer and I’ll let you know what we find out,’ my brave Nick said. He updated me on the Arkansas situation. Nance had good weeks where she was high functioning, just like back in Doha. She’d bought a house and started to fix it up, doing a lot of the work herself. But then a bad week or two would hit. Tom and Meg had become afraid to drive anywhere with her. At one point they even considered calling the police and getting her arrested for DUI, maybe a judge would force her into rehab. ‘I’m worried about her driving, Dad,’ Nick told me. ‘I’m afraid Tom or Meg might get hurt.’
These were terrible problems but I could escape them in my books and that’s where I took refuge. I had secret pens and paper and started to fill pages and pages with economics. Oil prices were sky high (it was summer 2006) but there was no inflation, why? China was growing at geometric rates, what did that mean? Interest rates were at rock bottom and house prices were zooming up. How could people afford these mortgages when gas was almost $4?? I read Economist magazine and learned about Credit Default Swaps, CDS, the little insurance policies that mortgage bond holders were buying to reduce risk. And mortgage backed securities, what was this about? It was a great time to study econ because the whole damn world was about to slide into the ditch!
Meanwhile I learned the Arabic alphabet and my teacher Hamid Filistini worked and worked with me, he was so patient. I was able to understand more and more what was going on. With Nick’s Arabic textbook from Duke and Hamid Filistini I made fast progress. The day finally came when we had our 1st actual conversation in Arabic! I’d done it; the guards gathered around and listened to us, impressed.
So I tried out my fresh Arabic on other prisoners, first a Qatari; I couldn’t understand a damn thing the guy said. Help me, Hamid!
‘Yeah, that’s Gulf street Arabic, not standard Arabic. It’s about half Hindi and Urdu words since these guys are raised by nannies from India. That guy’s illiterate, he doesn’t speak proper Arabic,’ Hamid said.
‘But he can quote the Koran, I’ve heard him recite,’ I said.
‘But that’s just memorizing. He knows some Koran plus street Arabic, that’s typical of these local guys,’ he said.
So I tried a Moroccan, and later an Egyptian; they just looked confused at my jabber. What was going on? ‘Different dialect, John. I have trouble understanding them too,’ teacher Hamid chuckled.
‘So is there anyone I can talk to besides you?’ I asked, smiling.
He laughed. ‘In Palestine, Jordan and Syria we speak standard Arabic, all but Bedouin people. But Egyptians, Iraq, the Gulf, all have their own dialect. Keep studying your book, that’s the standard variety,’ he said. This was discouraging, to say the least. Nick had annotated the book with dozens and dozens of nouns, and this was another problem. In Arabic all plural nouns are irregular, like man and men. They had to be memorized, ugh. Plus poor old Nasser turned white and got the palsy every time I mentioned addressing the court in Arabic! So a few weeks later when Hamid left I gave it up for French.
‘I’m writing a play, Nick, about Hamid Filistini. Here are the first new pages,’ I said, passing him some papers in my underwear that week. The guards had stopped watching us during meetings. It was a terrible play but Nick typed it and emailed it home, everybody asked for more. ‘Next week I’ll bring you some short stories, I’ve got several,’ I said.
‘Great, Dad! Have fun. Granma will really enjoy seeing it.’ Each visit Nick would smuggle in some blank paper and smuggle out stories. Several ended up in my first book White River Days, after many revisions of course. I needed a pen and I noticed one carelessly left on an officer’s desk. Breezing past the desk day one day with a towel over my shoulder I grabbed it and tucked it into the towel. I had become a prison writer.
My friend Tim with the embassy brought me pencils. This was comical since he couldn’t actually “bring” me pencils. We would sit and confer alone and he’d casually put two sharpened #2s on the table next to our tea. Without a word I’d break off the sharpened ends, 3 inches or so, tuck them in my underwear and Tim would put the remainder in his coat pocket. Thanks, Tim! One day I asked him if he could snap my picture with his phone, sort of a proof of life for the family. He took out his pathetic little phone, a Nokia.
‘I’d be happy to John but the government doesn’t provide us that kind of phone,’ he admitted. I had to laugh. ‘So we’re spending a billion dollars a week bombing Iraq, but we can’t buy a U.S. diplomat a phone that any Qatari teenager has?’ It was ridiculous.
I wrote and wrote using my stolen materials, in my bathroom, hidden from view, hiding the materials here and there. I discovered I could crank out a decent 1st draft of a short story in 2 days, so each week I had a couple for Nick. Soon he had several hundred pages. One day I bundled together some books I was finished with into a stack tied with string, hoping the guards wouldn’t open it. Hamid saw me on the way to the visit with this bundle, he knew there were dozens of pages of writing in the bundle.
Summer of 2006 came, time for the hard-working court to take a 3 month vacation. We had our final session in early June and Nasser stood up and asked for bail. The judge frowned at me, as usual, and asked how long I’d been locked up. ‘Since August, your Honor,’ Nasser said. I held my breath. Was it possible I might have just a bit of freedom? Several Scout families had emailed Nance and told her they’d be happy to take me in. It was only until my conviction, which seemed increasingly likely.
‘No bail,’ said the judge. ‘Next session September 16.’
This was very unusual, more evidence of the political nature of my case. The Minister evidently didn’t want to see me strolling down the Corniche, enjoying the sunshine. Back to jail we went.
Nick stayed with me that summer, he had a good job teaching English, paying around $30 per hour tax-free with a language school. It was a great job and the owners knew our situation, they loved Nick and always gave him plenty of work. Other expat friends like the Solheims, the Donahues and the Seays helped us as well. Our “friends” at QP and XON were no longer heard from, sad to say. The Minister’s unique position as spider in the center of the energy web meant nobody connected to oil and gas in Qatar could offer us anything. He was like the mafia boss in a small town in Sicily, with spies everywhere, collecting reports on anyone who might help the traitor. I suspected only my US nationality was keeping them from taking me out into the desert somewhere and finishing me off.
I wondered if Nick sometimes come across old friends who crossed the street to avoid him. Nothing in the media, a secret trial, the US embassy refusing to comment; we were being silent as well. This information vacuum resonated with more and more outrageous rumors, typical of a totalitarian state. Rumors said I was refusing to cooperate, that I’d been paid millions, had given Iran the crown jewels. In fact I had cooperated fully, had no money, and had given Iran absolutely nothing.
September finally came, time for the defense. But in a case about intent, how do you prove there was no intent? It’s difficult, so we didn’t have much of a defense. The case was like something from the Stalin days, when people were charged with “plotting against Comrade Stalin.” How do your disprove it? In those trials, they would bring witness after witness who would swear the accused told them of his plotting, tried to persuade them to join, etc. About all the defense can do is cry and moan, swear you love Stalin, beg for mercy while they lead you off to gulag.
I suppose it’s a credit to the Qatar justice system that they didn’t invent this sort of witness, they easily could have. A tea boy could have been paid $100 to testify I had approached him with a spy plan, asking him if he could break into the boss’s office and steal some files. I suggested to Nasser three ideas for a defense:
Element # 1 was maybe get Dr. Mamdouh my supervisor to recall the memo from Talisman requesting the North Field well data. He had written approved on it, which gave me permission to access the NF data.
Element # 2 was to show I routinely moved data around on digital tapes, this was normal and expected. If I went home one day with a few of them in my briefcase, so what? It’s no different than carrying home a laptop with company data on it.
Element # 3 was Landmark. A number of the tapes were from the Landmark system and could only be read back in with that software, by a trained expert. But Landmark, owned by the big defense contractor Halliburton, was subject to strict export controls. It could only be installed with a special Pentagon license. Maybe we could get the local Landmark engineer to declare that Iran doesn’t have Landmark software, and probably couldn’t read or make use of these tapes. This implies the tapes were for QP use, not for Iran, and not even relevant to the case.
I explained to Nasser it had taken Qatar several years of negotiations to obtain Landmark, I had seen the correspondence in the files. After the approval came we had purchased workstations from Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley , another restricted product. Only then does the Landmark engineer arrive from Houston with his briefcase of CDs to look the hardware over. First he installs and patches the Unix operating system, that takes a day. Then he installs Oracle, another day. Then the Landmark products are installed, and the license to start them working is sent from Houston. Then after two weeks of training the users, that’s us, are ready to work. This isn’t something you can buy in the software souq in Dubai.
So we called three guys in, Dr. Mamdouh, my work colleague Hussain, and Akeel the Landmark guy for Doha. The good Dr. appeared first and wasn’t inclined to help me, no surprise there. Nasser tried his best to get him to mention these routine data movements between the NF & EX groups , no dice. He refused to remember the Talisman memo, and of course we couldn’t get a copy of it. He had been well coached.
Hussain was better. ‘Yes, I saw John with a bunch of tapes, 20 maybe, the week before he was arrested,’ he said to the court. ‘He showed me how to read and use them, where they were kept,’ this honest Egyptian fellow said. Nasser once again asked the judge to bring the evidence tapes to court, so Hussain could identify some of them. This could be helpful, since it raises the question of why the notorious criminal shows the key evidence to an innocent colleague before the crime. The judge refused, so Hussain stepped down.
Now we needed the Landmark guy. Unfortunately he had ignored the court summons, but we were prepared. Clever Nick had been to his office and gotten his mobile number, so Nasser called him during a break.
‘Yes, this is the lawyer Almana Nasser. You have been summoned to court, my friend,’ he said. There was a brief discussion, the guy was in his car and didn’t want to come. People have well justified fears of Qatari justice. Maybe he knew about the Minister’s involvement in the case.
Nasser frowned. ‘Well, look. You can either come to court or I will send a policeman to bring you. So come, OK?’ Nasser said, giving me a nod.
15 minutes later skinny little Akeel, the 20 something Pakistani Landmark guy, came. He was nervous, not sure what the heck this was about, but had good English. Nick had been to Landmark’s website (www.lgc.com) and had printed out a big full-page disclaimer: “We sell nothing to Iran or other countries under U.S. embargo.” Nasser had this, plus a translation. Once again the evidence tapes would’ve been helpful, but no dice. Akeel looked at the disclaimer. ‘Yes this is from our website. US law says we can’t do business with Iran, Sudan, several other countries.’
‘But can’t they get Landmark software other places? The souq in Dubai is huge, has all kinds of software,’ Nasser asked. This was his turn to be a little bit theatrical, the court was enjoying it.
Akeel was firm on this. ‘No, that’s impossible. They need a license from Houston, permission from the Pentagon , plus an engineer like me must travel to the location and spend several days installing it. There are no unauthorized installations, ’ Akeel said.
‘So could a country like Iran read these tapes marked Landmark, tapes written from your system?’ Nasser asked.
Akeel thought a minute. ‘It would be very difficult. There might be some 3rd party software they could buy. I would have to examine the tapes to know for sure.’ Of course that wasn’t going to happen. That was it, he stood down.
Had we muddied the waters on intent? Seems to me we had. Only a few of the tapes found in my sock drawer appeared to belong to NF. Others were written in Landmark proprietary format, presenting the Iranians with a massive and unnecessary de-coding task. Finally, most of them couldn’t be read at all by Ghanim’s experts at QP, their contents were unknown. And none of them were present in the court room – the only physical evidence in the case was being deliberately withheld to assist the prosecution. Even a weak, timid lawyer like Nasser could have a field day with such dubious evidence.
But he wasn’t exactly celebrating. After the final witness he sat at his little desk and called me over. ‘We need some sort of technical expert who can support what you say. We’ve looked for one. But in this country everyone’s afraid of the Minister, everything is connected to QP. What we have just isn’t enough,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I don’t think it will be enough.’
I briefed Nick at our last meeting, I was cautiously optimistic. Tim had told me I was likely to do 50% of my sentence and then be deported, that might be just a year or two. That last meeting I recall so clearly. It was late October, rainy, and Nick had the smell of rain on his hair and shoulders as I hugged him. He was wearing a blue Duke sweatshirt, and I was so proud of him. We both shed tears.
‘Dad, you remember my Canadian buddy Kevin Donahue, at Qatar Foundation? He’ll bring you things from time to time,’ he said. ‘He can’t visit you since he’s not a family member, but he can leave you stuff.’ I couldn’t write anymore but he had several hundred pages of stories to take home for typing. We’d had a good run. If I ended up at the Central Prison I could send letters home, maybe write a book or two and send it out.
We hugged for the last time. ‘I’ll see you next summer,’ he said.
I struggled to dry my tears. ‘That will be great. Don’t worry about me, sweetie; you’ve left me so much to study, I’ll be fine. That astronomy book is incredible, I could spend a year just on that. And I love the new econ book, thanks. I’ll be such a savant when you see me again!’
‘Sounds good Dad,’ he chuckled. I had one more thing to say: ‘Work hard at Duke, OK? And, Nick, if you want to take Tom with you to Durham, go ahead. It’s OK with me,’ I replied thru tears. Our once admired family had hit bottom, but there was still a lot of strength and determination. Nance might be a hopeless case, but we had to make sure Meg and Tom survived and got on the right path.
He nodded. ‘I think I’ll have to. I’m on my way back to Arkansas to meet with the lawyer. We’ve got to save whoever we can save,’ he said. One final hug, one more smell of him, and I watched him go with a heavy heart.
I was sad afterward so the jail boss moved a young Sheik next door to me, a Qatari English speaker. I gave him some welcome cookies when he arrived, passing them around the wall between us. He said thanks. We chatted, he was US educated. He had a yellow Porsche parked outside the jail that the guards were washing every few days.
‘Central Jail isn’t too bad,’ the Sheik said. ‘I’ve got some cousins there. They have a library, computers. I think mail service for letters. Also you can get calls from home, international calls are allowed. Some people even have mobile phones. Wives can visit.’
It looked increasingly likely I’d do prison time; Tim said ‘brace yourself’ for a guilty verdict. Central wouldn’t be bad if I could write and send stuff home for typing, and make phone calls. I was determined to take whatever came with as much dignity as possible. ‘I’m an American, damn it,’ I said as I ran outside in the winter rain. ‘I’ll show them how an American does time’.
I got a little extra TV time since I was the most senior man at the State Security jail, their version of Mandela. I watched the news from Iraq, it was awful bloody mayhem, reported by hot women like Katie Couric and Lara Logan. It was happening just a few hundred miles north of me, the Qatari regime stroking Uncle Sam by providing use of their big air base , no questions asked. Guys like Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were frequent visitors to Doha , staying at the new Ritz Carlton and shaking hands with Sheik Hamid, the Emir. The superpower was making war, and the Qataris were helping them, although one suspected they were helping the other side too.
It was a good time to be reading Shakespeare’s Henry clay’s, the words on the page replicating the whole full mayhem in Iraq.
The big day came, Judgment Day, just like the Terminator movies. We came in, the courtroom was crowded with guys getting their judgment. The judges came in, the same 3; Ghanim sent his assistant and Nasser was there at his little card table. He represented several people in the room but my case was the big one. We were called first and approached the bench. Waleed the translator stood to my left. Nasser stood on my right. I held my breath, trying to be calm, show some dignity, and stop my legs from shaking. My mind wandered. For some reason I thought about British writer Arthur Koestler, during the Spanish Civil War, when he was jailed for spying at the death house in Seville. The firing squad in back worked every day and each morning two guards and a priest would come and drag a prisoner out of the cells, the men crying and begging for mercy. Then one morning Kessler heard them outside his cell, they were muttering, jangling the keys. Then they passed by, he was not to be shot. London had intervened for him.
The head judge read from a paper in Arabic, Waleed translated. There were no preliminaries, just the case number. ‘Your sentence is life in prison, followed by deportation, ’ Waleed said. I just stood there, stunned; I felt Nasser’s hand grip my shoulder. Finally I cleared my throat and said, ‘Could you repeat please?’ The judge repeated it. That’s all the judge said, no reasoning, no explanation, just the sentence. Nasser guided me out of the silent courtroom. We walked out into the corridor where I sat down, shaking. Tim had said brace yourself so I was braced, there would be no Arab-style crying or tantrums, no passing out, no threatening the judge with jihad. I sat there struggling to calm myself. I won’t give them the satisfaction of seeing me break down or beg for mercy.
‘Tomorrow we file the appeal, don’t worry,’ Nasser said, leaving me to go handle another case. In a few minutes I was led out to the prison van, we were off.
Back in my room they were silent and respectful, they brought me tea; the Sheik next door already knew what had happened. ‘Looks like you’ll be visiting my cousins. They’re in block 1 at Central, Salem and Abdulla. They’ll help you,’ he said. He passed me a thing like a Twinkie.
‘Thanks old friend, I appreciate it,’ I said, taking a bite.
‘That Energy Minister is bad news,’ he added. ‘QP isn’t a company, it’s a State within a State. They have their own laws. But try for a Royal pardon, get your embassy to submit it. Might work,’ he said.
‘So, how long is life? And will they really try to deport me when I’m dead?’ I asked the Sheik. He seemed to know a lot about the system, and there was no one else to ask.
‘Life is 25 years but foreigners do less, often a lot less. Some go out in just a year or two. So hang in there, dude, you can do it. Don’t cut your wrists, OK?’ the Sheik said. ‘Not all Qataris are like this Minister.’
I didn’t kill myself, obviously, and strangely enough I slept fairly well. They made no move to send me to Central, and the next day I saw Tim. My family had gotten the awful news by fax from Maj, they wanted Tim to check on me.
‘Well, you made the front page,’ Tim said sadly, showing me the state-controlled English paper. American Condemned for Espionage, the headline said. ‘The regime selects certain cases for press coverage, as a warning to people. Clearly they’re using your case for this.’ I scanned the article as he sat next to me.
…..Downs narrowly escaped death, according to sources. Two judges voted for death, one for life. Old lawyer Maj was quoted: This was illegal entrapment and we will appeal. Nothing was given to any foreign government by our client. The reporter asked for a comment from Ghanem who said: In a National Security case, intent is enough for conviction.
Tim continued, ‘We’ve talked to them about the sentence. They said it’s likely you’ll do half the final sentence, so if the appeal court reduces it, you’ll do half of that. Plus there’s the pardon process when the appeal is done. So hang in there,’ he said. It really helped, I felt less hopeless. Maybe I’d see home again. If the appeal court reduced it to 10 years , for example, and I did half , it was survivable.
‘We’re getting calls from the media about this, Americans here in the country are calling, worried,’ Tim said. ‘People are frankly shocked an American could get this sort of sentence. I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few left the country or decided not to take jobs here.’
‘Any chance I could be sent home for prison, maybe a federal prison near home?’ I asked Tim.
‘Were looking into it. It’s very difficult, a prisoner transfer treaty takes years to negotiate, President Bush would have to sign it. And for just one prisoner it’s unlikely,’ Tim replied. ‘Conditions are good out at Central . I’ll be coming by every few months. Sounds like Nick can come next summer.’ Tim handed me a couple emails from home. They were upset and angry but still determined, and my Mom hadn’t had a heart attack. We are more determined than ever to get you home, she wrote. Sweet Nick wrote from Duke: Be strong, Dad. I’ll be there next summer. We love you. There was nothing from Nance.
Spring 2007 came and still I didn’t move, I stayed put. The appeal began, Nasser doing the early hearings so no court, no visitors, just read, study, exercise. I stayed in the same room next to the Sheik, got xtra exercise and TV time which was nice. My MP3 had been found, I had no writing materials but I was enjoying French poetry, reading about the mysteries of dark matter/ dark energy, and my economics of course.
The lawyers came by one morning. Nasser didn’t say much but Maj was philosophical, told me to be optimistic. They brought me a package of books from home and some emails . ‘You did only half a crime , Mr. John. I think the appeal court will be more reasonable,’ Maj said. They had some paperwork for me to sign, essentially saying yes, I wanted to appeal.
‘By the way, Ghanim from the prosecutor’s office called, he said he was sorry about how things turned out,’ Nasser told me, Maj nodding. ‘He said tell Mr. John this sentence was not his recommendation.’
By this point the U.S. economy was teetering on the edge and I was a freshly minted economist ready to study it! I had an advanced calculus-based Econ text so I could apply my math skills. I studied the Great Depression. My mom was just a young girl then, the second eldest of nine kids, growing up in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Hoover’s early responses to it were fascinating. Herbert Hoover was an engineer, he understood equations, but the 1930 collapse couldn’t be dealt with that way. Maynard Keynes finally provided a new set of equations and policies. That’s why econ is so cool: the quantitative aspects are in perpetual conflict with human greed and fear. Physics never had this irrational human element, atoms don’t think or plan or react in fear.
Using Tim’s pencil stubs I decorated my tile bathroom walls with the 19th century Classical Economic Model, it was a thing of beauty. Einstein’s 1913 general relativity theory , more beauty. And my favorite: Darwin’s great insight that came to him tramping over the Galapagos Islands. I was alone but not really alone; I was surrounded by great ideas, my substitute for religion. There could be quite a lot of joy in the life of the lonely scholar. And so the months passed.
Central Jail, The Iranian Block
May 2007 came, warm weather. May is mango season, the delicious Alfonso mangoes from South India arrive in the Gulf. The Sheik next door handed me a slice of one, heavenly. That same day the kindly jail boss came and said you’re moving to Central.
‘It’s better for you, Mr. John,’ he said, the Sheik translating for him. ‘You can call home, write as much as you want. So pack up, you’re leaving. So long.’ We shook hands, he had always treated my fairly. The boss brought me a bundle of papers , some of my stories they had confiscated. I shook hands with Sheik and a couple others and we left State Security jail.
Oil money was pouring into Qatar in a great tidal wave and Doha was a giant construction site, we took detour after detour in the prison van. Way out in the desert we bumped along a tiny desert track, some shortcut only the cops knew about. Nick was back in the country on summer break and he could visit me out here. He had his teaching job and was in touch with Tim, who would also be coming out.
I saw the prison looming ahead out in the desert, a complex of high metal fences with squat buildings hidden behind. So this was prison, the real deal. It didn’t look much like San Quentin or Shawshank Redemption, but its purpose was the same. In a police state like Qatar everything is surrounded by high fences and barbed wire , schools, universities, prisons; they all look the same. We passed thru two high chain link fences and a gate, and parked in front of the 2-story Admin building. I wondered if poor Nick could even find the damn place. The major freeway near the prison was all torn up, being enlarged from 4 lane to 8 with US-style overpasses, a vast project. They were using oil money to replace all the country’s infrastructure .
We got out in the blinding sunshine and walked to the visitors entrance. In all directions around the desolate desert prison I heard rock drills going, excavating, and dump trucks moving earth. A man with a cart came out, I had several suit cases, stuff dropped off by Nance. It looked like all my worldly possessions, rather appropriate for someone in my situation. He loaded my stuff onto the cart and followed us, the wheels squeaking. The cops escorted me inside to a shabby cramped office, got their paperwork stamped and left; there were no handshakes, no goodbyes, nothing. They put my wallet, watch etc. into a safe, taking out some cash that they put in my jail account. ‘Every week you can withdraw cash for use inside,’ the man said. Another man came to get me, the Property Man, Mr. Gorba, a short little Arab guy with a squeaky voice and zero English. I noticed none of the people working here were prisoners. I followed Gorba (I nicknamed him Gorbachev) to the storage room where my stuff was stowed. I was given a blue uniform , a foam mattress and blanket. I noticed the mattress had pictures of Hillary Duff, the cute Disney starlet, how nice. ‘Can I have 2 or 3 books?’ I asked in Arabic. I carefully used the word kuttub , books, rather than kittab, book.
He smiled. ‘You speak Arabic? Very good! Yes, a couple,’ Gorba said. I grabbed Shakespeare, cosmology and Tom Stoppard, some pens, paper, toiletries, vitamins , a few other items. Gorbachev looked thru them, said OK, and we walked out of storage, back into the hot May sun. We entered the security station where I was patted down, then back out and thru a big gate. Each block was a stand-alone 2 story building and we walked to #7, sabba in Arabic. Gorba pushed the buzzer outside and we waited; somebody inside was jangling keys, looking at as through a peephole. We went in, me struggling with my bag of goods and mattress.
Going inside, the noise on the place hit me; it was crowded, dirty, prisoners were everywhere, many of them bearded. It looked like a family reunion of the Taliban. I sat in a small office on a broken wooden bench, everything was dirty, a mess, and it was bedlam. Prisoners of all sorts, Arab and Iranian- looking guys, came by to gawk at me. I didn’t see a single other Westerner, nobody with blue eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more isolated. One big guy with a bushy beard barged right in.
‘Hi, I’m Salman from Iran. For years I prayed to Allah to send me an American to practice English with! Al’hamdulillah, you are here!’ he said in rough but decent English. I guessed he was a lifer too.
‘Glad to hear it. Lucky me!’ I said, stealing the line from Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. Salman stood there looking at me, not sure what to say. ‘I like your beard,’ I said and he smiled. I guess he’d run out of English, so he left. The place seemed to be almost all Iranians of all shapes and sizes running around jabbering in Farsi, getting a look at the American. They were dressed in all sorts of outfits, nobody was in the blue uniform I wore. Evidently that was just for outside. What a madhouse they had put me in. Some sort of joke, perhaps. Likes Iran, does he? OK, he can have a little taste of Persian culture!
‘Can I call my son, tell him I’m here?’ I asked the guard on duty.
They said OK so I rang Nick. ‘Hey sweetie, I’m at Central. Really awful place, noisy, dirty, my God,’ I said, unable to continue. He could probably hear the shouting. Despite my control I found myself weeping. It was a shameful thing, painful to recall. Fortunately the guard was nice enough to kick the Iranians out of the office and close the door.
‘Dad, don’t worry. I’ll be out in 2 days, we’ll visit. I’ll call Tim and tell him to arrange it,’ he said. His voice calmed me; I regained control, dried my tears. ‘It’s OK , Nick. I can handle it. Can’t wait to see you, bye.’
The boss of the block was a friendly, bearded Qatari named Yasser, around my age with a good sense of humor. His English was good and he welcomed me. ‘I told these guys an American is coming, get ready to study English! These guys are mostly drug traffickers , but they’re OK; businessmen , you know. They’ve had some bad luck but they’re not looking for trouble. We’re glad you finally made it,’ Yasser said with a smile.
Salman and another guy Ali carried my stuff upstairs to a small 2-man cell. These weren’t rooms like the old place but proper prison cells, the real thing. A Qatari guy had this one; he was off somewhere, so I lay down my mattress and arranged my things. Sleeping was on the floor here, the room would just barely fit 3 of the 3 by 6 foot Hillary Duff mattresses. It had two windows with heavy steel inside shutters, the door heavy and sound proof. The light switch was outside. With the light off, shutters and door closed, it was pitch black and quiet.
Bathroom was down the hall, featuring filthy Turkish squat-pots in awful condition, it looked like a $2 hotel in Pakistan. Showers were semi- private stalls, old and rundown, the water hot from a roof top tank. This was quite a contrast to having my own private bathroom. Using the squat-pot took some getting used to, there was no toilet paper and the small hose you used to spray yourself was missing. These guys wiped themselves with the left hand after doing a crap, then washed the hand at the sink. This is what I did too. This would be home for the next few months.
Salman left and I sat alone , closed the door and calmed myself, soaking up a bit of quietness. ‘Well, Hillary,’ I said to my mattress. ‘It’s just you and me, kid. This is one hell of a situation.’ Outside I heard guys in the courtyard so I looked out the window. I put on trainers, grabbed my hat and went back down. Everyone wanted to meet the new celebrity, there were lots of salaams, friendly handshakes and pats on the back.
I saw Yasser . ‘They say you like to write. Mail goes out on Tuesday and here’s some stamps and envelopes for you. I’ll check how many stamps you need for the USA. And here’s the jail’s address, so people can write to you. You can use phone once a week for ½ hour,’ he said as we walked down stairs. I thanked him and went outside.
The courtyard was open for hours, it was great, no more 30 minutes for exercise bullshit! I walked a bit and joined several guys running laps. Hey, this wasn’t half bad! ‘Go, Amriki!’ they shouted as I ran by. Seven had its own large private courtyard about the size of a basketball court, surrounded by masonry walls with razor wire on top. It was open 3 hours in the morning, 3 hours more around sundown. You could run a 10 K here if you didn’t mind going around in circles, or get the world’s best suntan. I wasn’t locked in a room anymore; guys were milling around everywhere, smoking and yakking, a few were drying clothes on home-made clotheslines.
Meals were served downstairs in the shabby, dirty kitchen; most people ate in the adjacent mess where the TV was or in their rooms. I was asleep when supper came, a nice Iranian fellow delivered a plate to my door, knocking gently. There was plenty of salad, a piece of chicken and rice, a piece of fruit. It wouldn’t be bread and water. The Qatari owner of the room, Yahyeh, showed up. He was a balding, 40-something drug trafficker with crooked teeth and not much English. Not my favorite person but he seemed OK , willing to share with me. The best thing about him was he was gone a lot. He spent every day in a prison workshop doing carpentry, so that left me alone in the room to write.
Embassy Tim came out, we sat at desks in a dirty little classroom. ‘I hear you’re with a bunch of Iranians,’ Tim said, concerned. We met in an old classroom seated at children’s desks. A pretty undignified was to treat the superpower, but the Iraq war disaster was teaching Uncle Sam a hard lesson.
‘Are you kidding? They’re my bros! I teach English to several guys including a guy called Muscles Ali. Nobody messes with Muscles,’ I said with a smile.
‘Good. Everything OK?’ he asked.
‘It’s fine. We’re watching the Abu Gharaib prison scandals, all those pics of female soldiers baring their tits, torturing the poor Iraqis. It sounds pretty nice. We’re gonna apply to transfer up there. Lyndee England has lots of fans at Central,’ I said with a smile.
Tim chuckled. ‘Been to court lately?’ he asked.
I described it to him. Appeal court was 3 judges again but more senior, the head judge an Egyptian with glasses, he had a good reputation. The first time I went, Nasser simply submitted some papers, shook my hand, that was it.
The second session was strange. The judges adjourned to a small conference room with me and Nasser, and the box of tapes was brought in! But instead of the dozen or so from my sock drawer, these were several dozen.
Nasser spoke firmly for a change . ‘The Prosecutor has contaminated the case, your honor. This case is about the tapes in the accused’s house. Now the police have mixed them up with dozens of others obtained in later searches of QP offices.’ It looks like Ghanim, struggling with a weak case, had been scooping up stuff at random from my office. This was a serious issue, seemed to me. The judges discussed it; I just stood there in my blue prison uniform until they were finished. Then we went out. Maha from the embassy was in the hallway, Nasser updated her. He seemed pretty chipper.
I told Tim about the place, about my writing, the opportunity to exercise. He was upbeat. ‘I hear good things about your case, your appeal is going well. But you guys might consider going to the media. If the appeal court doesn’t give you any reduction, you guys should use the media, make some noise. We’ve already had inquiries from media organizations outside the country,’ he said speaking softly.
‘We’ve been debating that, Tim. Nick’s nervous about it of course. I think we’ll build a web site and start posting information. My sister wants to go protesting in front of the Qatari Embassy in Washington. Is that what you had in mind?’ I asked, half serious.
Tim chuckled. ‘No comment about that. Anyway, from what I hear I don’t think they intend to keep you here long term. Glad you’re coping OK, I’ll be coming out every couple of months to check in with you.’ I thanked him and he left.
Change came thick and fast, I was in a daze much of the time. Yasser called me down a couple mornings later. ‘You have a visitor. Normally no visits for the first 30 days, but somebody pulled strings for you. Put on your blue uniform, the police will come in a minute,’ he said. A policeman came with a visit paper, I was handcuffed and taken to the visit area.
It was my precious Nick! We had to chat thru a Plexiglas window like on TV.
‘I’m so sorry about that phone call Nick, I was in shock with this new place,’ I said.
‘No problem Dad. I can’t believe these guys have transferred you here. So it’s not too bad?’ he asked. I couldn’t hug him but he looked great.
‘Believe it or not I think it will be fine, no joking. I can walk like 6 hours a day here, you need to get me some sunscreen. Letters go out every week, the jail censor is probably gonna get cross-eyed. I finished and sent out a story about Pakistan, and I might start a novel. I’m determined to write like hell while I’m here.’
He smiled. ‘Dad, that’s great! I can’t wait to see it. No more smuggling stuff out?’
‘That’s right, no more docs in socks. Tell Granma to start checking her mailbox. Plus, I can receive mail here. Here’s the address,’ I said, holding up a paper to the screen. He memorized it.
‘Got a surprise for you. Margaret’s coming in tomorrow, Tim’s setting up a visit for her,’ Nick said. A huge smile crept across my tired unshaven face. That was wonderful news. Our time was up, we said goodbye.
Tim used his wasta (influence) and the following week I met with Nick and, Gods be praised, my precious Meg for an hour in a small private meeting room!! How we hugged! There were tears and laughter in abundance, I was so grateful to see them and so proud. Meg was a fresh High School grad, working at Nick’s school in Doha teaching English to little Korean kids.
Nick was leaving. ‘I’ll be going next week Dad to deal with Mom, but Meg can stay,’ he said as we sat.
Meg was excited, holding my hand, face flushed and wearing her high school graduation T shirt, jeans and a blonde ponytail. ‘I can stay until Fall, Dad!’ she said, sitting with me, all grown up. She had lost her high school weight and looked beautiful. ‘The guard at the front gate called me Britney Spears! I’m staying with Kevin’s family, they’re going on vacation so I’ll be house sitting. They have a whole bunch of cats, so that’s great. They even have an old car for me to drive!’
It was wonderful news. It had been two years since I’d last hugged her, such a long time . It was hard to find words to say, I just wanted to sit and look at her. ‘I’ve got to thank you for something, Meg. You know that e-mail you sent me back in September of 2005? It kept me going, it got me thru some dark days. They took it from me in an inspection but I remember it . No matter how long this takes or what you’ve done, we love you and will wait for you.’ Tears came to both of us.
The wonderful Donahue family was hosting Meg, treating her like another daughter. ‘They love my brownies. Can I bring you some here, Dad?’ she asked. ‘You better!’ I said, with mock indignation. Meg had inherited a lot of her mom’s cooking talent. I gave her a shopping list: tea kettle, coffee mug, shortwave radio, sox, headphones.
‘So, what’s this place like?’ Meg asked.
‘Well, we’re free to run around and the courtyard is open several hours a day. The room doors are never locked. My roommate is gone most mornings so I can sit and write,’ I said. The guards brought us some tea, one of them said ‘Hello, Britney.’ We chuckled. ‘Plus I can send and receive letters. There’s a small kitchen where we can cook or heat water for coffee. There’s a library of some sort, I might apply to go later. Right now I’m too busy writing. And the guys are friendly. I was in shock when I phoned you Nick, I’m sorry,’ I said, trying to reassure them.
‘No problemo, Dad. What are you writing?’ Nick asked.
‘It’s about shade tree mechanics. A series of stories about three brothers that work on cars outdoors, it’s funny. Hope you guys get to see it. I’m mailing them to Granma. Maybe she can find me a typist,’ I said. Years later this would morph into Ackal Motors Inc. my 2nd book. The buzzer sounded, the visit was over. One or two final hugs and kisses, and they left.
The Iranians in 7 were drug cases, mostly guys who man the speed boats and wooden dhows bringing bales of hashish across the Gulf from Iran to the northern beaches of Qatar. Some cargoes were hundreds of kilos and the standard sentence was 25 years, no parole or pardon, handed down by a special rubber-stamp drug court. A few had been caught at the airport with a kilo or two in luggage, or heroin from Pakistan in the stomach. The Qatari accomplices, the guys who met the drug boats on the beach, got 10 years maximum. Yasser was in this group.
I found out the long-timers’ blocks at Central, Blocks 5, 6 & 7, were set up with small rooms or cells, 2 men in each; some people had the same cellmate for 10 years. Central was medium security : wear street clothes in the block, cell doors are never locked, a prisoner like Yasser in charge of each block. There was only one sleepy guard locked inside 7 with us at nite, unless there was a riot or escape attempt he mostly napped. Yasser handled everything; he was our Mushriff, the boss.
Food was good and there was plenty of it . There was no pork (Muslims) and no beef (Hindus), so meals rotated between chicken, fish and mutton. Piles of Arabic flat bread and rice were the starches and there was always salad, yogurt and fruit. Qatar was one of the richest nations on earth per capita in 2008, as rich as Norway or Luxembourg, so fresh food was abundant. There were no pesky “voters” or “taxpayers” to complain about the prison budget. Central Jail was about 700 men, a few dozen women, the guards well paid and difficult to bribe, the budget a secret like everything else in the country.
As Yasser had said, drug guys were businessmen who’d run into some bad luck, not murderers or robbers. Hash was a family enterprise and incarcerated family members got financial support and occasional visits. The courts reminded these guys they were lucky – if their boat had landed in Saudi they would’ve been executed. Qatar was too tiny and vulnerable to ever execute an Iranian, so they locked them up. ‘Wait unit Iran gets the bomb, we’ll all go out,’ “Muscles” Ali told me as he laced up his football shoes. ‘Take me with you,’ I responded. Muscles was a good friend and he passed the word I was not to be messed with. I began sitting every morning with Ali and Salman, teaching them English.
Central had a large wild cat population, fed at the back door of the main kitchen or digging scraps out of garbage bags. Sometimes we let cats into the block. I adopted two young cats, the Iranians called them George Bush and Condi Rice. Condi was black. They were pretty wild but I kept trying to tame them a little, I’ve always been a cat lover. Once some Vietnamese saw me with Condi and admired her nice tender flanks, told me how delicious she’d be. I told them you better not make soup from my little black friend. Sometimes late at nite my door would open a crack and somebody would push Condi inside. I tried to get her to cuddle with me but no way, she was too wild.
Several guys in 7 had small Nokia mobiles but I was afraid of being caught using one. Buying a smuggled SIM card was expensive, then you had to pay rent on the phone. The damn things seem to be available only when it was 2 AM in the US, that was also a problem They offered me a phone a couple of times and I was tempted to try to call Nance, but I chickened out, afraid of another tongue lashing. Would she even be sober when she picked up, I wondered. The owners were also nervous about letting a “famous spy” make calls on their fone, the secret police might be listening. Mobiles were kept in various places and charged at nite on home-made chargers. I was allowed brief weekly calls on the official phone downstairs, normally I called Juju and sometimes my Mom. I found out Nance wasn’t on speaking terms with them, she thought they were conspiring with Nick to take Tom away. So I never called my wife, unfortunately. I figured I would be home in a year or so , much better to sort things out in person. This turned out to be a huge mistake.
Block 7 was 2-story, the downstairs was zinzaana or solitary. A row of a dozen or so zinzaana cells faced the courtyard so we could peek into the rooms at exercise time and chat with the poor guys inside . Mostly they were doing a week of Z for fighting or having a mobile fone or SIM card. Each man was in a small cell with a smelly Turkish toilet, no way to wash, sleeping on the hard floor.
Sometimes celebrity prisoners were guests in the zinzaana, people they wanted to keep isolated. Before I got to 7 there was a notorious assassination in Doha, of a Chechen general. Chechnya is a small area in South Russia trying to break away. This General was hiding from Vladimir Putin in Doha with his son, special guests of Sheik Hamad. One day they came out of a mosque , got in their Land Cruiser and boom, it blew up. Two Russians were tracked down a few hours later, having a vodka while waiting for a flight from Dubai to Moscow. They were grabbed and sent back here for a quickie trial, life in prison each. They were put in Block 7 zinzaana , that’s where my Iranian friends came across them . Each week the Russian embassy car came out to see them.
Meanwhile behind the scenes Putin was putting extreme pressure on poor old Sh. Hamad. At one point he arrested an entire Qatari football team visiting Russia. He reportedly made threats of nuclear destruction against this tiny state. A prisoner exchange treaty was hastily slapped together and after a few months out the killers came, smiling, the embassy car taking them to the airport. Their crime got press coverage, and the harsh verdict, but not their release 6 months later. You will never see Russians at the Central jail as a result.
That reminds me of another block 7 weirdo: “Colonel Khadafy” . He was a good English speaker, a rare bird in 7. Colonel Khadafy was 50ish, short and misshapen, a black Qatari, with good English and a long Army career. ‘I’ve been all over the states, Ft. Dix, Ft. Hood, White Sands, you name it,’ he told me one day, introducing himself. I began walking every day with the little misshapen Colonel, he was amusing .
The Colonel had a glass eye, scars on his face, and a deep dent in his forehead about the size of a thumbprint. It looked like he’s been hit with a pigeon’s egg at supersonic speed. ‘This is from war,’ he would say when I looked at his ravaged face.
This surprised me. ‘From war? I didn’t know Qatar was involved in any wars,’ I remarked. My Iranian friend “ Muscles” Ali told me to stay away from Colonel Khadafy, he’s nuts. But he was about the only English speaker in Block 7, and seemed harmless.
I soon found out more about my friend Khadafy. He had been in his house one day when an explosion shook the place, nearly killing the Colonel . Police came. Turns out he’d been assembling a bomb in his kitchen sink, and the thing went off!! Then it turned out the Colonel was scheduled to meet with Sh. Hamad the following day to get a medal! So as soon as his life was out of danger he was condemned.
One guy I met in Z was memorable, Roberto from Ukraine. This guy was 30ish, slender and Jesus-like in appearance with good English and an effeminate voice. We chatted a bit. I asked why he was in solitary.
‘It’s my hair. They want me to cut it but I refuse,’ he said, showing his lank black shoulder-length hair thru the barred window. The other solitary guys heckled him, calling him girlfriend and lady-boy. ‘Why don’t you cut it?’ I asked.
‘I’m a performer, a singer at a Dubai hotel. It’s my act, my image. You wouldn’t ask Yanni to cut his hair. My case is minor. I was only bringing some gold to a friend here, no big deal,’ Roberto said. There’s a monopoly on gold sales in Qatar owned by a powerful Sheik, a stiff duty applies to other imports. Roberto had been smuggling gold and was caught.
One night I saw him again and he sang for us, Celine Dion’s Titanic theme. He was good! The shouting idiots quieted down and listened as Roberto’s powerful voice echoed thru block 7. I begged for more.
‘Ok, John, just for you. One more,’ he said, ignoring the jeers and catcalls. He began the Ave Maria and my God, it made me tremble, it was so beautiful, resonating thru that awful hopeless place. My eyes filled with tears. I looked up at the night sky and could see both Venus and Mars, one for my daughter, the other for my sons, and sent my love to them. Soon Roberto was finished, and the howls and catcalls of the Arabs continued. What an evil, corrupted society this is that can’t listen to something beautiful like Ave Maria. A few days later he was gone.
I met some tragic cases in Block 7 among the Iranians. Khamees was a nice young guy, he looked a little bit like the footballer Christiano Ronaldo. He had been a 17 year old cabin boy on a drug boat when they were caught , and he got 25 years. When I arrived he was about 30, with another decade to go. Khamees was always cheerful, smiling, a great guy, bringing me library books.
The Qataris had good reasons for keeping these guys, of course. They were clearly guilty. If they were released, many would get right on the next drug boat, it’s the family business. They connect a flood of drugs from war-ravaged Afghanistan with a flood of money in Qatar. Uncle Sam’s war in Afghanistan had destroyed other means of livelihood for farmers, they were all growing drugs. At the same time , drug demand had spiked upward in Qatar as the regime doled out oil money and young guys are left with nothing to do. I sometimes wondered whether a whole generation of chilled out, drug–addled guys are exactly what the Qatari regime wants. A tiny elite goes abroad for study and for the rest, hash.
Some cases involving Muslims are covered by Sharia law, the punishment can be anything from lashes with a cane to execution. We had an example in block seven, an old lame Yemeni man. This guy, a very nice fellow, had killed his cousin in a fight 15 years before. He was tried under Sharia law and given a death sentence (Sharia is tough), with execution date delayed forever. Sharia law says the victim’s eldest son can accept blood money and forgive the murderer, this is normally what happens after a few years. In this case the victim’s son was a baby when the crime occurred; the Yemeni waited in jail patiently for him to grow up. But now he’s all grown up, and the young man refuses!! So the old man sits and waits , no legal process can help him.
Once my new address was posted on the family website letters started to pour in, they were great. I continued to get visits from Meg, and she learned how to smuggle me small folded emails, I could keep track of how Nick and Tom were doing. And my letters started to arrive home , fat envelopes full of my fiction writing! Mom started to check her Arkansas mailbox every day, looking for the envelopes covered with stamps with Sheikh Hamad’s picture. I was on a roll, the ideas coming thick and fast, and spent every morning writing. The jail censor complained to Yasser, it’s too much writing. Yassir thought it was pretty comical. ‘That guy’s really lazy and you’re making him work! Good job, Mr. John.’
Prisoners with money, the Qataris, me, a few others, queued up every Sunday for “Monopoly Money”, the scrip used inside the jail. Nick had left money for me at the front office and I withdrew about $25 every week. A grocery store in town delivered and although prices were high it was great to be able to order olive oil, Cornflakes, milk or fresh Indian mangoes, maybe grapes once in a while. Yasser told me to eat the mangoes in private, poor prisoners couldn’t afford them. These poor guys did laundry, cooked and cleaned, or simply befriended rich guys and lived on tips. Sex was common but carried on in private. Anybody with visitors or going to court was asked to bring in drugs, and many did, this was a good income. I was never strip searched but after my visits with Nick they gave my privates a good thorough massage through the uniform fabric. There were no cavity searches like in U.S. prisons. If they felt anything strange you went behind a partition and dropped your drawers, this happened to me a couple of times and it was embarrassing. But they never found anything.
But for most of these poor devils there were no visitors, no court, no job, nothing much to break the endless routine. A large staff of jail employees did repairs and construction, plumbing, the sorts of things prisoners would do in U.S. jails. A few jailbirds went to workshops or the library, mostly Qataris. The regime saw no reason to give training or education to foreigners, since they would be deported anyway. What was the point?
I couldn’t get permission for library but young Khamees went. Poor boy was an illiterate but Yasser liked him. There was evidently a small English language shelf at the library, he would pick a couple of books at random for me. I was busy writing so I didn’t care much what he brought. The property man Gorbachev could bring books from my personal collection, but they were random too. But I was OK; I was a writer, and cranked out 30 to 40 pages a week of fiction on my shade tree mechanics, adventures in Montana, my time at University, stories based on our foreign travels. The jail censor kept complaining he had nobody to read all this stuff.
Meanwhile my Arkansas home was a battleground over the future of our family, Meg kept me updated. It was disastrous. Nick was determined to win custody of Thomas and get his mom to divide up our IRA accounts between the three kids. My lawyer needed money, the kids each needed some, Nance could have the rest. This provoked a huge fight and Nance became paranoid, threatening to go to her family in Ohio and abandon the Downs clan altogether. Nick had a valuable ally in Juju’s husband, my brother in law John Van Woy. John was a manager with Hitachi and he urged Nance to be reasonable, go to rehab, there’s no conspiracy here. I learned how John had gone to bat for Nick when Duke was foot-dragging on a financial aid package. He burned up the phone with the folks from Durham and Nick was able to continue.
After several painful discussions Nance tried rehab but bounced back out after a few days. ‘I don’t have time for this,’ she said angrily. ‘I’ve got better things to do than sit around with a bunch of drunks and drug addicts while you people conspire to take my son away.’ Nance was alone, surrounded by “enemies”, refusing all help. The situation looked hopeless and I could do nothing.
Finally that August the money was divided up, the kids would get a monthly stipend. The judge made Nick Thomas’ guardian and little Tom prepared to move to Durham for school. Meg was still with me, but she planned to go there too and work in a few months; life with her Mom was impossible. The boys rented an old house on Orient Street in Durham.
Meg brought me several pictures. I had trouble recognizing Tom in the pictures , he was pretty wild in those days, a 10th grade skateboarder and part time DJ with a Mohawk. To celebrate the move, Nick went and got a Mohawk too, he looked outrageous! One picture showed the two boys in Arkansas loading stuff into the back of Nick’s old red Ford Ranger pickup, with their Mohawks, it was comical. I stuck this cute picture on the wall next to my bed, and looked at it every day for inspiration and courage. It had been an awful summer for them, but the “three” were emancipated, with a modest income; their Mom and I would have to work out our own problems. Nance would never speak to my sister or her husband, or me, again. She seemed to hate all of us and could only ease the pain with drink.
That Fall Meg brought me several sweet emails from my precious boys on Orient Street. Nick’s wealthy 20 year old Duke buddies were speechless to see their old pal living on instant noodles in a big drafty house, raising a teenager, and driving a 15 year old pickup truck! They were still acting like juveniles, raising Hell, painting their faces blue and going to basketball games. Nick couldn’t afford to cool the house so they sweated in the warm North Carolina weather. At one point Nance asked if there was room for her at Orient Street, they could try for a fresh start. ‘You go to rehab and we’ll see, Mom,’ Nick had replied. I admired him so! What terrible gut-wrenching conversations those must have been, I could only imagine. Nick was still doing triage, saving whatever could be saved.
Fall came and Meg joined her brothers in the old house on Orient Street. She had no money for university and her high school record was a mess, so she looked for a job. Would she go to university? She had the smarts, that’s for sure. I worried about Meg getting pregnant or marrying some guy, giving up on getting an education. There was an all-black Community College in Durham but the idea of Nick at Duke, a world famous school, and my precious girl at some trade school was hard to take. She deserved better, but how to pay for it? So she worked to support the three of them and considered her options.
Tom started school. The science magnet school in Durham, an old tobacco town, was around 80% black kids, so Tom was in for quite a shock when the school bus came! His elite school in Doha had been international students, mostly wealthy. His small town Arkansas school had been in a segregated County, no black kids. Tom became “whitey”, the token white kid on the bus, as out of place as I was in a prison block full of Iranians! Both of us adapted, and Tom’s school had some fine math and science teachers, they liked Tom. These black kids had never been out of North Carolina so they were fascinated by Tom’s stories of Arabia, of biking in France, of floating down the Nile. They all wanted to see his passport; they had never seen one before, and his had dozens of stamps. They had a good music program too, so Tom could continue with the French horn. We were all learning to adapt to strange new circumstances.
Block 1 , The Politicals
It was around New Year 2008 that I got a surprise, the Captain ordered me to shift, change blocks. A guard came to get me and I packed, it took just a few minutes.
‘Captain wants you in Block 1,’ the guy said. I’d learned by this point it was useless to question or argue with these guys, so I cooperated. I hugged Yasser, Muscles and Salman bye and went out the door with my mattress and other stuff. ‘This is good news. I bet you’re going out soon,’ Yasser said as I left. I’d heard Block 1 was full of “politicals” and since my case was somewhat political, I guess I belonged there. We passed thru screening, then walked from the “no hope” part of the prison to the other side , Blocks 1-4, containing mostly short term guys.
The physical layout of this place was very different. Blocks one and two were companions, both L shaped, the Ls fitting together around a rectangular courtyard about the size of a tennis court. The blocks took turns using the courtyard. When it was our turn to use it, we could chat with the block two guys through their door; it was locked of course. And vice versa.
As I entered block 1 I was confronted with a whole gaggle of nationalities: Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Qataris, Lebanese, Malaysians, etc. It looked like a 3rd world meeting at the UN. This was different! And the politicals were there as advertised, a dozen members of Qatar’s notorious Al Marri clan, in jail for conspiring against Sh. Hamad , the Emir. I met Salem and Salah, two of the Al Marris with good English. These guys went to library every AM so I applied and after a few days was approved, that was good. The Malaysians were of the Chinese ethnic minority, 10 of them in for credit card fraud; we called them Ocean’s 10. Several spoke Mandarin Chinese and I thought, what the hell, I’ve got a decade or so to kill. Why not learn Chinese?
I was put in a room of 6, about the size of a college dorm room, everyone slept on the floor. I put my Hillary Duff special on the floor, in between a Malaysian and a Sri Lankan. They were Hillary fans also, I was glad to see. At nite we lay side by side, mattresses almost touching, our stuff hanging from improvised wall hooks. With the lights out and shutters closed it was pitch black and quiet. These guys often slept until almost lunch time, they were pretty useless. About 11AM the room boss turned on the light and everyone got up, folded their mattress into a sort of seat, putting the folded blankets on top. This created space to move about in the middle of the room. One of the Sri Lankans swept the carpet, another went to make water for tea.
The boss of the room was a Qatari of Pakistani origin, Jassim . I called Jassim “Capitano” since he was ex-Qatar military, in jail for massive fraud. He reminded me of Saddam Hussein: reasonable and even friendly at times, but was easily provoked into furious rages.
Sleeping in Capitano’s room was like the slumber party from Hell. Next to him slept a nice Malaysian, Peter, who would sometimes grind his teeth. Cap kept an extra water bottle handy and would give Peter a loud whack, waking all of us. If you snored too much, Capitano would jump up in a rage and physically throw you out of the room, then toss all your stuff into the corridor. Persons condemned this way had to spend the night in the Mosque, curled up on the carpet. An old Palestinian in the room needed to go pee every two hours, he had a bladder problem. This poor old guy would get up and stumble across the pitch black room carpeted with foam mattresses and sleeping men, apologizing to us.
‘Sorry. Sorry, so sorry,’ the poor old guy would say as he crossed this obstacle course in utter blackness.
Capitano would start shouting: ‘Shayba (old guy), where are you going? Pissing again? You need to move into the hammam (bathroom). Get him out of here! Don’t come back!!’ Capitano would shout at him. Capitano was such a lunatic people avoided the room, and as a result we were never crowded.
You could guess the man’s temperature by what language he spoke. When old Cap spoke English, he wasn’t too angry, you weren’t in mortal danger. If he was really provoked the English flew out of his head and he shouted in bad Arabic, like the above example. If you angered him even further he raged in Urdu, Pakistan’s native language, red faced, arms waving. This was really terrifying. He was shorter than me but strong and stocky, I feared the guy.
Capitano managed to boot out the Palestinian but then we got an even worse case, an old Indian man, he was on dialysis and had terrible sleep apnea. This old guy’s apnea was frightening. He would lie there struggling for breath, it sounded like he was drowning . Obviously very sick, this shrunken little corpse of a guy was parked next to lucky me. When he struggled for breath I would poke him in the ribs and say, ‘Breathe, you idiot.’ Finally he would do a long ragged inhale, rattling noisily like an old clapped-out diesel engine, waking everyone. Somebody finally gave me some ear plugs and I bought an extra pillow from Ocean’s 10. With ear plugs and my head sandwiched between pillows, I managed to cope. Every 6 hours he needed dialysis, and he was in prison? Ridiculous. At midnite the guards would come for him, waking everyone up.
‘You damned Indian shayba, I hope you die! Take this man away,’ Capitano would shout at the police. The cops seemed afraid of him too. The police were poor foreigners from places like Yemen, and they tiptoed around Qatari prisoners like Capitano. A Qatari jailbird might have a cousin somewhere in immigration, and could have them deported.
Everybody my age in this place, early 50s, was diabetic, smoking, overweight, a mess. Block 1 was a living museum of bad health habits. A nurse would come every AM with insulin shots, heart medicine, crazy pills, a whole pharmacy in a bag, and these guys would line up.
These Block 1 guys were a lot richer than my Iranian friends and could afford a cook; they rarely ate the jail food. The jail tried to provide healthy food and it wasn’t bad, the country was rich and somebody was planning the menus. But nobody wanted this healthy stuff , the mess was throwing out kilos of fresh fruit and veg. every day. Apples were tossed by the dozen; nobody had enough sound teeth to eat them except for me and a few others.
The kitchen in Block 1 operated 24 hours, frying up all sorts of fattening crap, it was crowded, the air thick as a refinery. One night I saw a Sri Lankan making double-fried eggs. The reader might want to try it so here’s the recipe. He started with a bunch of hard boiled eggs from the breakfast cart, stolen and hidden away. Heating a pan of high cholesterol oil, he made some kind of breading, bread crumbs and spices. The guy peeled the eggs, rolled them in the breading, then into the oil. After a few minutes voila , a tasty double fried egg about the size of a tennis ball, a big hit of cholesterol. I tried one and didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day.
They also made yummy double-fried fish. We got perfectly good fried fish at lunch sometimes, these little cooks would grab a bunch of it. Once again you need a big vat of oil, and some sort of spicy breading. Take a chunk of fried fish, dunk it in egg batter, into the breading, then into the oil. What started out as an ordinary piece of fried fish ends up as a real heart stopper!! These guys also made refried beans, surprisingly similar to the Mexican recipe.
They would even fry a salad! I noticed about half the lunchtime salad wasn’t being served. Cooks were stealing salad from the lunch cart, hiding it somewhere, then frying it for supper as a side dish! Deep fried salad is actually pretty good. After smoking his midnight hash pipe the Qatari Sheik can chow down on all this goodly stuff, life is good. Of course the nutritionists who design our menus, including healthy stuff like fish and salad , had no idea this monkey business was going on.
I tried to stay clear of the old Capitano but we got into a shouting match one day , he said I didn’t shower enough.
‘You shower every day, Amriki! Every day shower!’ he ordered like he was back in the army. I was getting tired of this.
‘Why don’t you go to Hell?’ I replied in English , closing my Les Miserables and standing up to him. ‘I’ve decided to become a Frenchie, Cap. We only shower once a week.’ This attempt at cleverness baffled and angered him. Red faced Capitano started shouting at me in Arabic, he was furious. Finally he ran off to a neighboring room and brought back a translator, a timid little Indian man. He shouted at the Indian in Urdu.
‘Jassim says please, you shower every day, please, OK, Amriki?’ the Indian told me nervously in accented English.
‘You tell this guy he can go straight to Hell, and he can kiss my ass!’ I shouted . ‘Tell him that. Go to Hell and kiss my ass.’
The Indian was shocked, he stood there speechless for a moment. ‘I can’t tell him that. I’ll tell him you’re sorry,’ he suggested.
‘I’m not sorry! You tell him go to Hell,’ I insisted.
Red faced Capitano snorted like a bull, demanding a translation, the Indian was caught in a bind. Finally the block boss came and sorted things out. It’s probably a lucky thing I didn’t know these insults in Arabic, Capitano might have killed me. I agreed to not be a Frenchie and take more showers. But I still kept reading my Victor Hugo.
Salem and Sala were two Qatari politicals, part of the Al Marri clan, both doing life. They had been inside since 1996, the year before we came to Qatar; they’d done 12 years by the time I showed up. Salem was small, beady-eyed, big nose and scraggly beard, very “Bedouin” looking, with OK English. He latched onto me to improve his English, he said he could get me into the library. He had an Arabic-English translating calculator and sometimes I’d hear him behind me when I spoke to someone, pecking away. I’d use a word like “loser ” and he’d tap me on the shoulder. ‘That’s not a nice word, Mr. John,’ he’d say, reading the Arabic translation.
Sala was a big friendly teddy bear with excellent English. Sala’s dream was to go to Connecticut and sell used cars, like his brothers. ‘Someday we’ll leave this place. I’ll go to Connecticut and work with my brother,’ Sala daydreamed.
‘So, have you visited Connecticut, Sala?’ I asked him.
‘No, never. But I’ve seen pictures, it looks like a wonderful place, so green, snow in the winter. I can’t wait to get to Connecticut,’ the sweet guy said.
These guys were arrested with a group of 100 or so including Royal Family members . You might recall Sh. Hamad deposed his dad, Sh. Kalifa, back in 1995. Old Sheik Khalifa wasn’t happy about this and traveled throughout the Gulf, trying to organize money and help to get his job back, to stage a counter-coup in other words. A bunch of the Al Marri clan plus some foreigners (Saudis) were involved, some meetings took place. Finally the plotters were arrested , there were rumors of some weapons caches. Most were released after a year or two but the dozen or so I came across in Block one were the hardcore types, with life in prison or death sentence. They were classed as political prisoners, and were waiting for a Royal pardon.
These guys had stipends from the King who jailed them, and they ran Block 1. Their sentences were indefinite, until his majesty’s pleasure be known, like people jailed by Henry VIII or Louis XIV of France. I had a mere 25 years. They got special perks: extra visits, money, hospital trips. Their families were huge, sometimes a dozen people would show up to see one guy on visit day, cramming into the visit rooms my kids used. The Red Cross came out to check on them once a year or so. The Red Cross guy told me I was on the “political list” also and should come to these meetings. The discussion was all in Arabic so I declined. When Meg or Nick came, we’d see the Al Marri family visitors running around, toddlers, teenagers, hobbling old folks with sticks. The Al Marris and the ruling Al Thani family had battled for generations, visiting a jail was normal for them. Uncle Sam had clearly sided with the Al Thanis, of course.
All 3 of Sala’s sons were born during this time, conceived during weekly conjugal visits. Meeting these guys was sobering. When Lady Diana had died, they had been here. Ditto on 9/11, and during the Iraq invasion. While we were off seeing Versailles and hiking in Pakistan , they had been suffering out here . I thought about the many times I had driven right by the jail on Salwa Road, with the Scouts, on the way to Oman. They had been here.
‘It’s so sad, you have only one visitor,’ Sala would say, shaving and perfuming himself on visit day. He usually had a dozen or more coming out to see him, a huge gang. Sometimes they would send over cups of Arabic coffee from their noisy visit room to where Meg and I were sitting and quietly chatting.
I asked if they had gotten any media attention. ‘Not in a while,’ Sala said. ‘A couple years ago some foreign papers mentioned us, we were hopeful. But Sheik Hamad found out and he blew up. He told the secret police to round up all the Al Marris that were dual citizens. Our tribe crosses the border so most of us are dual Qatar-Saudi citizens. He wanted us out, expelled across the border, 20,000 people. The deportations started, old people, babies, we were like the Palestinians in 1948. Then your Secretary of State Condi Rice called Sh. Hamad, told him to stop it. Most of them were allowed to return,’ he said. ‘If I have a daughter, I think I will name her Condi.’
‘I sometimes wonder how long I’ll be here,’ I mused.
‘Your situation is different. They can take us out and shoot us, that will never happen to you. Some publicity might help you,’ Sala said.
‘We have a website up and running, but I’ve never seen it,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, John,’ Salem chimed in. ‘Qatar had never jailed an American long term. You’ll be out in a year or two. Not all Qataris are bad people like your Minister.’
Block 1, in addition to the politicals, was full of hot check cases. These aren’t US style “write a bad check at the liquor store” cases, but business related. It works this way. Often businessmen arrive in Doha with nothing but a cardboard suitcase and an idea, from places like Jordan, Egypt or India, typically. Let’s say they want to start a fruit stand, it costs $100,000 to set it up, and they’re broke. There’s no collateral and they have no co-signer. There’s also no working credit system or database to evaluate borrowing risks, and the place is swarming with deadbeats from all over the 3rd World. In the US, the bank would send them packing and call I.C.E. But banks here will loan money to most anyone. When the bank hands over the $100,000, the borrower opens a checking account at the bank. He fills out and signs five $20,000 checks, no date, and these are held by the bank. It’s a bizzare form of collateral. As the fruit stand makes money the borrower brings $20,000 to the bank, and he receives a cheque in return. Finally the full amount is repaid and he owns his fruit stand.
You’ll note the checking account has no money, maybe just a token amount. If the bank gets nervous it can submit a cheque for payment and when it bounces, that generates a criminal case against Mr. Fruit Stand. He’s arrested, 3 years of jail. When this happens the fruit stand closes, the bank submits the other cheques, more cases, more jail. Our businessman can get the cases cancelled, he just needs to cover the cheques. But most cannot, so they languish in jail, it becomes a sort of debtor’s prison.
Often a foreigner and a Qatari do a joint venture. In these ventures, the foreigner is usually broke, and the Qatari is too lazy to do any actual work. Talk about a dream team! For a dry cleaner, say, the startup capital might be $200,000. They meet and the Qatari pushes his $100,000 across the table, but the foreigner is broke! ‘No problem,’ the Qatari says. ‘I’ll put up your half, you give me 5 cheques for $20,000.’ So the Qatari puts up all the money, the foreigner does all the work, and if he’s lucky the business generates enough profit to retire the cheques. But anytime there’s a problem or disagreement the Qatari has his partner by the short hairs – all he must do is submit a cheque and the foreigner is jailed. The jailbird then must negotiate with his Qatari partner some sort of financial settlement, this can take years.
One of the guys I met at Block 1 wanted to fight me! This was a wizened little chain smoker from Lebanon, we called him Hezbollah. People would point me out to him and he’d come limping up, hairy little fists doubled up, croaking ‘Amriki! Ana Hezbollah!’ (American! I’m from Hezbollah!). Of course that’s the Lebanese Shiite militia, well-armed and famous for fighting Israel. People thought this was hilarious, I was constantly confronted by this little guy. I played along , saying, ‘Please Mr. Hezbollah, don’t hurt me. I’m just a poor little Amriki!’ acting afraid and running away. He loved it and in between coughing fits and trips to the clinic he was constantly limping around looking for me, ready to fight.
By Spring 2008 we’d set up weekly Skype calls, the Arkansas folks plus the kids in Durham could patch in. For the first time in 2 years I could chat with my Mom! Nance wouldn’t join us, we were the enemy. It was Skype calling over the 1970s era landline in the jail office, but it was better than nothing. Rich Sheiks had mobile fones tucked away but the block was constantly searched in those days, using a mobile was dangerous. We decided to wait until my court was 100% done before we tried it or contacted the media.
My sister Juju got the idea of tracking down our Dad about this time, Spring 2008 . He’d been gone since the early 80s, was he even alive? She hired a detective and he found him in a South Texas hospital for old vets. She and John drove down there and found him in bed, deaf, half blind, and almost toothless. The staff told her he was sometimes clear headed and sometimes raving. It was our old Dad alright, J. W. Downs the 3rd ; he was 88, his body battered by decades of smoking and drinking, by TB he’d caught in the army, by all the usual slings and arrows.
She came up to his bedside, he was asleep. She touched him and said softly, ‘Dad? It’s your daughter Julie. Julie, remember me? I’m here with my husband John,’ she said into his ear.
His eyes opened, he looked around. ‘Julie? Well I’ll be. It’s Julie….’ he said, drifting off again. He was pretty heavily medicated.
‘Dad. You want to come home with us? Back to Arkansas?’ she said, almost shouting , the only way to communicate with him. He tried to focus, finally managing to sit up a little.
‘Arkansas? Well sure! Let’s go. I’m ready to get out of this damn place,’ he croaked. ‘Food’s no good. They’re always asking me for money. Yeah, let’s get out of here…’ he said, swinging his skinny legs off the edge of the bed and trying to stand. The staff hadn’t seen him up and moving in weeks, they scurried around, amazed. As he gathered his few possessions the accountant came by. There was a small matter of the bill, $20,000 or so; Dad said he would “pay it later”. His old trailer and its nasty contents were abandoned; John and Julie took a few papers, the poor man didn’t have much. They helped him hobble out to the car and began the long drive back north to Arkansas and home.
I got this strange news a few weeks later on a Skype call, Juju was laughing about it. She’s a registered nurse so he was in good hands, and her house is huge, the first floor rented out as a bed and breakfast. ‘We’ve got him upstairs on the third floor, he can just barely make it up and down the stairs. The VA hospital brought out a special bed for him and a nurse comes by. He’s fully covered by the VA, they even pay me a salary!’ Juju laughed. ‘He sends his love but he’s too deaf to speak on the fone. He says I know John Wesley didn’t do anything, those damn Arabs ought to let him go.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ I said, smiling at the thought.
‘Yeah, he’s met Nance and the kids, they are here visiting . Tom was over yesterday with his French Horn and played for him. Dad asked if he knew any Mozart, and Tom played some, he enjoyed it. He likes canned oysters and chocolate pudding, and lately has been making his way downstairs and out on the front porch, he likes to sit in the sun,’ she said.
‘That’s hilarious,’ I said, laughing.
‘We’re operating a bed and breakfast, so it’s a little scary to some people,’ Juju said.
‘So what does he do all day?’
‘Well, you know Dad’s an old LBJ liberal, he likes the Clintons and NPR. We got him a pair of Bose headphones and a radio . He likes to listen to NPR and classical music, while he sits up in bed and eats canned oysters. It’s pretty damn strange; I have to buy them by the case. This is Arkansas, the only oysters we have are the canned variety!’ Juju laughed.
Nick was there too, meeting his granddad for the first time. He spoke up on the Skype call. ‘He’s really old, dad, hard to communicate with. He calls me Christopher for some reason. But it’s cool that he’s here.’
A few weeks later there was more news about Dad , John Van Woy got on the phone. ‘I’m working through some of your Dad’s paperwork. It looks like he made a six figure donation to the liberal group Common Cause a few months back, he must’ve been out of his mind. We’re trying to get him to prepare a will, divide what’s left among the grandkids. Is this OK with you?’ he asked.
‘That sounds great, John. Margaret and Tom need some college money. Thank you for your efforts,’ I replied.
The Appeal court continued, the next session was strange. I still don’t understand what happened. I think Nasser was trying to contradict previous testimony, so he brought old Chris from QP back in, the British engineer who said I should be “dismissed”. We met in the little conference room like before.
‘Now Mr. Chris,’ Nasser said. ‘At QP does each staff member have his own computer and his own password?’
Chris made a face, he hated ambiguity and this question made no sense. Did he mean PC or UNIX computer? What was he fishing for? At any rate Chris said yes, they do.
Nasser was satisfied, he smiled. The judges seemed perturbed about something and whispered to each other. What the hell did it mean? I didn’t say a word, just gave Chris a wink of recognition. He gave me a little smile. We left. I saw Kevin and his sister Patricia Donahue in the courtroom and hugged them, thanked them for coming. Kevin offered to bring me stuff from town, I thanked him. Maha from the embassy was in the corridor, Nasser gave her an update in rapid fire Arabic. He seemed pleased, the case was looking good.
Summer 2008 was eventful! My Dad got worse and worse, time was catching up with the old man. Julie and John persuaded him to divide his remaining money among his 5 grandchildren, so Meg now had a $30,000 start on college. She came to Doha to work and see me and we discussed it.
‘I’m not sure what to do, Dad. What do you think about my going to the University of Arkansas?’ she asked when we met. She was in Doha teaching again, all by herself this time. She had been out of school over a year. The guards were excited to see the lovely Britney Spears again.
‘You’ve read my mind, sweetie. It’s a great idea! That campus is friendly, it’s got everything you need. Juju is close if you have a problem. Plus you can walk in my footsteps; I would be so proud!!’ I said.
She was nervous, still not sure. ‘You know my grades aren’t so hot, Dad; my SATs only so so, around the 80th percentile. I would have to settle for academic probation, no financial aid.’
I took her hand in mine. ‘Listen to me, Meg. I’ve never seen your grades but I know they’re pretty bad, and I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I know you’re embarrassed by your transcript, especially considering Nick was such a star in high school. But there’s a solution! Go down there and enroll , and earn yourself some A’s. After a couple of years you’ll have a new transcript. You can take that piece of shit high school transcript camping one weekend, and burn it in a campfire! No one will ever ask you for it again! Have a little ceremony! Burn the damn thing, and forget it even exists. When you do that for me?’
She laughed. ‘OK Dad. I’ll do that when I get home.’
Nick and Tom planned to remain in Durham another year until Nick graduated, then Tom would have to figure out a new living arrangement.
Not long after that my Dad passed away, Juju gave me the news. We were glad he hadn’t died in that hospital but surrounded by loved ones. Even though they’d been divorced for decades, my Mom took good care of him toward the end. Of course I never got to say goodbye to him.
A few weeks later I was called to the Appeal court for judgment, one of the strangest days in the whole saga. The courtroom was crowded, lots of people were getting judgments. A Qatari father was there with his two sons who were in the dock , he had brought Burger King for them. I noticed a number of blue suits there, also sweet Kevin and Patricia, who had come to support me. ‘Thanks for coming guys,’ I said. We felt optimistic; Tim said he’d heard positive vibrations on the rumor mill.
Finally our case was called, Nasser and I approached. Maybe the guy would finally earn his money, I thought. The head judge, the Egyptian with glasses, presided. Each case judgment was on a long legal-size form with three parts, one for each judge’s signature. The Egyptian looked to his left and right, were was our paper? We held our breath, Nasser had his hand on my shoulder.
‘Ah yes,’ the judge said, bringing out a slick white paper, obviously a fax. A fax? I glanced at Nasser and heard him inhale, he stiffened. ‘I’m sorry,’ Nasser whispered. ‘This has become a political case,’ he said, shaking his head.
The judge opened the fax. ‘No change to sentence,’ he said irritably. Nasser gripped my shoulder hard as I struggled for breath, my knees shaking. That was it.
‘Explanation, please,’ Nasser asked. We were entitled to a 2 or 3 sentence explanation.
The judge waved the fax at Nasser, he was angry about something. ‘Explanation? No explanation. Next case,’ he said. We were led away. This was justice by fax: the decision had come from outside. The judge was just the delivery boy, no wonder he was annoyed. He had played no role at all in the decision!
So that was it. There was another court, the Supreme Court, we could go there. But they reviewed only a tiny percentage of cases. Nasser said we’d try it. I took the bus with the other blue suits back to Central.
Back in the block I told the politicals what had happened, wise Sala wasn’t surprised. ‘My guess is you’re facing 10 years or so, better prepare for that sort of thing. You’ve got powerful enemies. That Minister is no small fish, he’s the number four guy in the Regime,’ he said. Later he showed me an article in the Arabic Paper about my case. ‘Any of these top four guys, the Emir, the Heir Apparent, the Prime Minister, and your Energy Minister can bring a political case against someone, and simply write in the verdict. The stuff in the courtroom is just for show. Probably what happened is he wrote down the verdict he wanted, got the Emir’s signature and faxed it to the court. That’s why your judge was so unhappy.’
Tim stopped by a few days later. ‘We’re not very optimistic about the Supreme Court,’ he admitted. He was coming often, looking after me, but would soon be going back to DC. ‘Might be time for your family to get some media coverage.’
‘We’re working on a website, I haven’t seen it of course. Margaret’s got a nice blog, has quite a few followers. She has a contact at Cosmo magazine, they want to interview her. Even the Dr. Phil TV show has expressed some interest,’ I said. Tim considered. ‘At this point you’ve nothing to lose,’ he said. His mood had changed. ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in your situation,’ he said sadly.
‘My family also wants to visit DC, see our Senator, maybe protest in front of Qatar’s embassy,’ I said. They had been to DC once already to see the State Dept. and Arkansas Congressman John Boozman. Tim said good luck and left.
I passed this sobering information on to the family. It made them more determined than ever to make some noise in Washington, try to pressure the Qatar government.
Cool weather returned, it was late 2008 ; I had completed 2 years and a few months of sejn (jail), and was doing OK. We watched the collapse of much of the world’s economy, the credit markets froze up, Lehman failed. I was glued to the BBC on the shortwave and reading the Economist magazines that Kevin had dropped off.
I developed in somewhat offbeat view of this event. This wasn’t a stock market crash like the dot com crash but a bond market collapse, something totally unfamiliar. Lots of people play the stock market, but hardly anybody understands the complexity of the much larger bond or credit market. The bond market was far more complex than the stock market, something only a handful of insiders really understood. And these mortgage-backed bonds were new products without a track record, nobody was sure how to evaluate them. The U.S. economy had been caught in a vise. One jaw of the vise was a tidal wave of money coming from China and the Arab states, dumb money that was desperately seeking yield, no matter the risks. These new dodgy bonds had been created by Wall Street to soak up this money.
The other jaw was oil prices; $4 gasoline was crushing Mr. average homeowner with his no-doc mortgage . These people were skipping mortgage payments to gas up the pickup truck! And who was causing the high oil prices? It was also China, who provided the demand, and the oil producers, who couldn’t respond with extra supply! Several years of double digit growth in China had derailed the world economy, with plenty of help from Wall Street of course. Back in the nineties when China was tiny its growth didn’t matter, who cares about 10% growth of a tiny economy? But China was a monster now and its growth was very disruptive. For a newly minted jail economist this was fascinating stuff, the most dramatic collapse since the Great Depression.
I was getting regular Skype calls from home and from my kids on Orient Street. Tom was doing fine at his magnet school, building a go cart, playing his French horn. Nick was doing a pretty good job at parenting. In one call Nick said: ‘At a recent school assembly, Tom was playing in the school orchestra. I sat there all alone and listened, just me, and it made me sadder than hell…..’ I fought back tears when I heard this, it was so sad. Nick was finishing his geology degree at Duke, Meg was working to pay the bills, Tom was in High School. They were poor but surviving. I could hear the strain in Nick’s voice over the Skype call, he was carrying a heavy burden.
‘Are you completely broke?’ I asked.
‘We’ve had some close calls, Dad . A couple times the water has been turned off when one of us is in the shower, we had to run down and pay the bill. Tom’s best friend’s mom took him shopping the other day and bought him new trainers. She saw his ratty old skate shoes and was shocked when he told her his dad was in prison and his mom was an alcoholic. People are helping us and we’re managing OK,’ he said.
One evening Nick and several of his Duke friends were discussing their plans over beers. ‘I’m going to Kenya with an NGO,’ one said. ‘I’m teaching in an inner city school,’ another said. They asked Nick what his plan was. ‘Me? I’m going to grad school and get another degree. Then I plan to work at an oil company, make some money, and get a car that works!’ he said. There was silence, eye rolling. A few gentle coughs. Money? This is so gauche. Who is this guy, wants to make money? These kids had never had to worry about it. Nick drove an old Ford pickup with 200,000 miles on it; they were a bit embarrassed at having to drive mom’s slightly used BMW. We all laughed at that story. You go, Nick, we said on the Skype call. Make us some money, help the family. He was going to Nevada Las Vegas , famous for basketball but also a good geology program with great desert landscapes to explore. Magical spots like Death Valley were just a short drive away. The Orient Street phase of their lives would soon be ending. UNLV would give Nick a full ride, a research assistantship, so we were excited. ‘I’ve missed the desert a lot living here in North Carolina, can’t wait to get back to it,’ he told me.
‘You miss the desert? Come visit me next summer Nick, we’ve got plenty over here!’ I said.
Meg interrupted: ‘Next summer is my turn, Dad! I’m saving my money to come see you.’
‘Meg, that’s great. I can’t wait.’
Meanwhile Sala, Salem and I along with a few others went to library, going twice a week. We put on our blue suits , were scanned and patted down, and walked to a separate building. This was exciting! The room was large, the size of a tennis court maybe, the walls lined with books, two dozen old Windows XP computers on desks in several rows. There was no Internet so I looked over the books.
Turns out we had about 10,000 Korans and Islamic books, donated by Islamic charities, plus various junk in Arabic, all of it sitting ignored. Some were fancy leather bound multi-volume commentaries by Islamic Scholars, donated by Mosques to help the souls of the damned. The English collection was pathetic, a few hundred dusty paperbacks donated by prisoners: Tom Clancy, Jeff Archer, Steven King, etc. There was a small French collection also. My big book collection was there in a box, I sorted it out and put it on an empty shelf. I sat at a vacant PC, little Salem helped me. This beady-eyed little guy had set up the passwords and network, a decade of effort he was very proud of. He had taught himself MS Access, the database, and did all the check in/ check out in Access. ‘Why don’t you just use a spreadsheet, Salem?’ I asked as he gave me a demo.
‘Spreadsheet? Access has all those features, full back up, sorting and report features….’ he went on and on, he was a fanatic. He also was fond of 20 character passwords; no way hackers were gonna break in and steal our stuff!! A lunatic. When he wasn’t looking I changed my password to password. Meanwhile easy-going Sala played with muscle cars in PhotoShop, he had a big collection of JPEGs. We had AutoCad, MS Office, quite a nice variety of software , all bootleg copies.
Library was twice a week, mornings. I couldn’t touch type so I started to learn, there was typing s/w. There was an advanced XL course, plus I started to learn Frontpage, Microsoft’s web design software. The prison café would deliver to the library so sometimes we’d buy ice cream or share a club sandwich, delicious; we even had a tea boy waiting on us! Doesn’t sound much like prison, does it? We were lucky we didn’t have to make license plates or uniforms, there was no forced labor. Nobody outside the prison was working (too much oil money sloshing around), so it would be perverse for people inside prison to work. A broken and arbitrary justice system had condemned us. There were no victims in most of these cases; in most places these would not even be crimes. Aware of this, the regime makes prison an easy ride, comfortable; otherwise the families of the Qataris inside would raise hell! In the US you have a good justice system and tough prisons. Qatar was just the opposite: arbitrary justice, and comfortable, relaxing prison.
Since I had a few years to kill I went looking for a Chinese teacher among the Malaysians. These guys spoke a Cantonese dialect common in Malaysia but several had been to traditional Mandarin school. Tall skinny James spoke good English plus Mandarin , so we began sitting together. I paid him $10 a week, and he was quite satisfied. We had no book, just pen and paper. I learned jail was chien yew, tea was cha, on and on it went, just like the old days when I had tried to learn Arabic. Milky tea arrived every AM with breakfast and Lao Tan, a friendly Malaysian, would call out ‘chien yew cha, how huh!’ meaning: ‘jail tea, good to drink!’
I asked Nick to send me a book and soon Chinese for Dummies arrived in a care package, along with industrial strength ear plugs, vitamins, and a new Sony shortwave radio. China, the new superpower, was broadcasting all over the shortwave bands so I began listening to Mandarin on the radio. If little kids in California were learning Chinese, why the hell couldn’t I? The book used the pin-yin system , Mandarin written phonetically with the Roman alphabet. Chairman Mao had tried to force everyone to use pin-yin , abandoning Chinese characters completely. Even Chairman Mao couldn’t get this drastic move enacted so he assembled a group of scholars to simplify the language. They went through all 5000 characters, tossing out unnecessary bits and pieces, resulting in a simplified character set. Chinese people usually text with pin-yin, but newspapers are written in simplified characters. I decided to learn this one, making myself hundreds of flash cards.
I would go outside and walk several laps around the courtyard then pause and look at flash cards. It was so interesting and such an unusual sort of task I gave up my writing. I figured I’d spend the next couple of years learning Chinese, get a pardon , then maybe go to China and teach English. My mom had over 1000 pages of handwritten manuscript of fiction I had written. While I studied Chinese, she could get it typed.
James taught me a bit of Chinese calligraphy. Some of the characters are pictorial, they look somewhat like what they mean. The character for tea, cha , for example looks like a little tea bush, that was cool. The word itself had come from China, of course; in India it became chai. In the film Slumdog Millionaire, the hero is a chai wallah , tea boy. Then the word made its way across the Indian Ocean to Arabia, where it became shay, as in shay haleeeb, where our story began. Soon I could write and recognize several hundred characters.
James taught me proper stroke order when drawing Chinese characters, there’s a system to it. For the character cha, for example, he would draw a little inverted V, then a horizontal line below it, and two strokes on the left and right pointing down. I learned to count the number of strokes; this is critical for looking up characters in a dictionary. It was fun, just the sort of thing to occupy my mind for a year or two. Drawing characters put me in a zen-like trance, I completely forgot I was in jail! I could be on a desert island somewhere, drawing in the sand.
Summer 2009 was a great time; Meg taught English at the school in Doha and came to see me on Saturdays. The guards were glad to see Britney back again.
‘I have a bunch of little Korean kids, Dad. They’re hilarious! Their moms are always lurking around out in the hallway, making sure they study! Sometimes they look in the class and hiss at their kids, telling them something in Korean.’ She was staying with Kevin’s family again, they were so kind to her. We had some great chats about her university plans. She also smuggled me some folded emails from Nick, those were great.
But then there was trouble. It was late July when Meg came to visit me with bad news. Nance had taken a bad fall in her house and was hospitalized, it was serious. The Embassy called the jail and got Meg an extra visit, she was leaving in a few days. We hugged and tried to comfort each other. ‘Maybe this is the low point Meg. Maybe she’ll go to rehab now, this will scare her,’ I suggested. Meg was calm, mature, comforting me in jail while her Mom lay in an ICU.
‘I’ll go home and see what’s going on, dad. You relax. We’ll handle it,’ she said.
We hugged. ‘A kid your age should be relaxing on a beach somewhere, not dealing with this mess,’ I said. She chuckled.
One final hug, she had to go. ‘Remember, Meg. Nick is not to leave school, not for this, not for any reason, OK? Even if she dies he’s got to go to Nevada,’ I said firmly.
‘OK dad. I’ll tell him.’ One last hug and she left. Would there be no end to our disasters, I wondered. How much of this sort of stuff can these poor kids handle?
It was so, so hard watching her walk across the hot parking lot that day, on her way home to deal with another awful situation. I nearly broke down. Rather than hustle me off to the block the friendly guard let me stand there a minute and watch her go. There goes a brave young girl, I thought. Look how courageous she is. These Arabs think they can destroy us, and some of us might not survive. But they have no idea how strong my family is.
Once she was back home Meg borrowed a car from Juju , drove down to my old stomping ground of Fayetteville and talked to U. A. admissions. They looked over her transcript without enthusiasm. ‘We might be able to admit you under probation, but no financial aid,’ they said, looking over her C’s and D’s. ‘And since you’ve been living in North Carolina, you’ll have to pay out of state tuition,’ they said, adding insult to injury. She told me later over Skype about this painful interview.
She started in Fall 2009 using her legacy money and we hoped for the best. The first midterms came and our Meg was top of the class, setting the curve!! We burned up the fone with praise for her, our late bloomer. She was a 20 year old freshman, living in a dorm with a bunch of 18 year old stoners.
She made the Dean’s list and went back to admissions to get the probation lifted. They scurried around, told her about the Honors program and how to get financial aid, their attitude had changed. Semester after semester she tore it up, majoring in physical anthropology , almost always the top student in the class. She was Britney with a brain, building that new transcript we had talked about. Meanwhile, Tom was doing well and had found a mentor at his all-black magnet high school, an ex-nuclear plant engineer. All three kids were doing well.
The radio forms a big part of any prisoner’s life, for me especially so. The Gulf is a club of absolute monarchies so all radio is state controlled and heavily censored. A typical news broadcast starts with: ‘His highness the Emir Sheikh blah blah Al Thani today received a visit from the ambassador of Djibouti. Bilateral relations between the two brotherly countries were discussed. In other news, the Prime Minister, Sheikh blah blah blah Al Thani sent a cable to his British counterpart congratulating him on the Queen’s birthday. Bilateral relations were discussed.’ On and on it goes, everybody has the same last name. It’s absolute mind-numbing rubbish, and nobody listens to it. Every official of any importance is a relative of the Emir. Shortwave is the way to leap over these boundaries, and BBC is the best. Thanks to the old Queen Mother of radio I could keep up with news. Next door to the prison is a big US military base, the headquarters of CENTCOM. They broadcast AFN, Armed Forces Network, on several short range FM channels. With some stolen wire hung out the window or crammed into an A/C duct I could get AFN, there was even Fox News and a country music station! For language study I listened to Radio China in Mandarin , Radio Espana for Spanish, and Radio France and the Vatican for French. My old friends at ARAMCO operated a station with good classical music and BBC several hours a day. So between library, the radio, exercise, studying my languages , and chatting with one or two guys I could tolerate, I fell into a routine. Juju and John provided me enough $$ so I didn’t need to clean toilets or cook for a Sheik like poor prisoners did.
My Mom began sending me the New Yorker by post, Nick sent me the Economist from Las Vegas. I plunged fearlessly into books I could never have read outside, even the thickest tome couldn’t put me to sleep. I spent a winter reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, read it twice in fact, falling in love with little Natasha Rostova. I fearlessly tackled Remembrance of Things Past, getting through the first three volumes, running out of gas in the fourth. Many people have big bucket list of cool things they intend to do. My bucket list was books and languages.
I had the French newspaper Le Monde and a good French dictionary. I could imagine myself on the rive gauche, reading Le Monde, sipping a café au lait made with Nescafé and boiled milk. One of my Aunts sent me a box of Spanish novels, I started going thru them, doing two or three pages per hour, decorating each page with new words.
We were thrilled to see Nick graduating from Duke University, several family members came including his mom. Nance had had a tough time in rehab. To her, it was a conspiracy by the Downs clan to lock her up with a bunch of trailer trash, low class people, people she had nothing in common with. After a few days her brother from Ohio, also a heavy drinker, came down and checked her out. She had gone from being the widely admired center of a family of 5, someone with hundreds of friends, prominent in local charity work, to being all alone in her empty house, nobody to care for. It was a bleak situation and she felt more and more like a victim. Tom still had two more years of high school but now he had no place to live in Durham. Nance suggested she could move to Durham and the two could share an apartment. But she still wasn’t sober, Tom and Juju didn’t like the idea. Margaret agreed to leave her dorm room at Fayetteville and get an apartment that she and Tom could share. Tom could finish at Fayetteville high school. So now Nick would be in Las Vegas, the younger kids would be sharing a place in the Arkansas university town. The young guys could drive to Juju’s on the weekend for some love and home cooking, it was only an hour away.
My court had one last gasp about this time. Nasser had submitted some paperwork to the Supreme Court, I wasn’t invited to attend. We didn’t expect much but we got a surprise. A judge on the Qatar Supreme Court had raised his hand, he wanted to review my case! Everyone was surprised , the embassy was excited. ‘This could be a breakthrough, a face-saving way to end the case,’ they suggested, as we waited for the hearing. My family made preparations to come and bring me home.
But, no luck. A few weeks later we found out the brave judge had changed his mind! So my sentence stood, 25 years. This absolutely confirmed the political manipulation we’d always suspected. Somebody had visited this judge, or maybe he got a fax like the last one. The State Dept. shrugged, oh well. It’s not a democracy. With US banks collapsing, Qatar was using its wealth to prop up US and European companies, buying treasury bonds and friends in high places. Sheik Hamad had made several liberating moves, there were even rumors of a deal involving Sala and the other politicals. With oil at $140, the sums the Qataris had to invest were staggering; it was by far the highest GDP per capita country on earth. These oil prices plus China’s economic mistakes had helped cause the collapse. As a newly minted economist I watched these events, fascinated. The disastrous Bush era was over and Condi Rice was discredited, going back to teaching. Maybe the new President Obama would help us.
It was about this time I decided to escape Capitano’s room and move upstairs, a very nice Sudanese Dr. had a spot for me. This was kind Dr. Tilip, about my age, a friendly Sudanese man hobbling around on sore feet due to diabetes. In his youth Tilip had gotten a scholarship to study medicine in Beijing. He had gone there knowing not one word of Chinese! He and his friends spent two years translating the textbooks into Arabic, an enormous task. After school he went to Hong Kong, where he married a Chinese lady with a British passport, so he got one too. Tilip was the only person I ever met with a command of Mandarin, Arabic and English , and could read and write these languages! I was in awe. He had a mobile fone too, and he let me send an SMS to Nick sometimes. Tilip hardly ever slept. He’d call the UK speaking English until midnite , then before sunrise he would be yakking in Chinese with investors in Hong Kong , then in Arabic with all his local friends. He had a job for me: he was going to drill for oil in Somalia with Chinese money, and I would be his technical expert!
‘That sounds pretty cool Dr., except for one small thing. We’re in jail. And your feet are falling off due to diabetes. Otherwise, I don’t see any reason why we can’t drill for oil in Somalia. Except there’s a civil war in that country, and there probably isn’t any oil,’ I remarked.
He refused to be discouraged. ‘I thought you Americans were optimistic. There’s oil in South Sudan, there’s oil in Uganda. Why not Somalia?’ Tilip said with a chuckle, rubbing some sort of Chinese oil on his black toes. They looked really awful and were as hard as pieces of wood. He looked like one of those Everest frost bite victims. I got the impression the Chinese investors had no idea he was a jailbird.
Summer visit day was fun with Dr. Tilip. Margaret caught a ride out to the jail with his family, his friendly Chinese wife and two multilingual Chinese/ Sudanese teenage kids. His teenage daughter was gorgeous, she looked like a Singapore Airlines girl with a lovely deep tan! During visit time she would walk over from their room with tea for us, wearing a traditional silk Chinese chi-pow skirt. Xiao jia, nee suh hun piaoliang! I told her, Miss, you’re very beautiful! Xia xia, she would reply, thanks.
The small mobile phones we used in those days were pretty easy to smuggle , Tilip was notorious for trying to bring them in. His wife always brought him clean laundry, and one day she hid two phones in clean sox and gave him the third at a visit. Tilip expected to be caught with the third phone when he was scanned. He would raise a ruckus as they hauled him off to solitary, and maybe they wouldn’t inspect his laundry! After solitary he’d have two phones to use back in the block, clever man. After the visit I went with him to the scan room, I had a couple of emails tucked in my underwear, no big deal. I scanned first and they patted me down, easy peasy. Tilip walked into the scanner, BEEP BEEP! Meanwhile another sleepy guard was looking over his laundry bag. Tilip was caught , so he sheepishly handed over phone number three, they handcuffed him for the walk to solitary. I offered to carry his laundry bag to the block but before I could make it out of there the guards stopped me, dumped it out and found the 2 other phones!!! Damn, damn! I pretended to be surprised of course. Tilip spent 10 days or so in solitary, poor guy.
Nick was at UNLV that year on his full-ride assistantship, he was playing the stock market with a couple of friends, riding around on a Honda motorcycle he had fixed up. Margaret had gotten an apartment in Fayetteville and sweet Tom was with her, going to high school in the university town. Tom was back in Northwest Arkansas again, close to Aunt Juju and John. He was sad; he missed his cool black friends back in Durham, even the bus ride! Meg and Tom sometimes ran out of money. Once they had absolutely nothing to eat so they emailed Nick in Vegas. ‘Could you send us a pizza? We’re broke and the cupboard is bare.’ 20 minutes later Meg answered the door, it was Domino’s! What a cool big brother! Meg inherited Nick’s old Ford Ranger truck with 200,000 miles on it, so she and Tom could visit family in nearby Eureka Springs. Of course I was their relentless long distance cheerleader.
Meg showed up in January 2009 Cosmo magazine, it was wonderful. The article was well done, describing my mistakes of 2005 and the terrible consequences for our family. In a normal country, an article like this would cause a stir but Cosmo is not for sale in the tiny fundamentalist Hermit Kingdom of Qatar! It had no impact at all over here.
Then something remarkable happened: Dr. Phil’s people saw the article and contacted Nick! The producer wanted all 4 of them on the show out in Hollywood. It was a sort of family healing show , but what an opportunity this was! Dr. Phil is a well-known personality even over here, lots of Qataris watch the show. Who knows the impact it might have. But Nance said no way. ‘We’re not going on TV with all of our family problems, forget it,’ she said. The kids were horrified, they begged her to reconsider. They asked the producer could the three kids appear alone? The producer was also adamant, it was the whole family or nothing. She still refused, so the opportunity was lost.
This was a heavy blow, I was flabbergasted. The idiots over here don’t read much but they watch Dr. Phil; we even had him in the jail, subtitled in Arabic! This sort of publicity might’ve shaken me free, it was exactly what we needed. It was a black day when I found out Nance wouldn’t participate.
Photogenic Meg was our media person, and she didn’t give up. She showed up in several Arkansas newspapers, we even got an editorial on my case in the Arkansas Democrat. The web site was up and running. The jail clinic had Internet so I faked a backache and got sent there. Friendly Dr. Mustafa from Egypt opened a browser and we looked at it. ‘Ouch, life sentence Mr. John. Inshallah you’ll be home soon,’ the kind Dr. said. It was a nice job and my webmaster John Van Woy said the Qatari secret police were frequent visitors. How nice! I mentioned it to Sala.
‘Good move,’ Sala said. ‘We can’t do it, they’d drag our wives and children into jail, strip them naked and show us the pictures. But you can, they’re afraid to touch your kids. Good luck.’
By this point I had accumulated enough stuff so I needed to buy a hanging cabinet. These are clever contraptions made from cigarette packs and fabric by craftsmen. I had a Filipino make mine. First he made some wallpaper paste out of shredded flat bread, sugar, a few secret ingredients. Using a homemade knife he cut a foot square piece of cardboard and glued 12 empty cigarette packs to it. The result was a rigid panel, the shelves of the cabinet. He made four of these and let them dry. The next step is cut strips of fabric that will suspend the panels one above the other about a foot apart. The hanging cabinet has fabric on three sides, and is open in front. Finally he anchored it to a piece of carpet stuck firmly to the concrete wall and voila, it hangs down and in goes your stuff.
Rich Sheiks would sometimes have card tables, bookshelves all kinds of stuff made from cigarette packs. Dr. Tilip had the engineers build him a massive book shelf, and on top of that he wanted a Mosque, a replica of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem! He wanted it topped off with an enormous silver crescent Moon, made of cardboard and wrapped in aluminum foil. When fully assembled, this monstrosity reached all the way to the 12 foot ceiling of the room! Inside the Mosque, wily old Tilip had them make several secret compartments for hiding his phones and chargers!
But then a hurricane hit. In those days searches were brutal and frequent. The big Captain was determined to find mobile fones and SIM cards, so they would sent in 20 Indians in masks with crowbars and ladders to take the place apart. We were all locked outside in the courtyard while they searched. Dr. Tilip and I watched as this wrecking crew dragged out the Al Aqsa mosque with its crescent moon, his bookshelf; several man years of work disappeared in a few minutes. After the search we were like disaster victims, picking thru the debris of a flood . Our furniture, handmade from fabric and cigarette cartons, was gone , the contents dumped on the floor and trampled. I lost hundreds of pages of writing this way, depressing.
James the Malaysian continued as my Chinese teacher but now I had something more powerful. Juju had bought me Rosetta Stone for Mandarin and the software arrived in the library. I installed it . There was no Internet so I has to call them for an activation code.
‘I want to register my s/w, please hurry, I’m calling from jail,’ I said, using one of Tilip’s illegal phones.
‘I’m sorry sir, calling from where?’ a young Indian guy asked, typing away on his keyboard.
‘From jail on an illegal fone, so please hurry. I have my product code.’
‘Yes, sir. Can I get your email?’ he asked.
‘I’m in jail, no email here. Here’s my product code, OK?’ I said , getting annoyed.
‘Yes sir , sorry, read it to me,’ he said , I read him the 20 numbers. Pause. More typing.
‘Where are you located?’ he asked. I told him, another pause.
‘Mailing address and phone # please?’ he asked. I was getting really pissed.
‘Is this a joke? You can’t call me, I’m in bloody jail, on an illegal fone, OK?’ I repeated .
He paused, sound of furious typing. ‘Yes sir , sorry about that. I’ll read you your response codes, here’s the first one: ADLZ 2239…..’ A string of 20 letters and numbers , I read it back to him.
‘OK, thanks. Where are you located?’ I asked.
‘I’m in Pune, India, sir. Hope you come out of jail soon.’
‘India? That’s great, we have lots of Indians here.’
‘Ha ha, that’s very funny sir. Thank you for calling Rosetta Stone customer service.’
Now I could fire daft old James and save $10 a week! I started going to library every day and really cranking hard on my Rosetta Stone, what a fantastic product for a jailbird! Also in library I found the famous University of Chicago Great Books, gathering dust in a corner under a bunch of Korans. I dusted them off and looked them over. Now I could be a faux University of Chicago student, studying Herodotus or Plato, plus Chinese. I also found a book on finance, stuffed with equations, including stuff about the bond market. This was great, I added this course too. The library’s fiction collection was mostly random junk but there were a few gems. The Egyptian Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz’s books were there, for example. Banned in Doha, they had probably been donated by someone afraid of being caught with them. So I was all set. My goal was to study Chinese, French and Spanish , rotating between languages, taking two a time . I had several French novels from Mom, plus more in library left by some long-departed Frenchie. When I came out I would be one Hell of a multilingual jail savant.
Mandarin took hundreds and hundreds of hours. Rosetta used the simplified character set used in mainland China, but still a formidable task. You could converse without learning the characters but I wanted the full Monty and filled notebooks with hundreds of them. The Malaysians helped me.
Two other Chinese Malaysian friends were Steven and Hong. Steven was a tall, smart, curious young guy and we chatted a lot, a professor and student. Hong was a rich kid, his Dad was a banker in Kuala Lumpur. When the Malaysian embassy came out the guards would tell all Ocean’s 10 to get ready, change into blues. They did and waited in the mess, smoking. Sometimes the guard said, ‘Sorry, only Hong.’ Hong went out to see the embassy, the others looking glum.
‘You guys are chopped liver!’ I told Steven and the others. Then I spent 15 minutes explaining just what that meant. Strings were being pulled for Hong back home. I learned that Malaysia was one of only a handful of countries that welcome Qataris, lets them get a visa on arrival. As a result Malaysians were usually sent home chop-chop, much faster that other nationalities.
‘All it takes it a couple Qataris getting in trouble in Kuala Lumpur and we go home,’ Stephen said. ‘These Arabs like little boys and girls. Sometimes in KL they’re caught , end up in jail. Phone calls happen, the Qataris are freed, and we go home. The embassy says be patient.’
Another time Hong went alone to see his embassy and came back with 3 big bags of books, law books. ‘My Dad signed me up for law school at University of London,’ he said, rather sadly. The useless guy never opened one, five thousand pounds wasted. He was the only rich Asian we had in the jail, a minor celebrity. More typical were the poor guys from Sri Lanka and Philippines who worked like slaves cleaning toilets or chopping veggies.
The Malaysians waited for a miracle, several had 25 years for multiple credit card fraud cases. Before Doha, Oceans 10 had been on “vacation” in Rome, doing some “shopping” when they were caught. The Carabineiri locked them up in a medieval jail near the Spanish steps, slapped them around a little. They lost their loot, cash advances , and 500 fake credit cards they were carrying.
‘Hope you Chinks like spaghetti, you’ll get 6 months for this,’ the tough Italian cops in their Ferragamo shades said. They sat on the stone floor and waited, like St. Paul awaiting judgment.
A few hours later the Carabineiri came stomping back in. ‘You Chink bastards have air tickets and visas?’ they growled.
‘Yeah, we’re going to hold on to Doha,’ they said, the next stop on the shopping trip. The cops examined the documents. ‘OK, here are your passports, we’re taking you to the airport. You’re banned from the European Union, don’t come back here again.’ And so they ended up with me.
Their embassy finally had a breakthrough. Suddenly our Malaysians got their sentences cut from 25 to 5! And then they applied the ¾ rule to 5 years, they were months away from release! Damn! Ramadan came, it was pardon time, and Oceans 10 marched out of here, each with a trash bag of stuff, singing “Malaysia Uber Alles” or whatever the national song is. They were all smiles. They had heard some little 12 year old girl had fallen off a high rise balcony in K.L., her Qatari boyfriend had called his daddy. My Chinese teacher and many friends left that day.
Not long afterward rumors swept the jail – the politicals were going out! A Saudi TV station announced some sort of deal. The jail parking lot filled up with the Al Marri family, they wanted their relatives released. The SWAT team was called to disperse them. They were told go home and wait. Meanwhile Sala, Salem and the rest were given fresh haircuts and new ID cards, they gathered their stuff.
‘Where are we going?’ they asked the guards.
‘Shut up,’ they were told.
The next day they lined up, all 15, and we said bye. An army bus with blacked out windows was waiting for them, with commandos in balaclavas. ‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ Sala told me later. ‘First we went to the police firing range and stopped , more soldiers got on board. Are they going to shoot us? It sure looked like it. Then we continued; 8 lane Salwa road was blocked by Humvees, we drove toward town.’
‘Where are we going? You must tell us,’ the politicals shouted to the masked commandos. The freeway was empty, blocked by police and military units.
‘Shut up and sit down,’ the soldiers said.
Finally they stopped. They heard aircraft, so it must be the airport. They struggled to peek out through the blacked out windows. ‘Looks like we’re going somewhere,’ one of them said.
An officer with a clipboard got on. ‘Pass your Qatari ID cards up to me,’ he said, reading the names.
They refused. ‘Tell us where we are going and we will cooperate,’ a chorus of voices said. ‘And what about our families? Are they coming too?’ others asked. The officer told them wait a minute and got off the bus.
Then an unfamiliar young Arab in dish-dash climbed aboard, wearing a checkered head-dress like the Saudi royals wear. It was Saudi King Abdullah’s son! He was all smiles. ‘You’re going home with me to Saudi Arabia, and your families will be coming very soon,’ he announced. One of the Saudi Royal Family’s jets was waiting for them. They were escorted onto the jet and left.
We learned all this the next day when Sala called a mobile fone he’d left behind. Later that AM the phone rang again, ‘Turn on the TV, channel 21,’ a voice said. 21 was a Saudi propaganda channel featuring camel races. We watched the politicals being received by King Abdullah himself, their bearded old tribal chief introducing them to him! We saw Sala, Salem, all the rest, freshly barbered and wearing very elegant robes in the King’s elegant majlis, or meeting room. The tribe had arranged everything , and they became Saudi citizens. Did Sala ever make it to Connecticut? I doubt it, but who knows.