random notes from Brussels

The Chinese Tea Shop

It was 10 AM on a wintry Saturday. When I parked and locked my bicycle, the local shopping area was only just waking up.  Pushing the door of the small, narrow shop, I revelled in the delicious smells of teas in all varieties.   
The young Chinese woman, who took over the tea-shop only last year, was busying herself with filling a jar while talking excitedly into a smartphone lying nearby on the counter. A rapid salve of Chinese of which I could make out only two words:  metro” and something like “terrorista”. 
Upon that last word, she looked up at me with a quick anxious smile, and we both nodded gravely. When she had hung up and started filling my tea order, she updated me on the latest news, in careful but hesitant French:  they’ve closed the metro, they say commercial centres are at risk. It’s all terrible”. And looking pleadingly at me, she asked, as if I had an answer: “will this still go away?”

A grave awareness

It’s not acute fear – it’s something else, more like a grave awareness that testing times are upon us, that we’re not sheltered from the worse. That trouble is no longer only reserved for "the rest of the world".   A grave concern shared by everybody, well at least , everybody in my surroundings. Like the Flemish colleague  in what world will my 4-year old son grow up? “. Or the IT colleague with Turkish roots “terrible, it is everywhere".  Or the quiet despair of my Paris colleagues from Lebanon, who are reliving their worst nightmares, shocked by two successive attacks, one day in their native city Beiruth and the next in their adopted home town Paris. Or the concern of the Thalys train attendant with African roots who,  sending away two youths trying to board the  train without ticket, yells nervously to his colleague “they say they’re Syrians, what should I do, and no police in sight”. Or the anger of the Moroccan grocer: "these madmen are ruining everything". 


Shall we draw comfort from the fact that at least there is a “we” with shared concerns?     
Shall we find strength in a united “we “, even if only united in having a common enemy? (A unanimous UN vote …. can it possibly herald something like a coherent peace and reconstruction plan ?)
Can we put our faith in a “we” of citizens of all stripes who realise that, all alike,  we value  security, peace and individual freedom, that we all abhor chaos and violence?  A shared feeling of European citizenship and responsibility?

Not an uplifting thought 

Or should we rather ponder the extent of the challenge – acknowledging the presence of seeds of possible civil strife: different group-identities,  based on race, religion, culture or language.

I was tending towards  the optimist “we, citizens” thesis. But then I read the article about the youth  (20) who blew himself up at the Stade de France. 
Just an ordinary  kid, playing football and doing video games – so his friends told.
His father died when he was eight. His mother struggled to raise 4 children. A difficult school career, including a year at a school in my old home town. There are photos of him in red swimming shorts in a recreation park there (where I spent many a summer day a long time ago). And then one day, at 19 , he’s off to Syria. Posting a photo of himself, somewhere in a Syrian villa, again in shorts, but this time very macho with a gun. And with a proud caption, full of typos  I’m playing in the big league now”.

There must be many impressionable youths like him - looking for adventure, looking for respect – easy prey for cold-blooded propagandists and religious fanatics.

Not an uplifting thought.

          (some defensive notes about Brussels, which has been branded by the international press as the centre of European Jihadism)

It is true that the many Belgian tribal compromises between Dutch and French speaking communities have diverted energy and resources from more pressing matters, such as the management of immigration and integration. 
The typical urban issues of a super-diverse city such as Brussels have also often been neglected by Flemish or Walloon politicians defending the interests of their regions or linguistic communities only. 
And the 90’s success of a local racist party (Vlaams Belang) has not only made life harder for immigrants but has also pushed too many well-meaning citizens and politicians in simply denying the possibility of integration problems with newcomers.   

And Belgium indeed scores badly when it comes to education-levels and employment of its citizens with foreign roots. As to religious radicalism, whether Brussels is infiltrated more by Salafism and radical Islam, than, say, Paris' banlieues,  I cannot say. But,  relatively speaking more Syria-fighters have been recruited here than elsewhere in Europe.

Is all this only due to bad Belgian governance and native resistance to immigration? No, it isn’t.

The pattern of immigration into Belgium has had its own particularities. For instance, Belgium has had relatively more immigration "for family reasons" (bringing in people without any schooling to speak of) than immigration for work or study reasons. So from the outset, the integration gap was bigger.

And then there’s the central location of Belgium/Brussels, “in the heart of Europe” – a great logistical and transport advantage: not only attracting international institutions and companies, but also international trafficking of the illegal sort.  Furthermore, Brussels, as a big French speaking city just across the border of France, has quite naturally, ever since the 19th century (remember Victor Hugo) attracted French fugitives.  

62% of Brussel's population is foreign born, according to the   World Migration Report (Table on p39) (which  is in fact  more than I would have thought - it's a varied mix of course: of European expats, of French fiscal refugees, of French Jihadis, of NATO officals, of multi-national company employees, of lobbyists, of Polish electricians, of Congolese students, of Afghan refugees, of Moroccans from diverse backgrounds, of Turcs and Kurds, of ...... etc etc).

Living for over 25 years in Brussels now,  I have witnessed the city's evolution to a super-diverse city. And yes, Brussels definitely has issues of failed integration and Islamist radicalism to deal with.

But no, not all is bad in Europe's most diverse city.
In fact, mostly, all these people do get along. It's a subjective indicator of course, but the energy in the streets of Brussels is quite stimulating. There are no "no-go" areas, not even in Molenbeek.... (though for a woman, it can get sometimes very awkward indeed).  There is a growing middle class of citizens with non-European roots - from hospital doctors and nurses, over bus conductors and shop keepers to accountants and IT specialists.      

I do care a lot about Brussels - and for its sake, for the sake of its inhabitants,  I really would like to put faith in a "we"-thesis - we citizens of Brussels .....   But it will demand still a lot more work, more goodwill and more commitment from authorities and inhabitants alike. 



billoo said...

I know people just say these words without much thought but: stay safe, fff!

Swann Ffflaneur said...

thanks for your concern b.!
you too stay safe - it's a dangerous world out there