Alive & Well & Living in Jacques Brel’s Brussels
Since the terrorist atrocities committed in #Paris on Friday, November 13, friends and family have reached out with concern to Jim and me. Email flurries intensified after #Brussels became the focus of investigators. Thanks to all who checked in with us. We, along with the nearly 1.2 million other residents of Belgian’s capital are alive and well. The streets haven’t emptied, and this richly diverse city continues to function amidst raids, enhanced security operations and the cacophony of constant police sirens.
Grand Place Evacuated!
The US Embassy has been sending out regular warnings such as these captured just today from a screenshot on my phone.
While surprised by the extent of the terrorist network operating from Brussels, Jim and I don’t feel less safe than we did before the attacks. Having traveled to hundreds of cities on six continents, we’re always cautious. But we’ve also learned in recent years that violence is often random, finding victims in movie theaters, grade schools and university lecture halls in places deemed insulated and safe.
What and Where is Molenbeek!
The Brussels Capital Region consists of nineteen semi-autonomous communes represented below. Jim and I live in Saint-Gilles, the tiny magenta colored area in the center of the below map. Counter-clockwise to the northwest of St. Gilles is #Molenbeek, shaded in dark green.
While the world is learning about Molenbeek, we who live in Brussels were not surprised that the commune was in the news. It’s not the first time that Molenbeek has been linked to terrorism. The commune had a connection to a terrorist ring apprehended in Verviers, Belgium that was planning attacks on Belgian police. Molenbeek was also connected to the January shooting at a Jewish supermarket in Paris, the recent plan to attack a Thalys train thwarted by Americans as well as the murder of five people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in 2014. Many in the press call Molenbeek the Jihadi capital of Europe.
Molenbeek is an edgy neighborhood that most people avoid. Every city has areas deemed seedy and unsafe, our hometown of Chicago no exception. Some people have been lambasted for calling such places, “No-go zones”. The Mayor of Paris even sued Fox News for labeling parts of Paris, “No-Go Zones” after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. But in my opinion arguing over words is senseless. The terrorists deserve our wrath and energy, not bombastic newscasters. Besides, it’s mere semantics. Whatever you care to call it, Molenbeek isn’t all bad, but it’s not a place where you’d want to find yourself alone at midnight.
Even residents of Moleenbeek think so. A woman, Moslem by her headscarf, came to our home recently to look at items we’re selling as part of our upcoming return to Chicago. When asked where she lived, she made a face, held her nose and said, “Molenbeek.” Obviously, she doesn’t want to live there either. Although her reasons for remaining there aren’t my business, I’m guessing that a combination of economic and cultural factors hold her there. Those twin anchors keep most of us rooted in place. The vast majority of Molenbeek’s residents are honest, peace-loving people who merely want to live their lives. They also grieve for the victims of the Paris attacks.
But Why Brussels?
So why does Belgium have more Jihadists per capita fighting for ISIS than any other nation? Why is Molenbeek a terrorist hotspot? Many in the press and State Security forces throughout Europe and the world are asking themselves the same questions. The following Op-Ed piece appeared in yesterday’s New York Times offers great background and perspective:
I’m no expert, but I agree with much of what the Op-Ed author, Chams Eddine Zaougui, a scholar of Arab studies, suggests as reasons for the cluster of terrorist cells in tiny #Belgium. Belgium is a very fragmented society, a real-life laboratory for any sociologist. My views are based only upon my two years of living in Brussels. But as a writer, I’m a keen observer. I study people, places and things. Stories, characters, settings and motivations are my stock and trade.
Readers of my blog know that I’ve written a lot about our impressions of Brussels. We love living here in the hub of Europe and our impressions are mostly favorable. BUT, we found a lack of warmth and welcome from locals. I even coined the term, Belge Face to describe the cold, disdainful sneers encountered daily on the streets of Brussels. People repel others, creating unnecessary and uncomfortable distance. It’s easy to feel alienated here. Most expats we know, even those who’ve lived here for many years, claim not to have any close Belgian friends. We’ve been offered many explanations. The Internet is full of discussions on the topic. Belgians prefer family and a very tight circle of friends, many they’ve known since childhood. Many Belgians never leave the villages of their births. This last fact is often given as an underlying cause for the massive traffic jams, the worst in Europe. Belgians would rather commute for hours than leave their hometowns clogging the roads.
Much of the commentary offered to explain why Belgium is a center of European jihadist activity centers on the poor assimilation of moslems into Belgian society. But how can one expect full integration of foreigners in a fragmented society that’s wary of each other? The Flemish and French don’t like each other–there’s even talk of secession.
There are benefits to a culture where passersby look at each other. There’s a sense of connection, however small—humans sharing a place and time. BUT, there’s also the benefit of vigilance—“I see you. You can’t get away with anything.” That’s the same objective of the Neighborhood Watches in the US. By turning away from passersby, society turns a blind eye to those who seek cover to create chaos and mayhem. By all accounts, the terrorists of Molenbeek felt safe plotting their heinous acts in the middle of Brussels, home to NATO and the EU Capital.
Many argue that Belgium is a progressive society. Euthanasia is allowed and the nation was the second to legalize same-sex marriage. But one can draw a fine line between a “live and let live” attitude and the more callous, “I don’t care what you do, just leave me alone.” Both achieve the same ‘progressive’ agenda but with very different methodologies and collateral consequences.
I certainly don’t have any answers for a healthy path forward. That’s best left to the Belgians, especially as Jim and I will soon be living nearly 5,000 miles away in Chicago. But with the scrutiny of the world now turned on them, although Belgians may still turn away from each other, they will have to look at themselves in the mirror.
But on a brighter note, let me leave you with one of Brussels’ favorite sons, Jacques Brel and his Bruxelles…