The invisible city: chronicles of love and defiance in Brussels

(written on March 22nd 2016, day of the Brussels attacks – translated from CheFuturo

Here we go again. This morning’s explosions have plunged Brussels back into the lockdown we already went through in November 2015, after the Bataclan attacks in Paris. The airport is closed. Railway stations have been evacuated. The public transport network is down. Cinemas and museums are closed. The Université Libre de Bruxelles has been evacuated. No one is allowed in or out of schools. The government has declared a state of maximal alertness and asked everyone to stay put.

Since November, we have a name for this state of things: . It’s not an easy situation to be in. But neither is it desperate. As in November, as always, the images you see on TV are not representative of life in the city. In my neighborhood – between Saint-Gilles and Forest – shops are open. The weather is sunny, so outdoor tables of cafés are popular with my fellow Bruxellese (the photo above is fairly representative of a normal day); they shake their heads and exchange small tales of their life in the times of this new Lockdown.

In November, the city had demonstrated its level-headness and a very Belgian surrealist sense of humour. The police had asked not to share anything about its movements as it raided the city for suspects; as a response to that, we inundated Twitter of cat photos. I was delighted: this was a funny, deeply human way to collaborate without keeping your head down and staying put. I am sure that the same spirit will show up this time around. Already funny-defiant images are showing  up on social media, and the Bruxellese use Twitter to offer hospitality to people who have come for work and got stranded in the city.

The truth is, this city can not yield to fear of terrorism. Not in the sense that we do not want to (though we don’t); not even in the sense that we have a moral duty not to (though we do). We are actually unable to do so, in a very practical way. I am not aware of any other city that, though it is relatively small (1.1 million inhabitants), is so diverse. Walking the streets of Saint-Gilles you meet people from all over the world, and hear the sound of many languages: French, Dutch, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Spanish. You can attend Catholic Mass in Portuguese, and driving school in Polish.

According to Statistics Belgium, on January 1st 2015 Brussels had 771,000 residents of Belgian nationality, and 398,000 non-Belgian residents. With over one third of the population not holding Belgian citizenship, that’s as diverse as it gets outside of Dubai (which is uncomparable on many levels with any European city). The ten most common nationalities among non-Belgian Bruxellese are: French, Moroccan, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Bulgarian and Turkish.

These figures underestimate the foreign presence in Brussels, because individuals holding double citizenship are counted as Belgians. It turns out that only 44% of residents was holding Belgian citizenship at birth (source 1, source 2). This means that a mind-boggling 22% of residents are naturalised Belgians. Most naturalised citizens come from Morocco, Turkey, Congo and Guinea. European Union citizens normally don’t bother acquiring Belgian citizenship, as EU magic allows us to enjoy most rights granted to citizens anyway. It is estimated that 25% of residents are muslim.

This is the Brussels I live in. If you only ever hear about it because of EU politics or the recent security problems, it is invisible to you. But that does not make it any less real. Here, yielding to terror and xenophobia means not waving hello to your Romanian or German neighbour; change your favourite grocer (Moroccan) and that café with tables in the sun (Italian). In the home where I live, we would have to discriminate each other: we are two Frenchmen, a Pole, a Swede and me, an Italian. It’s unthinkable. Brussels cannot go xenophobic: it’s already over the tipping point. It is Europe as Europe could be, and will be if we do not lose sight of our common journey.

So, it’s no surrender for us. Tonight we will hold an open house. We’ll have friends from Egypt, America, Italy, Belgium – every one of them a Bruxellese. We will raise our glasses in love and defiance, and drink to the city that makes us brothers and sisters without requiring us to be the same. In time, the Lockdown will be lifted and we’ll take Brussels back, just as we did in November. The people responsible for this tragedy will be arrested and punished, as happened with those responsible for the Bataclan attacks in Paris. This is Brussels, sweetheart. We are not going down. Wherever you are, raise your glass with us.

Photo: sam.romilly on

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