No, this is not Brussels. This is just Molenbeek.
This is a different city.
I am not so familiar with Brussels. I come here only, and only occasionally, for some EU meetings, in these glass and steel office buildings, all order and geometry, and Brussels is much more than that: but you get out from the metro station, at Ribaucourt, and you get into Naples. Worlds apart. With these narrow, congested streets, cars doing donuts, and these kids, leaning on a lamppost, like the mafia watchmen, with Nike high tops, headphones. A hoodie. Only, they are all Muslim. And on instinct the reaction, I admit it, is fear. You feel alone. Helpless.
Alone among strangers.
Which makes no sense: because you are the stranger, actually.
Molenbeek looks like the Middle East. With all these old-fashioned small shops, an electrician, a barber, a greengrocer. A clock repairer. And a store of used clothes which have been really used: not a vintage store, with miniskirts and hats and suit jackets from the Sixties, but something more like a thrift store, with worn out, faded shirts. Jackets with moth holes. And then these apparel stores with all the clothes on display outside. Because we have got used to kebab restaurants, and an halal butcher shop looks like any other butcher shop: but these stores sell Islamic clothes: long, large attire, dark colours, hijabs, coats. Djellabas.
You don’t see a Belgian around.
And in Brussels, on the other hand, in downtown Brussels, you don’t see an Arab. Everybody is white. White and stylish, with Church’s shoes and embroidered initials on their shirt. They are really two different cities. Physically different: Molenbeek has a population of about 100,000 people, and a density twice the average of the rest of the city. Even though is twenty minutes away. No more. I wasn’t expecting the Paris banlieue: yet, I expected a suburb. A twenty-minute metro ride, not a twenty-minute walk: Molenbeek is in the heart of Brussels. You cross a canal, you go straight, and you are in the Grand Place. But for Brussels, Molenbeek doesn’t exist. Here is where many of the most renowned terrorists of the last years come from. Those of the 2015 Paris attacks, but also, for example, those who in Afghanistan, in 2001, killed commander Massoud, the leader of the resistance against the Taliban. Now that I am here, yet, I don’t understand why everybody was surprised. And where else they could have come from?
I am surprised by the surprise.
Jihadists vary considerably from country to country. They have different backgrounds. Different motivations. In Tunisia, say, poverty plays a key role. Young men leave for Syria, or Libya, as once they were leaving for Europe: searching for a job. But when it comes to the jihadists of Chechnya, poverty is of no significance. Here it’s not a matter of unemployment, of destitution, even if of course, if you live in Molenbeek you are likely to be worse-off. But here it’s clear: it’s a matter of apartheid. And apartheid is the right word. There are two cities here, two worlds that not only look different: they are totally impervious to each other.
And honestly, I am more worried by Brussels, a certain Brussels, than by Molenbeek.
Understanding Molenbeek is not easy. At all. I am here on my way to Amsterdam, I am here for the Dutch edition of Syrian Dust, that can be read in Belgium as well, and I am here only for a week. A full week!, I am told by a number of editors: Great! May you write a reportage?, they say – but understanding Molenbeek takes weeks. Takes months. There’s no point in walking around, talking randomly with passers-by. People feel like under surveillance: and so they smile, politely, and they say that it’s all fine. There’s no problem, here. Perhaps in the past, but now no, they say. Drug? Unemployment? No, they swear. Everything’s fine. Molenbeek is a neighborhood like any other. And yet you sense immediately that they are actually afraid of you. Afraid not because you might be a cop: afraid because of a sort of uneasiness. It’s like they all feel under scrutiny. Under trial. It’s like you are the landlord, knocking suddenly at the door: and they want to show you that it’s all ok. There’s nothing broken.
Even though this is their home. Not mine.
I am the foreigner.
Because as soon as you speak with someone who knows who you are, who’s read your work, and trusts you, somebody who knows that whatever he says, you won’t misunderstand, that if he says: Sharia, you won’t think of hands cut off, you are told of quite a different Molenbeek: with hardly a connection with the rest of Brussels. A Molenbeek that before feeling poorer, feels kinda second rate. And on the other hand: it’s true. It’s simply true. None of the journalists I have to meet for my book is willing to meet me in a café of Molenbeek. Some of them have been in Yemen, in Iraq, yet they reply: It’s dangerous.
They opt for a café across the canal.
Because beyond the canal there is a different city. Really: if I hadn’t seen it, I would never believe it. There is a canal, and beyond the canal there is another Brussels, with a street, moreover, which is also one of the best shopping spots in town. And that ends basically in the Grand Place. But on this side of the canal, there are neither lights nor windows, only this small market which is a market of rags, with ten-pair packs of sockets for three euro, an old woman rummages into a trash can, she examines a moldy orange. An apple. A carton with some leftover milk. And among the stands, everywhere, policemen on patrol.
Or rather, warders.
On this side of the canal, life follows even a different calendar: the off day is Friday. And that’s when all at once, you notice all the mosques that you hadn’t noticed before. Because they have no domes, no minarets, they are ordinary flats of ordinary buildings: you raise your eyes high up, on Friday, and on the second, on the third floor, everybody is kneeling toward Mecca.
They are all prayer halls.
You enter a tea room, here, and the TV is tuned on al-Jazeera.
Molenbeek’s residents are mostly of Turkish and Moroccan descent. And actually, mostly against ISIS. Because as I am told by Mounim al-Moussaoui, a hostel manager, the real Islamic state is in Europe, it is the welfare state: a state that takes care of its citizens. Because that’s what the Quran calls for, he says: a just state. And many people here would agree. But that’s not enough to stand out against jihadists: because even though they don’t share their beliefs, even though they are not on their side, they are not on our side. The hostel run by Mounim al-Moussaoui is one of the cheapest of Brussels, and among the guests there is a Belgian woman in her sixties. I don’t ask her too much, truthfully, because I realize that she’s left home, that she is going through tough times. Something like a divorce. But she holds a MA, she has a sound academic background, and yet she thinks, and says, clearly, that she feels like being among barbarians, here. That she would like to be anywhere but in Molenbeek. Because Muslims have got too much freedom, she says, and that’s the result, men who lock their wives at home, and live on welfare with eight children each, and that’s why they have time for planning bullshit like the caliphate, because they hang around all the day and live off of others. Of those like her.
And if this is what many people here, and not only here, think of you, why you should risk, and challenge jihadists? It’s not your city.
You don’t share their beliefs: but you keep silent. Why getting into trouble?
For what? For protecting a society that doesn’t see you as a citizen, but as a problem?
As a backward stage of human evolution?
Brussels is the brutal admission of what really are our “multiethnic cities”. Only because we can have for dinner sushi or chicken curry, and buy a scarf of Tibetan cashmere right around the corner: but the truth is that we live just side by side. Near, not together.
With policemen on patrol.
And those in power, who live in still another city, a city of glass and steel and perfect geometry. Safe from the world.
Somehow, yes, Brussels is really Europe’s capital city. Its symbol.