It sounds like the plot of an old-world fairy tale. A beautiful princess falls in love and marries without the permission of her father. Furious, he sends government agents (says her suitor) to bring her home—where she spends her days behind a locked door, lamenting the loss of her love.
So far, though, there’s been no Disney ending to the real-life drama of Princess Hamda Fahad Jassem Ali Abdallah al-Thani. Part of the extended royal family of the oil-rich Arab emirate of Qatar, Hamda, 29, remains locked away in her father’s house in the capital city of Doha, while the Egyptian man she married after a chance meeting on a sightseeing trip to Saudi Arabia fights for her freedom from his home in Cairo. “She’s involuntarily imprisoned,” says her husband, Sayed Saleh, 42, who manages a Saudi paint factory. “I ask the whole world to help me get back my wife.”
He’s been asking for some time. With the help of human-rights group Amnesty International, Saleh has spent more than three years making vain appeals to Qatari authorities, arguing that Hamda’s parents are violating her human rights. “When I received the case, I was shocked,” says Dina el-Mamoun, a London-based official with the group. “We fear for her safety.” Hamda, who has managed occasionally to communicate from her captivity—including two statements obtained by Amnesty International—also spoke briefly to PEOPLE. “They don’t want to release me unless I leave my husband,” she says. “Please, I only want to return to my husband.”
Bordering Saudi Arabia and jutting into the Persian Gulf, Qatar (pop. 863,000) is a traditional monarchy ruled by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a distant relative of Hamda’s. More than a few Qataris consider themselves royalty, and Hamda— the youngest of six daughters (there are also three sons)—grew up in proximity to power, with a maternal uncle serving as the country’s minister of culture. According to Saleh, Hamda’s parents took such pride in their lineage that they would not let their daughters marry.
Then Cupid intervened. The girl was on vacation with her mother and sisters in 2001 when Saleh spotted her in the lobby of a Sheraton hotel in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. “Instantly both of us felt a connection,” he says. “She’s kind, joyful and always laughing.” They exchanged numbers and over the next six months courted by telephone and e-mail. “We started talking about marriage,” says Saleh. “She told me her father and mother would object.” He flew to Qatar to meet Hamda’s father, who refused to consent to the marriage. “Her family says there’s no one good enough,” says Saleh. “Her father tells them they will be rewarded after death for not marrying.” (Attempts to interview the family proved fruitless.)
Qatari law forbids women from leaving the country before age 30 without the permission of their fathers or husbands, so Hamda—then a university student—used a borrowed passport to travel to Cairo with Saleh. They were married by a judge on Nov. 5, 2002 and spent two weeks together. “Those 14 days were the only days I felt I was really alive and felt the beauty of life,” he says. “I lived as I’ve never lived in my life.”
But the honeymoon was cut short when Hamda’s father reported her kidnapped and the pair were summoned to an Egyptian government office. (Saleh believes a call Hamda made to one of her sisters was traced to her new address.) After authenticating the marriage, says Saleh, officials there ordered them to visit Cairo’s Qatari embassy to get Hamda a valid passport, which the couple thought would put an end to the matter. They were about to set off off, says Saleh, when two Qatari agents allegedly forced Hamda into a jeep and fled. “I started running after them,” he says, “but I couldn’t get them.”
Soon after, Saleh says, he learned that she had allegedly been drugged, flown to Doha and sent to a government jail. After her story aired on a popular Saudi TV program, Hamda was allegedly transferred to her parents’ house in Doha in late 2003 and has been held there, in a locked second-floor room, ever since.
In one of her statements to Amnesty International, Hamda said, “I do not see anyone or go out to see the sun…. I am mature and sane, educated and aware of my decisions…. Where is the Qatari law?” Saleh, meanwhile, says he is prepared to wait as long as it takes to see justice done and his love returned. “The only situation that could make me forget is if I died,” he says. “So long as my heart beats, I will wait.”