Detained in the Middle East

I STOOD AT ATTENTION in front of my Colonel after a firm and deliberate salute: “Captain Church reporting as ordered Ma’am.”

“Yes, Captain Church, why did I just find out during my executive staff meeting that you were detained in a Qatari jail?” Her look said that she demanded more of the story than the details she’d just received. I took a deep breath and began to tell the tale, which began with a yellow inflatable kayak bought off Amazon and a couple of guys just looking to catch some fish on their deployment.

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The getaway vehicle.

Since hearing that I was being deployed to Qatar, I’d spent countless hours reviewing charts and Google maps searching for places to fish when I got there. Which isn’t much different than what I was doing at home anyway. When you’re raised in northern Minnesota and get stationed in Las Vegas, you spend a lot of time looking for escapes.

Maps in hand, my co-conspirator and I decided to take advantage of one of the few calm days to make our maiden voyage, searching for what we hoped would be a great day of fishing on the Persian Gulf. Wind gusts were a concern, since our little yellow raft could easily float us off to Iran if the direction was right. We set out from a public park and started fishing.

As I was explaining all of this to the Colonel, she began to look dubious. “As you can see, there are no markers restricting the area from boating or fishing,” I told her, while unfolding several maps onto her desk. “I will happily drive you there, Ma’am. And I assure you we won’t find any signs prohibiting us from launching the boat or being in the area.”

Our day on the water was awesome. Proving my research wasn’t in vain, we caught about a dozen queenfish and a nice brownspotted grouper. But afterward, as we were dragging our kayak out of the water, two Qatari gentlemen wearing traditional white robes, called thobes, approached us. They initially appeared interested in the kayak, but when we told them we’d been fishing, we realized this was not just a friendly chat. They informed us that fishing wasn’t allowed in the area. After acknowledging our ignorance, we apologized and went on our merry way. But back on the base, the same two men and the area’s security officers pulled us over.

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Qatari queenfish.

Security made a few calls, and the Qatari police soon arrived, asking us to sign a hand-written note in Arabic. Later we learned that it was to authorize a search of the vehicle, but at the time, signing a note written in Arabic seemed like a bad idea, so I refused. Hence, I can now cross “non-voluntary tour of a Qatari police station” off my bucket list.

As I sat silently in the interrogation room, I tried to remember what few parts of the Qatar legal system I’d read about prior to deployment. I wished I’d spent as much time reviewing that as I had hunting for Qatari fishing spots. I remember asking myself, “Was catching a grouper and a few queenfish really worth putting yourself in this position?” Any fisherman knows the answer—of course it was!

After what seemed like hours, two men entered the room, closely followed by a third who undoubtedly held my fate in his hands. He was a slender, middle-aged man, dressed in the essential pristine thobe, and wearing rich Persian oils. He introduced himself as a Qatari police investigator. To my amazement, he spoke perfect English. We spent a few moments discussing the day’s events, and I showed him, on a map, the area of our voyage. By some act of fate, this man shared my love of fishing. As do most Qataris, he added. However, we were detained because we were fishing in front of the Qatari Emir’s palace. “What you did,” the man said, “is the equivalent of fishing the front lawn of the White House.”

We submitted a statement in writing and were allowed to leave, but not before the investigator followed us to our van to check out the photos of our quest. He was appalled that we released the healthy grouper, and offered to take us back there in his boat to try and find him again.


Photography by Lee Church

LEE CHURCH is a photographer, steelhead fisherman, drone pilot, former Clyde driver, former NorCal resident, and current captain in the Unites States Air Force. He now lives in Las Vegas when he’s not working and fishing in the Middle East.