Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shiny on the Outside

Doha looks like any modern city, even by Western standards.  There are museums, stadiums, and high-rises.  The skyline, up against the cool blue of the Gulf, is spectacular.  Our compound is made up of villas that look really quite lovely.  The shopping malls, where we spend much of our leisure time escaping the heat, have everything we need to entertain us: groceries, movie theatres, bowling alleys, restaurants, amusement parks and hockey rinks.

But it's just a facade.  Shiny and new on the outside, only.  We often talk about things that fall apart in our villa, or the questionable support-post smack-dab in the middle of Dan's office at work. Things are constructed quickly, and often, poorly.  It's not a big leap from this conversation to one about how this city is thirty years behind in other aspects.  The smoking in public places, often comically beneath a "No Smoking" sign.  The story about the family who noticed that the fire alarms had been switched off in their daughter's hospital room.  The small children bouncing around the back of SUVs, or on their parents'  laps, unbuckled, while their vehicle speeds past us.  When I'm with friends, we laugh nervously about how backwards things can be here.  After all, this isn't our city.  We're just guests here.  None of this will ever impact us.  Until it did.

Today, the city is reeling with unimaginable tragedy.  Yesterday morning, we heard the news that there had been a fire at Villaggio Mall.  As reports trickled in during the evening hours, we learned with horror and grief that 19 people lost their lives, including 13 small children.  All were expats.  First reports indicate that the fire may have been electrical, and started in or near a drop-in childcare centre.  Two fire-fighters and four teachers died.  Heart-breakingly, one family from New Zealand lost their two-year-old triplets.  The stories of loss become too unbearable to re-tell.

Information is available in bits and pieces—some of it online, some of it first-hand from people who were there.  A fire alarm did go off, but was described as "benign", sounding like a doorbell.  People continued to shop while the mall filled with smoke.  Members of the public urgently told others to get out, while no direction was given by mall staff.  To their credit, when a 999 call was finally made, fire-fighters arrived on scene within two minutes.

When you grow up on the other side of the world, you make certain assumptions about society that linger with you when you move to one that, on the outside, doesn't look that much different from your own.  You assume that society is inherently safe, and that you will be looked after in your time of need. Without giving much thought to it, you assume that there is an emergency action-plan in place at stadiums, schools, and shopping malls.  You assume that there are working fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems.  You assume someone will call 999 if there is an emergency.

As one friend so eloquently put it, this mall was like a village to our community.  Between Dan and the kids, we were there four days a week for hockey.  During practices or between games, we'd have coffee, shop for groceries, and chat friends and teachers from the kids' school.  I have given my kids more freedom as they get older, in the hopes that it breeds a new level of responsibility.  I have let N, last year at age 12, hang out at this very mall with a group of friends, unchaperoned, on a Thursday night.  It was only two days before this tragedy that I sat beside the ice-rink at Villaggio and told J, aged 10, that yes, he could walk down to Virgin (at the complete opposite end of the mall) to check the price of an iPod, while his dad coached and I watched his two brothers play hockey.  What if fire had broken out between us?  Would he have known to leave the building, or would he have tried to come back to where I was?  More importantly, would another adult, a member of the society I have so much faith in, have guided him to safety?  What if, what if, what if.

As Doha comes together to grieve and to try to understand such a senseless tragedy, I hope there is a way to move forward and make this city a safer place to live.  My deepest, heart-felt condolences to those who suffered such incomprehensible loss.


  1. Well written Donna, once again you put your words down that are in so many of our hearts. Doha is shiny, but it's really just a gold plated third world country (i should know; I have lived in several). I am caught between anger at the lack of quality and concern for issues like public safety, and pity for those Qataris who find themselves trying to catch up to first world standards because of the expats who come to work and build Doha. I believe they get ahead of themselves with lack of understanding. Safety, of course, should be of utmost importance for locals as well as guests in the country. I know everyone is shocked and full of sorrow at yesterday's occurence. But really, it was only a matter of time before such a tragedy would occur. I have been to soccer games where it's simply mayhem: guards closing gates hours early for no reason, with people who flew from other countries holding tickets in their hands and forbidden entrance, policemen who don't have a clue how to handle traffic, and many other situations. Then there was the time about a month ago where I called 999 (at the urging of a policeman at the station who didn't know how to help me) to cut me out of my safe because they thought I was calling from within my safe which had a jammed lock and I simply wanted help opening it. You can imagine the look on the buff and very huge Civil Defense guy's face when I took him upstairs to see my 2'x2' personal safe. He carried in his hand the Jaws of Life. I once called 999 after witnessing a bus and car accident and they arrived no more than one minute later. I hope one day soon they get things straight. Hopefully before 2022 and God help them if they have a situation then...

    1. Everything you've said is, sadly, so true, Shelly. The city has been built too fast without any proper safeguards in place. As a friend put it today, we are living in a 'third world desert mirage' (thank you, Kirby, for so succinctly capturing the very essence of the problem). We can only hope that things get better.