The Peace That We Seek: Abida Mateen

Victim: Adil Khan..Survivor: Abdul Mateen and his wife (Name unknown) (Asim Rafiqui)

“It is difficult to explain, but you have to understand that all that we seek now is the peace that comes from seeing our child’s body and honouring him with a proper burial.” Abdul Mateen looks at his wife as he says this, but she does not meet his eye. Sitting on the bare floor of their small living room, photographs of their son lying in front of me, we have talked about the crisis their son’s death has left in the house hold. For Abdul Mateen it is an emotional one, but for the others, the economic pressures are proving too difficult to ignore or not complain about.

Abdul Mateen speaks about the peace of mind that he seeks, by at least taking one last look at his son. His mother, sitting in a corner of the room, has complained about their economic difficulties and that they have received no compensation for their loss. Abdul Mateen is clearly embarrassed by her interjections, and continue to focus on the pain and emotional trauma he and his wife have suffered. But a part of me feels that this is just the acts of an honorable man ashamed to admit that the loss of the only other earner in the family has left him in dire straits. Money and a way to pay for their life, is clearly an overwhelming concern even as their sorrows for their son’s loss preoccupy them.

The financial compensation promised by the federal, state, and city administrations requires an official death certificate, and hence, an identified body. The fear of being left out of the packages may have compelled some to simply claim any body they could. Many were burned beyond recognition, and that hundreds were only recovered in pieces and discarded. So the fear of not being to find their family members, and hence lose out on the monies promised, may have led to some simply claiming anything they could and going ahead with their funeral ceremonies. A month after the accident the state and hospital administrations faced the fact that there were more DNA based claims for missing bodies than the number of bodies left in the morgue. To make matters worse, some families found that their DNA tests matched an existing body when in fact they had already claimed a body and completed their funeral rites.

For many like Abdul Mateen it was a painful realization that they would never really know what happened to their son, and never be able to give him a last farewell.  But this realization was directly linked to the other fact that they would also never receive much-needed financial compensation. However unpleasant this connection is, however calculating it sounds, it is a fact of their life.

Adil earned about Rs. 6,500 a month, and Abdul Mateen perhaps about Rs 10,000 in his place as a painter. This was barely enough to manage a household with a husband and a wife, four daughters, seven sons, and a grand mother. The compensation money was much-needed, and it was yet another loss that would weigh heavily on them. But he does not want to say this to me outright. Or perhaps my cynicism is veiling what is truly man’s deep and singular sorrow for his son, with little or no concern for its economic meaning.

Abdul Mateen has been speaking nonstop, telling me about the situation outside the factory when he arrived – the intensity of the fire, the burnt, torn apart bodies being carried out to ambulances, the screams of those outside the walls, and the horrifying screams of those trapped inside. He is explaining the frantic, near hysterical search for his son, his tearing off sheets of bodies, dragging down stretchers, pulling at ambulance workers, begging the firemen, screaming at the policemen holding him back. He tells me all this in a tone that gentle and controlled. I feel that he just needs to talk, to let it all out.

Adil’s passport photos lie in front of us. I have seen these at almost every family home I have visited and more often than not they are the only photographs a family has of their children. The photos – white borders, light blue background, and that typical, confused stare straight at the camera that people adopt, are for the IDs issues to the men working at the factory. A passport photo. It strikes me that this is perhaps the only photograph they have of their son. Abdul Mateen continues to talk about his son as I try to take a closer look at his photograph. These photos are of a poor quality – printed on low quality paper the images appear slightly out of focus when examined closely. I hear Abdul Mateen tell me how much Adil loved to dress well.

The grandmother interrupts his flow of thoughts “People have received their checks, their compensation, and we have received nothing”. He waves to her to be silent. “The money will come,” he say slightly embarrassed, “It is the peace that we seek.” The grand mother waves her hands back at him and turns away as he continues “That money will come, but how will he and his son’s mother find their peace with what has happened?”

Clearly this is a conversation that has taken place here before.

“Adil loved cricket” I hear Abdul Mateen say. “He was waiting to watch the next Pakistan national team match. It was something he loved. We invested in a small TV for him too.” I begin to think that perhaps Abdul’s constantly speaking is a way to get others in his family to stop complaining about the money. “He was a bit of a coward. In the sense that he liked to keep to himself and mind his own business.” Adil’s mother has left the room, and the grand mother follows shortly afterwards. “He liked to dress well, to hang with his friends, but never looked for trouble.” There is a smile on Abdul Mateen’s face that has taken on a look as if in a dream.

I realize that speaking about his son actually brings him joy. That perhaps I am forgetting the simply human need to share, and express emotions and feelings that can now only exist in words and never in actions. We spend the rest of the hour with Abdul Mateen reminiscing about Adil and his habits.