The Qatar women’s jail lay hidden far outside of Doha’s central Al Rayyan district, in a compound of 10-foot walls. The jail more closely resembled a construction site with office trailers than a fortress holding human-size cages. The approximately 50 Filipino and South Asian women blanketing the floor of the single room “cell” in my particular trailer — most likely contracted domestic workers/nannies from overseas agencies — were escorted there by niqab-adorned guards, probably just like I’d been.
But despite being a freelance journalist working a public relations gig at a foundation in Doha, I hadn’t arrived at the jail in October 2009 to expose a wrong or to write an investigative story — or even gain a necessary lesson that can come from crossing the wrong Qatari. No: I was there because I drank morning, noon and night in an Islamic country and got busted for it.
My reason for coming to Qatar two months prior was, essentially, well-intentioned escapism. Alcoholics Anonymous, as it was for me, is often the last resort for anyone who wants to quit drinking. From age 22 to 32, I had probably gone a total of 30 days without a drink, but almost as soon as I landed in my first 12-step meeting, I wanted to flee from it as fast as I could. Once I had a year of recreational AA crossed off my calendar in 2009, however, I longed for my old life.
So, I applied for and landed a job at an educational foundation in Qatar. The gig there came with free room, free transport and endless opportunities for travel and future jobs and freedom again. Most importantly, it delivered me from sober New Yorkers and the endless drudgery, pointless prattling and gun-to-temple banality of 12-step meetings. And honestly, as my family opined, what could possibly tempt me in an Islamic country, where booze was at least “haram,” if not legally banned?
The other [case of beer], I left in my car for emergencies, such as dealing with my increasingly demanding boss during the horrible, clammy, anxiety-fueled brain ache of withdrawal
After my Qatar Airways plane touched down in Doha, my new boss took me to my new condo and presented me to some of my new, best “expat” friends, who handed me beers as soon as I crossed their thresholds. During my first day, new colleagues stopped by to offer after-work drinks. Soon I was visiting their compounds every night. Those nights evolved into an array of U.S. Embassy parties, boozy Friday brunches at the Ritz-Carlton and, finally, a three-hour, disorienting and desperate drive to the Qatar Distribution Company — the only liquor store in the country.
Only official residents of Qatar with their ID cards could purchase alcohol, and I didn’t yet have mine, so one of my new pals purchased two cases of Bud Light for me, one of which I promptly raided as soon as I arrived home the same night. The other, I left in my car for emergencies, such as dealing with my increasingly demanding boss during the horrible, clammy, anxiety-fueled brain ache of withdrawal. The blueprint I had devised for getting through a year of Planet Doha — let alone the two stipulated in my contract — was getting redrawn on a daily basis.
Hours after another Friday mimosa-filled brunch, despairing of taking a job in a hot, dusty country where I was not fitting in, I looked up the local AA and dialed. No one answered. I left a voicemail. The next day, my phone rang and a friendly British voice greeted me, listened to me recount my journey from AA in Brooklyn to AA rebellion in Qatar, and my precipitous slide back into alcohol abuse. He told me of a meeting to attend that night. “How many alcoholics in Qatar are there?” I asked, hoping there were a few people with whom I might forge a connection. About 10, he said. Ten in a country that was 80 percent expat. Not a very high percentage, I told him. “Yes, but we’re a very tightly woven bunch,” he replied.
Hardly able to find my way around the city with the endless roundabouts and royalty-named roads, I missed the meeting. Had I made it, someone might have possibly reached out and I could have grabbed a hand to safe passage. Sweating for a beer, however, I visited the W Hotel bar down the street from my condo in downtown Doha overlooking the Persian Gulf. There I met Abdulahi, the Somali bartender who would become my closest friend in Qatar, serving me beers, usually for breakfast, often lunch and, on occasion, dinner, asking no questions about my particular choice of stress relief — just my brand of beer — while amiably chatting with me.
Following one of those liquid breakfasts and subsequent drives to work, the parking lot attendant suspected something was amiss, ordered me to park and called the police. While I sat in my car, human resources tried to negotiate with a tall, hard-nosed sergeant wearing a brown uniform, knockoff Ray-Ban Aviators and a bushy moustache. I had been sick, they said. A staph infection on my leg, they explained. Antibiotics were making me seem drunk.
And all of it was true: I’d had an abscess opened and drained a week before. The sergeant almost let me go. Then he wised up and made me open the trunk. There appeared the case of contraband beer, opened, two missing.
In the end, though, the staph infection did almost actually kill me. And then it saved me. Released on bail and removed from my job, within two days — and afternoons at the downtown W’s hotel bar — the staph was in my booze-saturated bloodstream. I collapsed and was taken to a hospital, where nurses from the Philippines and India — probably sponsored by the same employment agencies as the women in jail — doted on me day and night.
A week later, under the cover of night, two human resources officials came to escort me to the airport for a flight to Dubai. We held our breath and then exhaled a sigh of relief as airport officials stamped my passport and I boarded the plane. During the flight, I ordered two beers and toasted my Middle East failure, as well as my escape from 30 days back in the prison trailer with the women whose external anguish mirrored my internal battle with alcoholism.
Instead of letting myself off with time served, however, I held myself captive to alcohol for three more years. In 2012, I sobered up. For good.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.