On Brussels’ cosmopolitan escapism and its consequences for Flanders
– Nadia Fadil is a sociologist at the European University in Florence and the KULeuven
I am often envious of Brussels’ Maghribis. Not only because they have the flamboyant rue de Brabant while we have to do with the grey and cheerless Handelsstraat, or because they have Avenida, the only true Moroccan diner at Lemonnier while one can seek in vain for a comparable place in Antwerp that serves an equally tasty Moroccan breakfast. What I envy above all is the ease with which they talk big wherever they are, even as far as the various local councils, and the way they claim their city. Born and bred Brussels people, or ‘Maroxellois’ as some call themselves. I have been struck in many conversations by their closeness to their city. Proud of being from Brussels. Woe betide those who get it into their heads to ask after the real Brussels people, or to call them immigrants. A pride that sometimes takes the form of chauvinism and arrogance towards the Flemish newcomers in the Dansaert neighbourhood who want to make Brussels hip and cosmopolitan. Brussels, where minorities belong.
What a contrast with the difficult relationship I have with my city as a Maghribi living in Antwerp. Not only because a party that has for some time ruled the roost from the opposition benches prefers to see ‘us’ minorities absorbed into Flanders’ estatefilled landscape. But also because nowadays it is hard to unambiguously call myself a proud citizen of Antwerp or, with even greater difficulty, Flanders. I have a lovehate relationship with my home-base. It is the city that made and shaped me. It is the bearer of the language in which I can express myself best. But it represents an area, a region, which sees me in the first place as an immigrant.
This is why I have in recent years increasingly loudly proclaimed to anyone willing to listen that my days in Antwerp are numbered. Too conservative and too narrow- minded. Let the racist and nationalist language obsessives choke in their own clay soil, I’ll look for salvation elsewhere. Brussels, the only true metropolis in this country, comes very close to an alternative no man’s land where, surrounded by other minorities, I can seek my fortune. Bye bye right-wing Flanders, Brussels is calling me to its bosom. But let me just briefly reflect on the huge attraction that a city like Brussels exerts on someone like me, and above all how this fascination, or even adoration, is also the expression of a malaise and a defeatism. A malaise that ensues not only from the one-sided white image Flanders presents of itself, but also from the inability to tell an alternative story of Flanders.
Tell me about Brussels and I’ll tell you who you are
When one talks about Brussels, which Brussels does one mean? The Brussels of the 200,000 Flemish commuters, who see it above all as an empty city, an administrative centre that is mainly a place to work but which also deters people by its complexity and chaos? Does one mean the Brussels of the European officials who see it as an obligatory stepping as a transit zone that fortunately offers cheap weekend return trips, either home or to other, more exciting European cities? Or is one talking about the Brussels of the Flemish (progressive and otherwise), who seek out the lively cultural scene in the capital, its countless festivals and cosmopolitanism? Because there is also the Brussels of the Belgian (and other) Maghribi, who mainly know the city as the home of the Rue de Brabant, where the latest Arabic pop or fashionable made-in-China clothes can be bought for next to nothing in the breaks between strolling and flirting. And there is also the Brussels of the youngsters, who stand waiting for the time to pass on various street corners and metro stations. And finally, there is also the Brussels of the homeless, the vagabonds, the undocumented migrants, who have appropriated the city’s benches and squares and drink away their sorrow with a laugh in the shadow of its trees and churches. Brussels appears like a blank canvas on which various stories and ideal images are drawn in disconnected and multicoloured lines. The impossibility of capturing Brussels, with its lack of identity, in a single story is captivating and seductive. It seems there are no absolute truths that apply to Brussels. Everything said about the city is relative, because it is said above all about oneself. After all, talking about Brussels reveals your identity, says something about the circles in which you move, the position you occupy. It is a translation of personal laments, wishes or desires. This makes talking about Brussels intimate and confidential.
Just like every city, Brussels exists by grace of those who want to represent it. But in Brussels’ case there is a multiplicity of representations, a real polyphony of voices that are an expression of the various worlds the city contains. With an estimated 46% of its inhabitants of non-Belgian origin, Brussels is one of the most multicultural capitals of Europe (Willaert & Deboosere, 2005). Although it is officially bilingual, it is in reality a multilingual city where an Egyptian with his Arabic will more easily find his way around the streets near the South Station than a Dutchwoman with her Dutch.
Immigrants in Brussels are more than chance transients or disruptive elements. They have a relationship of affection and closeness with the city, since they filled up the vacated neighbourhoods when the better-off Brussels people left the city for the greener outskirts in the sixties and seventies. In those quiet years, when no one cared about Brussels, they took care of the city and signalled their presence on various facades and street-corners. What is more, Brussels is the incarnation of a post-nationalist project, a place where myths of the nation state and ideas of order and monolingualism are challenged in a striking manner. Beyond uniform identity. More than other cities in Belgium, and other capitals in Europe, Brussels exists above all by way of the various groups that claim it. Even in its role as a capital it is divided between a national state (Belgium), several language communities (Flanders and the French-language community) and a transnational community (Europe) which all claim her like jealous lovers. Unlike Paris or London, Brussels does not play the part of a showcase for a single national project, or an empire of yesteryear – although the dignified spaciousness around the royal palace does indeed remind us of such past yearnings. Brussels owes its international fame mainly to the European role it plays, and the national interest it arouses is based above all on the community disputes that traverse the country.
So the notion of Brussels as a multicultural border zone arises as an alternative to the story of monolingualism, uniformity and oppressive regionalism which today seems increasingly to apply in Flanders. Whereas Brussels serves us up a story of multiple identities and hybridity, Flanders seems increasingly to opt for rigid identity, monolingualism and orderliness. Although Antwerp presents itself as a metropolis, it is above all a metropolis in Flanders, with the exception of the artistic niches (often international). It is a city for everyone, but above all for everyone who can speak Dutch and does not wear a headscarf as a public officer. Brussels, as a multicultural island in white Flanders, therefore offers itself as a multilingual haven in the midst of regions that present themselves mainly through their monolingualism and uniformity, whether it be French- or Dutch-speaking. After all, the discourse on Brussels is one of multiculturalism in the profound sense of the word. Not just in its composition, but also in the multiple identities it possesses, and in the various loyalties it allows for.
Glorification as a malaise
This glorification of Brussels as a multifaceted and multicultural metropolis, a city that cannot possibly be reduced to a single story, may well provide a breathing space for people like me who are tired of the story of white Flanders, it also contains a number of pitfalls.
And this is not only because it threatens to blind us to the harshness of the city, and to the fact that the current hype about Brussels comes at a price that is paid most heavily by the weakest socio-economic groups. With an estimated 20% of its inhabitants in poverty, Brussels has become a dual metropolis, where there is an increasingly sharp distinction between haves and have nots. Walking the streets around the Josaphat Park gives a completely different impression of Schaarbeek to a similar walk around Liedtsplein, and the many homeless sleepers remind us of the vulnerability of social safety nets in a capital that is becoming increasingly expensive. Europeanisation may well have put our capital firmly on the transnational map, but as a global centre it illustrates above all the harshness of late-capitalist development and the crumbling of our welfare state. In addition, the discourse regarding Brussels as a multicultural alternative should not make us forget that discrimination and racism
definitely do exist there.
Recent studies show that Maghribi, Turkish and African minorities find it three times harder to find a job in the metropolis (Martens, Ouali, et al., 2005), and even in Brussels, a belief in assimilation among French-speakers and a rigid lay rhetoric leave no place for headscarves at school or in local government offices. Cosmopolitanism does not necessarily bring with it a cosmopolitan mentality.
However, the most disturbing thing about the multicultural glorification of Brussels is the ironic, almost unnatural alliance it fuels: that between the Brusselsloving Fleming and the forces of Flemish nationalism. Rather than puncturing a right-wing nationalist image of Flanders, this portrayal of Brussels, as a border zone, seems actually to sustain and even to nourish it.
The representation of Brussels as a multicultural island sets this city resolutely outside the representation of Flanders, fixing it as an image of everything that Flanders is not. While progressives see a capital as a lively world city that contrasts sharply with a language-obsessed Flanders,
Flemish nationalists see above all a chaotic city that deviates from the notion of a ‘well-governed’ Flanders and from the orderliness and monolingualism they pursue. However, both arguments are based on the same uniform representation of Flanders, and localise the hybridity and cross fertilisation mainly in Brussels.
This sort of cosmopolitan celebration of Brussels seems therefore to reinforce Flanders in its united pursuit of homogeneity, uniformity and monolingualism. By projecting its multicultural laments on to another city, it leaves the field open for White Flanders and its regionalist urges. After all, to both progressives and nationalist conservatives, Brussels embodies a different model, one that deviates from the nationalist pursuit of uniformity that has the upper hand in today’s Flanders. For this reason, the cosmopolitan escapism of Brussels seems rather to express a form of defeatism, and thereby appears to be almost an unwilling ally of a right-wing view of Flanders.
What does it mean for Flanders (and for Belgium) when minorities are only allowed to feel ‘at home’ in a place that is populated mainly by people in transit? When migrants can only lay claim to liminal spaces or border zones such as Brussels? Does it not imply the bankruptcy of Flanders (and of Belgium) when its heterogeneity can only be expressed in areas of law that belong to no one?
Brussels as a mirror of the other Flanders
Rather than providing an alternative model, shouldn’t Brussels above all be a mirror for Flanders? A mirror that confronts it with its multicultural reality. And, rather than acting as a haven, should Brussels not first and foremost point out to us, Brusselsloving Flemings and Dutch-speaking Brussels people, our inability to think up different representations of Flanders, and to tell Flanders’ story in a different way? A Flanders which is currently suffering because it is unable to live in peace with a part of itself.
A Flanders that is doing harm because it continues to label a percentage of its children as foreigners (‘allochtoon’). The various waves of immigration into this country did not stop at the outskirts of Brussels, but extended into the depths of Flanders and are still continuing onward. By now, almost half the schoolchildren in Antwerp come from a multilingual family and the main towns and cities in Flanders have evolved into multicultural zones. For several years now, these minorities in Flanders have been making themselves heard louder and more often, politically, artistically, intellectually and also economically. They challenge the Flanders that wishes to present itself as uniform. They puncture its monolingualism and its notion of neutrality, and have proclaimed districts such as Borgerhout and Antwerp North as their sphere of activity. Even though a large part of Flanders does not go along with this, these offspring of its reckless migrationary affaire are making themselves felt and are claiming their space.
Brussels-loving Flemings and Dutchspeaking Brussels people have an important part to play in helping to shape this multicultural representation of Flanders and resisting its one-sided representation. Like Brussels, Flanders only exists by grace of those who wish to represent it, but unlike Brussels these alternative stories of Flanders often remain largely unknown. So let us therefore tell the story of the other Flanders (and that of the other Belgium) over and over again. Flanders as the assembly point for critical and politicised minority organisations, of powerful antiracist alternatives. Let us also constantly rewrite its history anew. Not only as an oppressed language community, but also as a place of immigration and emigration, as a former coloniser. And let us think up new images for the future of Flanders. Not as an independent Flanders, but as a breeding ground for new identities.
So, let us tell the story of Flanders again and again, but always louder and in a thousand and one different ways. And not only the degenerated Flanders of Tom Lanoye, Guido Gezelle, Wannes Van de Velde or Luc Tuymans, but also the Flanders of Rachida Lamrabet or Chika Unigwe, of the Young Gs or J Beezey, of Latif or the Ben Chikha brothers and the many others who, often in silence, are working on a different imaginary of Flanders and of Belgium.
Martens, A.; Ouali, N.; Van De Maele, M.; Vertommen, S.; Dryon, Ph. & Verhoeven, H. (2005) Etnische discriminatie op de arbeidsmarkt in het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest : onderzoek in het kader van het Sociaal Pact voor de Werkgelegenheid van de Brusselaars, Brussel: BGDA.
Willaert, D. & Deboosere, P. (2005) Buurtatlas van de bevolking van het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest bij de aanvang van de 21e eeuw, Ministerie van het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest: Brussels Instituut voor Statistiek en Analyse.