As Brussels as Possible

Blind man reciting the shehada. Schaerbeek, October 2015.

Oren was frustrated. “You always end up living with jihadists,” he said. “Wherever you move in Europe, it’s always the same.” While I wouldn’t have chosen the J-word, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I’d made a habit of living in Muslim-heavy neighbourhoods in Milan and Berlin.

But this time I was renting a pied-a-terre just a few blocks down from the terrorists who’d carried out the Brussels bombings, on 22 March 2016. I recognised at least one of them on the BBC from my local laundromat in Schaerbeek.

He lived, or so I learned, several blocks away in a building where their suicide belts were reported to have been assembled. My family, especially in Israel, were stunned I’d come so close to the tragedy. One of my co-workers had even been on the train that had been bombed that day, at Maelbeek.

“How on earth did you get so lucky?” Oren asked as we drove through an industrial park near Netanya, the week after the attacks, to pick up a marble tabletop. “You seem to lead a charmed life.”

We laughed for a moment, and then it dawned on me that I’d missed the fireworks because I’d flown to Israel the day before – via Berlin.

It was a sobering realisation, which ironically framed my choice to return home, for a brief visit, only to escape ethnic violence at the hands of Islamic extremists, in Europe. You couldn’t get a more Zionist framing of the Brussels bombing than that. If that’s how you chose to read it.

“Brussels is such a boring place,” a relative told me over dinner later that same evening at my parents flat in Tel Aviv.”I hope you don’t plan on staying there for much longer. Besides, you might get killed now.”

Turkish Kurds march on the European External Action Service office. Brussels, November 2016.

I can’t tell you how many conversations like that I had over the course of the week that I spent with my family. Inevitably, I would find myself explaining that I actually lived in Berlin, but had to spend an inordinate amount of time in the European capital because my publisher’s head office was there.

“Brussels is a very complicated place,” I explained to a cousin who spent a lot of time travelling abroad. “I wouldn’t recommend it as a tourist destination, but it’s incredibly multiethnic and a very cheap to live in. You just have to get outside the European Quarter, where the EU institutions mostly are, to get an idea.”

Hence, my former neighbourhood, near Place Liedts, which, following the 2016 bombings, found itself swarming with heavily armed infantrymen dressed in camouflage, peering out of the back of troop carriers looking for signs of trouble.

For anyone who’s spent time in the Middle East, the parallels with Iraq, or the West Bank, were obvious. An element of colonial policing had been added to a largely North African and Turkish area that until that point just seemed poor. Now, it was tagged with being revolutionary.

Hailing from an Israeli-American family, I am grateful, in retrospect for the ways my background helped me make sense of the experience.

The Israeli, of course, for the familiarity with the security anxieties now being indulged by the Europeans in the wake of the attacks; and the American, for the appreciation of diversity it gave me, and what I felt to be threatened by them, ideologically.

Looking for culture. Brussels 1000, June 2018.

The photographs in this piece edition of Aperture Priorities were shot with the fragility of this cultural matrix in mind. Taken before and after, between 2015 and 2018, they’re testimony to the consistency of Brussels’ public sphere with historic Jewish concerns about racism, nationality and class.

None of them were easy to take or select, for that matter, either. The process of shooting a scene, and then coming to appreciate its political significance, is something that takes time and perspective. I’m only sorry that this all has to be viewed through the tragedy of the jihadism my friend Oren so fears.

Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.