Will I be safe here? This is a natural question to ask when first arriving in a new destination, or at a new venue in that destination.
I was going to say that personal safety is the first thing one has to ascertain if you place stock in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but I’d misremembered my college textbook, in fact, it’s the second thing. The first is oxygen, so, yes, take a breath, find a restroom, and then look around and make sure you’re safe in body and in property.
Despite the news, it’s really hard for me to imagine a place that feels more safe than a mall. A mall is the embodiment of a known, safe world, a church in the American religion of consumerism, where the prayer is, keep it simple, spend money, be happy. Maps clearly indicate where one can find a pretzel or a pair of underwear, levels can be traversed by escalators, you can knock all your tasks off your to-do list in a go: repair your iPhone, comparison shop for a kayak, get your nails done, buy a book. The music is pleasantly unchallenging. The lights are bright. Life is totally predictable.
I have not been to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, still under terrorist siege as I type, but I recently spent the morning in Colonie Center Mall, near Albany, New York. (Making this one of the rare occasions that these two cities have appeared together in a sentence.) I was killing time while my friend took her kids to a birthday party, spent much of it in Barnes & Noble, bought unmentionables in Victoria’s Secret, filled a basket with cosmetics in Sephora and then walked away from it, which is really fun and you should try it. I never once felt even the slightest bit stimulated, much less threatened. I felt the exact same way when I visited the malls in Dubai. There was a Shake Shack, who needs a passport anyway?
But now the Westgate Mall in Nairobi has become a place for killing more than time and available credit. As Stanley Gazemba wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
I thought of the mall’s bookstore, where I had occasionally gone to sell my books. I have the number of one of the salesmen at the bookstore, and I thought about picking up my cellphone and calling him. But then I realized he might be hiding behind a counter, the boot of one of the gunmen inches from his face. That phone call could be his ticket to hell.
There is a movie theater on the second floor, and I thought of the people in there hearing what they presumed to be gunshots on the soundtrack, not knowing they were about to meet the real thing.