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The Wiki Man

What I learned in a Qatari jail cell

Lesson one: start memorising important phone numbers

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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