How it feels when the heart of the city you love is broken
The location of home is a movable feast. For some it is a cosy image of a childhood house where their heights through the years are pencilled on the wall. For others their minds will forever return to those formative university years. For some it is an adoptive city where they finally found their place in life. For me, I left my heart in Brussels. I only lived in the city for seven years, but it is where I had my first kiss, first heard the words ‘I love you’, first had my heart broken and first learned that life goes on despite this.
Brussels is not just any city to me, but my city. I awoke on Tuesday to the radio blaring that it was under attack, that bombs had ripped through Zaventem airport, smashing and pulverising travellers just like me. Perhaps on their way home to see beloved grandparents as I had been so many times, or simply harried commuters who were glued to the email on their phones seconds before that life was destroyed. I could feel the howling pain of a city so small that any attack would touch someone, somewhere, you knew.
When a second explosion blew out the doors of a silver metro train, vapourising dozens of lives in its foul wake, it was at a station that I had travelled through daily on the way to and from school. It was a station whose name flashed past my eyes on my commute as I yawned away the morning, as I wondered if I had done all my homework, as I excitedly anticipated seeing my boyfriend. Maalbeek was part of the wallpaper of my morning journey.
As smoke belched out bloodied commuters on to the street, I felt the tears begin to flow. Why? I hardly know anyone who lives in the city anymore, and those that I did know were not likely to have been travelling in the morning rush hour. But while I could weep for every family crushed and shattered by death and loss, the familiarity of this tragedy made it hit home much harder.
Brussels is a like a familiar teddy to me, a well worn comforter that makes me feel at home. Walking across the cobbled Grand Place, its soaring gothic confections surrounding me is like a hug from my childhood. The antiques market of the Sablon, a babble of the monied denizens of Uccle poring over heavy oil paintings and glitzy ornaments, was what drifted through my window as I tried to enjoy that teenage privilege of sleeping until 2pm.
The Midi station was the unsavoury starting place for trips home to London, the Bourse, where now candles flicker to remind us of the dead and injured, was where I would grab a post drinks McDonald’s burger. The trams and metro were my network of freedom, taking me to parties and nightclubs, to assignations and break ups, to gossip with friends and to get to school.
I cannot compute the comfortably bourgeois city of women in fur coats and children in preppy chinos, of chocolate shops displaying their sweet wares like precious jewels, of the salty, greasy joy of chips and mayonnaise, of waffles crisp and vanilla sweet, with this city of dust, destruction, twisted shrapnel and nails of hate flying and piercing it to the core.
I suppose I shouldn’t care about the mayhem unleased in Brussels more than anywhere else in the world, but I do. Having lived in London for the past couple of decades since leaving Brussels, the concept of bombs, horror, terrorism and innocent blood shed is hardly alien. There have been attacks on the tubes, beheadings in the streets and the threat of a spewed outpouring of bile and bombs is never far away.
But Brussels is different; it is cosy, sedate, perhaps even smug and pompous, but for it to become a hot bed of terror is inconceivable. Though I, and many contemporaries, will admit perhaps it should’t have come as quite such a surprise. Disenfranchisement is the currency of Brussels. As French speakers squabble with Flemish, and tie themselves up in the impenetrable tangles of red tape, a whole community of North Africans was left to fester for decades, creating a culture ripe for brainwashing.
Despite living in a smart square in central Brussels I was often confronted with the spray painted words, ‘Maroc dehors’ (Morrocans Out). There was no sense of integration, instead these dark skinned immigrants were ignored and demonised.
Racism was a part of everyday life, perhaps because no one who had spent any time on the night time streets of Brussels had avoided a casual mugging or, as a girl, groping from the sullen clusters of North African youths, who longed for the trappings of a comfortable life, but wouldn’t dare to aspire to it in this fragmented society.
Everyone in Belgium carries a carte d’identité. When I lived there in the early 1980s acquiring one as a foreigner was a humililating and alientating experience. You would arrive early, before the office opened, and queue along the pavement for hours before being greeted with a brusque yes or no as to whether you were someone the Belgians wished to become a part of their country. Belgian civil servants are renowned amongst residents for their surly approach to customer service.
This was the days before Schengen took effect in 1995, so we Brits queued alongside everyone else. It was not pleasant to feel unwelcome in a country you wanted to call home, but at least we knew that our ID cards would be issued once we reached the head of the queue. I’m sure this wasn’t such a dead cert for those whose colour ensured their faces didn’t fit so easily.
Even once Moroccan immigrants were granted their cards they would need them far more than I. Belgian police are not the friendly bobbys on the beat I knew from my life in England. They tout machine guns and have the right to stop anyone to ask for their papers.
They would regularly trawl the Rue Neuve, one of the arteries of night life, on a Saturday demanding ID from random revellers. Well I say random: for white teenagers we could wave our slip of green card and be on our way; brown youngsters would be smashed against the side of the police van and frisked. There was no sense that there should be any fairness in stop and search policies. If you were brown you were fair game.
I would love to say I cared, but at the time this was just life. Moroccans didn’t mix with regular Belgians, even less so with the monied ex-pat crowd I was part of. They preyed on us, stole from us, grabbed at us in the street, made us feel uncomfortable with their dark brown stares. There was no attempt to assimilate them; instead they were hidden in ghettos, fear and loathing keeping them in segregated schools and low paid jobs.
These were not a section of society that we chose to recognise, but instead sought to ignore. Belgium is not a progressive society. Perhaps that is what I loved so much about it. This is a place where one style of jacket remained in fashion for a full 25 years — from the early 70s to the late 90s. Where bars, restaurants, architecture and shops are prized for traditon and longevity, not innovation or change.
But this slow pace of change also means the feuds are never settled, and that bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace. The tradition of closing for lunch, a plethora of bank holidays, keeping the hours that Britain ditched back in the 50s, are all prized above actually solving problems.
It is also a tiny place, that has, admittedly through some fault of its own, become guardian of the peace in a bloody war between ISIS and everyone who disagrees with them. With a population of just over 170,000 people, the equivalent of a single small London borough, Brussels has now been tasked with acting as the gatekeeper of Islamic terrorism.
While Belgium may be to blame for not keeping its house in order, when cities like Paris and London cannot keep their populations safe, how on earth could Brussels be expected to?
This is a tiny and provincial country rife with divides — a country that cannot decide the identity or language of its own people — so it is perhaps no wonder that it failed so spectacularly at assimilating a culture with whom it had nothing in common.
So as my old home rebuilds the devastating damage inflicted by these bombs, my only hope is that by smashing its heart to smithereens, there is some chance to rebuild it free from the racial fault lines that have always threatened to tear it asunder.