Europe’s Capital

What Next For Melting Pot Brussels?

Brussels locals at the Place de la Bourse pay tribute to those killed and injured in March 22 attacks. (Source: dpa - Bildfunk)
At the Place de la Bourse, Brussels locals pay tribute to those killed and injured in March 22 attacks. (
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Terrorist attacks in Brussels in March this year, which killed 32 civilians and three bombers, have called into question the city’s identity. Mostly known as the center of European-Union bureaucracy, the city is now dealing with its new reputation as a terrorist nest.
  • Facts


    • Brussels has a long history of immigration and three out of four people who live there are either foreigners or have a migrant background. There is no longer a dominant ethnic group in Brussels.
    • The largest group of foreigners is French, with most recent figures suggesting around 60,000 live in the city. The number of French citizens living in Brussels has doubled over the past year.
    • In terms of geography, Brussels is not very big. It measures around 161 square kilometers compared to a city like Berlin that measures around 900. As a result all of the city’s different populations live in relatively close quarters.
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As the horror gradually subsided, people gathered to sing. At first it was only a few dozen joining together in singing the classic chansons of Jacques Brel on the steps of the old Brussels Stock Exchange. The great singer was originally from Schaerbeek, one of Brussels’ many colorful neighborhoods. Some of the perpetrators of the attack of March 22 also lived in Schaerbeek. As we know today, they prepared their bombs undisturbed in a small apartment not far from the train station.

Brussels makes many people think of the roaring twenties, back to the days when men wore top hats and women crinoline, omnibuses bobbed and swayed down the cobblestone streets and the next war wasn’t far off. “That was the time Brussels was brusseling” – the song ends with this line. The melody isn’t simple, but on that spring day more and more people stopped to listen or sing along. Two weeks after the attack, Brel’s homage to his hometown sounds like a defiant self-assertion. “That was the time Brussels was brusseling.” Thirty-five people are dead.

Brussels, the little-big metropolis, suffers greatly from its reputation. “Brussels” decided this and blocked that, no European city is mentioned more often in the news. But for most Europeans, Brussels exists only as a cipher, a code word, a non-place, an irritating buzzword – the unpopular capital of an impossible union.

Brussels has changed under the shadow of terrorism. Its rough edges and fault lines are more exposed. And terrorists have also shifted the question of identity into a new light.

I lived in the city for five years, reporting about “Brussels,” covering innumerable E.U. summits, special meetings, crisis councils – sometimes about Greece, sometimes Russia and Ukraine and most recently mostly about refugees. And now Brexit is also on the agenda. For many people, the impression that something is going enormously wrong “in Brussels” is reinforced with every new crisis. Is Europe failing? That question has been following me around for five years.

On March 22, I was about to get on a subway train when a fellow reporter called me, asking whether I had already heard about an attack at the airport. No, I hadn’t. “But I’m just on my way to the office,” I answered. I got off the subway train at the Schuman station shortly after 9 a.m. At 9:11a.m., an adherent of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, Khalid El Bakraoui, set off another bomb only one station further on, in Maelbeek.

As after the Paris attacks in November 2015, the trail led to Molenbeek, in a part of the city where many Muslims live. And one kind of shorthand for Brussels was joined by another: Brussels, a terrorist nest.

But in fact you can learn a lot about Europe in Brussels. You just have to leave the European quarter with its sterile office suites and turn toward the hopelessly winding, wonderfully chaotic city to do so.

Enter the grounds of the former slaughterhouse, pass through a mighty portal with two bronze steers enthroned on it. To the right and left are small shops: The Roi du Jambon, the King of Ham, a Persian grill and a Polish butcher. Right behind, arching upward on narrow supporting beams, is the iron roof of the market hall.

Yams and plantains, pigs’ feet and ox tongues, mountains of offal – there’s nothing missing. Live chicks cost €2, or about $2.25, doves €5 and chickens €6. Black women in colorful clothing push through the throng, and tattooed men pull heavily laden shopping carts behind them. A couple of young Moroccans are sucking on a hookah. In the abattoir, you can buy car jacks and sets of living room furniture, wraparound skirts, bomber jackets, oriental tea services and a Koran for children, in either Arabic, Dutch or French.

The old slaughterhouse isn’t in any tourist guides. The most tourist-friendly thing you’ll find there is the gourmet restaurant on the other side of the street. And yet this market with its multitude of colors and smells gives shape to a city that is European and African, Oriental and at times also Asiatic – a city that is international in every respect. Immigrants from Congo, the former Belgian colony; Moroccans who were recruited as foreign workers 50 years ago; their children and their children’s children; and lastly, E.U. citizens from Eastern Europe – they all are doing business here.

Another group of immigrants can be found around the prestigious Avenue Louise not far from the abattoir: French millionaires fleeing the top tax rates in their homeland. Terrorism and capitalism both make use of the open borders and short distances. It takes 80 minutes to travel from Paris to Brussels on a high-speed train. The number of French citizens living in the city has almost doubled in recent years.

And since Brussels isn’t very large, the whole cosmos of populations is crowded into close quarters. It is only a couple of steps from Avenue Louise to Matogne, the African quarter, and a few steps further to the E.U. government quarter.

“We are experiencing the pains of a new society being born. It hurts, but we have to have faith in it.”

Stefan Hertmans, Belgian author and playwright

Also Molenbeek, the alleged “nest of terrorists,” is anything but a ghetto. The former blue-collar district is proof that it is still possible to find affordable housing in a central location in Brussels. Which is why you won’t only find mosques and halal butchers in Molenbeek but galleries and music studios as well. It takes 20 minutes to walk from the old stock exchange to Rue des Quatres Vents. Twenty minutes from the city center to the outskirts. Except what exactly does city center mean? And where do the outskirts begin?

Three out of four people who live in Brussels are foreigners or have an immigrant background – that is more than in any other major city in Europe. The largest group is from Morocco. Demographics indicate a seminal shift. There is no longer a dominant ethnic group in Brussels.

Never, says Maria Tarantino, could she ever imagine so many foreigners living in Rome as do in Brussels. The Italian documentary filmmaker came as a student to Belgium at the end of the 1990s and has stayed, like so many others. Ms. Tarantino shot a magnificent film about Brussels, “Our City.” The English title was carefully chosen since the director is drawing a picture of a modern Babel, the cacophony of a large city in which English is often the lowest common denominator.

Ms. Tarantino’s Brussels is no picturesque city. Her camera pans across abandoned vacant lots and building sites. It finds beauty in the city’s people. A taxi driver from Iran raves about the beauty and energy of the city before he disappears down a gloomy street tunnel. A Portuguese construction worker, hovering high above a new E.U. council building in a crane, strikes up a heart-rending, homesick song.

“Our City”. But who are we? Ms. Tarantino filmed a school in Molenbeek long before the terrorist attacks. A young man with dreadlocks complained about “the gypsies,” for whom, he said, there is no place in Brussels. About himself, he says, “to the Belgians, I’m no Belgian, only a black person. And when I am in the Congo, I’m not black. I’m white.” His teacher asks what a Belgian is? “He’s blond, he doesn’t have an accent, he drinks beer,” answers the young man, “and he doesn’t have the same friends I do.”

Brussels is the capital of a divided country, divided between the south and the Germanic north. The question about who “we” are has been debated for ages. Brussels was originally a Flemish city but today French dominates. The pain of this is a significant source of Flemish nationalism. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, this, the city has outgrown the country of Belgium in a remarkable way. Paris is a French metropolis, London a British metropolis. Brussels, on the other hand, is a metropolis whose national connections are increasingly vanishing.

Le Cirio is located right next to the old stock exchange, a plush café founded in 1886 by an Italian. Belgian crooner Mr. Brel drank coffee here. Stefan Hertmans, the writer, suggested Le Cirio as a meeting place. The 65-year-old is one of Belgium’s most important authors and recently he worked the March terrorist attacks into a play, “Antigone in Molenbeek.”

“Good thing you made it here,” says Mr. Hertmans and points to his tablet. A major police operation is underway at the moment in the square in front of the opera house; many streets are closed in the city center. A hot summer day, the thermometer is way above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Which is why a man walking alongside the opera wearing a down jacket attracted attention. A couple of cable ends could be seen poking out from under his jacket.

Mr. Hertmans passes over a tablet. The writer has been keeping up on a live ticker as to what has been happening only a few hundred meters away. Police operations like this one have become part of everyday life in Brussels, just like the soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling in the subway, in King’s Park or in front of the old slaughterhouse – as if they could prevent anything. The attacks left their mark on him; his son just missed being in the subway where the bomb exploded in Maelbeek.


Police in riot gear at one of the memorials to the victims of terrorist attacks in Brussels in March. (Source: AP)
Police in riot gear at one of the memorials to victims of terrorist attacks in Brussels in March. (Source: AP)


He has always been optimistic, says Mr. Hertmans. “But I’m not anymore.” Not long ago he had described Brussels as a kind of testing ground for the future. Living here means that one needs be willing to be subsumed into the city, to give up identity and language, to forget them, in order to merge with the vital and truly cosmopolitan character of this unbelievably chaotic society.

Mr. Hertmans speaks of the divided worlds that exist in Brussels; of the radical imams who have long been ignored; of his own naiveté.

“Something went wrong,” he says. The chaotic society that still fascinates him became threatenng. Pluralistic identities? “That’s a beautiful dream but also a serious sickness.” Mr. Hertmans speaks four languages. He is as much at home in Paris as in Amsterdam. He is, he says, a Belgian citizen and a Flemish writer who writes in Dutch. Now he is asking himself, “if our Belgium identity is weak, do we actually need a “we”?” The thought had never occurred to him before.

The presumed terrorist in front of the opera turns out to be a harmless, confused bystander who just wanted to measure something. But Mr. Hertmans’ image of the city, on whose outskirts he has been living for years, has changed under the shadow of terrorism. He now sees its rough edges and fault lines more sharply. The terrorists have shifted the question of identity into a new light.

Brussels is a city without a center. The marketplace with its freshly-polished baroque facade belongs to the tourists, not the locals. There is no place like the Place de la République in Paris, where a nation torn apart can reassure itself. The square in front of the old stock exchange isn’t even a real square; the building itself has stood empty for a long time. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the square nonetheless became a public stage. People gathered there and sang and mourned. Right-wing extremist hooligans trampled on the candles and flowers that had been set out there. “On est chez nous,” they yelled, we’re at home. The Brussels Philharmonic played Beethoven’s Ninth on the steps of the old stock exchange. All men shall be brothers. Then overnight the Brussels sanitation department unceremoniously swept up all the flowers and did away with all traces of mourning. Only a white sheet remains on which a series of city names are written: Nice, Istanbul, Orlando, Baghdad, Kabul, Rouen – places of Islamist terrorist attacks with which Brussels now feels a bond.

“Brussels is the experimental laboratory for the demise of old Europe. You could say that we are experiencing the pains of a new society being born,” Mr. Hertmans says. “It hurts, but we have to have faith in it.” The society he envisions would allow space for many identities, without disintegrating into individual pieces.

Is Europe failing? Are the events in Brussels a symptom of that?

In the past, when I  staggered out of the E.U. buildings at 3 in the morning, dazed from lack of sleep and crisis-summit fatigue, it was difficult for me to answer those questions with a definitive no.  But on weekends, strolling through the buzzing multicultural abbatoir, dark thoughts like that just evaporate.

A version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors:

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