x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Canadians feel the ground move beneath their feet

For a moment, the people of a generally stable society experienced the uncertainty inhabitants in many other countries know every day.

It had been a long flight and the airport in Canada's capital was quiet, empty, large and boring. Tired and a little jaded, I slouched waiting for my baggage when I was drawn to one of the large TV screens on the wall. CBC, the state-owned news channel, had a breaking story. There had been an earthquake in Quebec. Oh, how interesting, I said to myself, not giving it much thought. A small tremor in a neighbouring province is bound to make headlines here because, well, without wanting to sound rude, not much of anything huge happens in Canada most days. Compared with the countries I'd visited in the past two months - Egypt, India, Iraq - Canada enjoys political stability, life is ordered and people are happy.

Like most western countries, it is very safe and health-conscious. That is why I assumed a slight rumble was no big deal. Then I left the airport. Met with a warm welcome by my family, I was told that my nieces were waiting for me at home. "Aren't they supposed to be in school?" I asked. "They were evacuated," my sister replied. Evacuated? Apparently the quake I was quick to dismiss had measured 5.5 on the Richter scale and was the biggest to hit Canada since 1982. People were rattled.

My sister told me that the children in the school were first ordered to get under their desks and then told to file out quickly and to sit in the park until their parents could fetch them. No buildings had fallen down, but fine cracks had begun to show up in schools and older buildings, and inspectors were being sent in. My sisters were in the shopping mall when it struck and described it vividly. A shake, a loud boom, and then the ground felt like it was about to split. Shoppers began to shout and in the confusion people started dashing to the doors. The mall's glass ceiling shook with force but didn't shatter. My friend told me she was bewildered at first, having never experienced an earthquake before. Then she felt very scared. She made a joke of it, saying it reminded her of an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air in which Will Smith said he wanted to get out of California and go somewhere normal where the ground stays still and people move.

Another friend was really upset because she had lived through the Turkish earthquake of 1992. It brought back memories of breaking glass, buildings falling to the ground and people being crushed. The Ottawa quake might not have been devastating but it made people feel vulnerable. My mother was quiet, going through the motions of the day. But she kept saying that the tremor had made her feel that anything could happen at any moment and that no one would be prepared.

The last time I felt this type of vulnerability in my fellow Ottawa citizens was in 1998 when I was getting ready to graduate from high school and there was a devastating ice storm. Schools were shut down and we had to shower at the YMCA because there was no power in our city. It was an inconvenience but an adventure and no one felt like they were going to die. During the tremor, though, my family and friends had felt that for a few seconds they were not in control of their lives, a feeling very foreign to them.

I couldn't help but compare this with the people with whom I have been working and living lately. In Baghdad, children play within blast walls, journalists check under their cars for sticky bombs before leaving for work and the sight of heavily armed tanks crawling down the road is just a daily nuisance. In Cairo, poverty forces those in the slums to live day to day, not knowing if there will be food in their stomach when they turn in for the night.

While a violent tremor is a short-lived shock for the people of Canada, political instability in the third world means millions of people never have the luxury of feeling in control of their lives. For them the uncertainty rumbles on continuously. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo