Keeping Alive the Memory of the Dead

Villaggio Mall by Andy Ardiansyah
Villaggio Mall by Andy Ardiansyah (Photo credit: ccqatar)

Nearly five months have passed since the fire at a local mall killed children, daycare workers, and fire fighters. There was a five month period when the mall was closed, with rumors swirling about when it or whether it would open, and employees on unpaid leave, worried about the fate of their own families.

Last week saw Villaggio open its doors to the public with the section damaged from the fire still walled off from the rest of the store fronts.

“Sales!” Some were saying. “70% on brands.”

That’s luxury brands, a top commodity in Qatar, among the locals as well as expats. But not everyone is flocking back to the site of such unmitigated tragedy.

“I don’t feel like going there,” a Qatari friend said.

“Even the way my family talks about it bothers me,” another shared.

Many are concerned that the safety issues that led to the cause of this incident haven’t been addressed; others that the official reports surrounding the incident itself haven’t shared much information. Regardless of where people stand on shopping, or not shopping at the recently opened facility, there are swirls of other emotions at play for many in Doha. Attempts to leave floral tributes at the walled section, close to where the incident occurred, have been thwarted.  The flowers and cards, left in memory by others in the community – mostly mothers – to commemorate the day that ended in shock and horror for the entire nation, disappear shortly after they have been left.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 08: Parents Martin and Jane Weekes speak at the memorial for triplets Lillie, Willsher and Jackson Weekes at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul on June 8, 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand. The two-year-old triplets were killed in a fire at the Villaggio mall in Doha on May 28 that took the lives of 19 people including 13 children. The memorial service was open to the public and people were been asked to wear the triplets favourite colours of pink, blue and purple. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

“If only the management and security of Villaggio had prioritised the evacuation of the people in the mall as quickly as they are evacuating the flowers no one would have died.” — Jane said, mother of triplets, Jackson, Willsher and Lillie Weekes, who all perished in the fire.

While at first the grief and responses of shock, support, and sadness were sharp and quick, resulting in a gathering of the public at the nearby Aspire park and nation wide prayers, time, as they say, can dim memory.

I can’t fathom losing a child, much less more than one, and then feel that I couldn’t recognize their passing in some tangible way in the city in which their death happened. Grief, if you’ve ever faced it’s tentacled grip, comes and goes; there are yearly triggers, there are daily pauses in which you think “I can’t wait to tell —” and then the loss comes again, as if afresh. The public attempts to memorialize the space, where even now new arrivals to the city may be shopping without knowledge of events that have transpired, have been stopped without explanation.

A few concerned community members posted Jane’s quote on their Facebook pages last Thursday along with this declaration not to let these memories be forgotten: “Did you know that attempts to leave flowers and cards at Villaggio in memory of those who perished have been removed? These symbols may be gone, but those who have passed will never be forgotten.” I was among them, asked friends to consider posting the message, because as a mother, daughter, sister, and wife, the idea that my children, siblings, or husband would vanish from memory would be as sad as the original loss.

These children and the adults who will never have another birthday, celebrate their graduation, wedding, or birth of their own children, can live on, as long as we remember them. For many of us in Doha, who were not family members of those who died, we would still like to remember them. I see this is as a sign of community, the ability to support those, even strangers, with empathy that we ourselves might need one day. The idea of a place to commemorate the public intention to so towards the survivors among the families seems a good way of doing so.

A Qatari friend offered this cultural explanation as to why the flowers and memorabilia were being removed:

“Basically it is not to prevent people form grieving their loved ones. But because the act of leaving flowers, or mementos are not common in Qatari culture and religion and are considered by many heresy. The funeral in Islamic tradition is only 3 days. Then life must move on. Any signs of continuous grief is not acceptable. People can be remembered in their hearts or in their private homes but not in public. This is why you don’t see glorifies status of any leaders. You don’t even see their pictures in public places, only in people’s private homes. What you are doing is pure western tradition, This is why it has been prevented.  As you said those who passed away will never be forgotten and it will be a dark day in Qatar’s history indeed.”

I explained that this was a new perspective, and thanked her for sharing with us. With so many of the victims being non-Muslim, the question of a memorial at Villaggio may be yet another instance of the multiculturalism in Qatar going through major learning pains tied to growth.

What do you think? Is grief better expressed in private? Or, as in this instance of so many losses, so many people wanting to halve the sorrow by remembering, is it better to have a public place to share?


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And After the Fire, the Living Suffer

English: An image depicting the grand canal in...
English: An image depicting the grand canal inside Villagio, Doha. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Entrance number 3 of Villagio Mall, Doha.
English: Entrance number 3 of Villagio Mall, Doha. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two weeks ago, life in Qatar changed when a mall fire killed 19 people, among them children, teachers, and firefighters. Our hearts immediately went out to the loved ones who were grappling with mundane tasks in the wake of such devastating loss. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, of those who lost someone were immediately surrounded with candle light vigils and prayers.

As the mother of a toddler, in light of high cost of lives in such a tragedy, I found myself comforted when I drove by the mall parking lot, normally a hive of overactivity, uncharacteristically vacant.

Who could shop there again unaware of the way negligence and unpreparedness put lives in danger?

“Lots of people. People who need their brands before they travel,” one student said as we discussed in class people’s intentions about going to Villaggio again. The comment brought me up short.

I didn’t berate her — I listened to her point of view. A few hours later, something in me still balked at the thought of rank commercialism in a site with such bad karma. I did what I normally do when I’m contemplating something. I took the issue to Twitter.

“Would you go to Villaggio again? I hope to never go again,” I tweeted, avoiding the word never, because, well, you never know.

The responses that came back were even more eye opening than my student’s frankness.

“Please think of the workers and their families who haven’t been paid since the mall’s closure,” someone tweeted back. “Yes, there are cleaners that are very worried,” someone else replied.

With their insights, the empty parking lot took on another significance, this one with consequences for the living: no wages, nothing to send home to their families, many dependent on their incomes. I couldn’t believe this entire group of people were paying for an unprecedented mistake, the kind the country had never seen before. Curious to know more, I spoke with mall employees. Here’s what I was able to find out:

The closure’s effect on salespeople depends on the company they work for. If you work for an international chain or brand, like Azadea ( who owns Virgin, Paul, Massimo Dutti, Oculis, among others) then you can go on leave. However its on a basic salary with no commission ( commission payments  can be up to half of someone’s pay check).  Other big groups operating in Villaggio like Al Shaya (who oversee Starbucks , Boots etc ) have a similar leave setup for employees. These chains have more than one outlet, and others, like department stores, are able to reassign employees to other locations at other shopping outlets.

If you have one store in Villaggio and you are reliant on it for all your income, the situation becomes more dire. A small company can little afford even one month of no trading. Three months or more (rumors are that Villaggio will be closed for 6 months) which will surely kill the cash flow and thus the business.

For employees working for the small companies, they are unpaid leave. Unpaid leave and the sponsor system means many are now unemployed. The refusal of  companies to issue an No Objection Letter (required in Qatar to transfer sponsor) for their staff to seek other employment means that some staff are doomed. Another problem with unpaid leave is that companies can also refuse to issue plane tickets for staff to leave the country. If you consider the average cost of a return ticket is QAR 4000. Unless you have saved that money you have few options but to wait and see what your fate will be.

Like the aftermath of any tragedy the questions are complex and multi-faceted.

What would you do if Villaggio were reopened?

What can we as a community do for those affected by the closure?

Since smoking in doors continues, is it only time before another incident happens at another location?

Tell me what you’re thinking: The good, the bad, the unspoken. Only through honesty can we make our way through. This is the least we can do to honor the memory of the dead.


                                           A Mother’s Tale the Morning of the Fire