Molenbeek-Saint-Jean Is not a Ghetto

[This blog is only devoted to what I’m working on about market microstructure, the nature of exchanges and high-frequency trading. But for once I publish here today a quite personal take on Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, the now infamous city of Brussels where a lot of the Paris terrorists came from. Some of them were my direct neighbors. As an anthropologist, even if I didn’t work on my own city, I have been living in one of this Molenbeek neighborhood for seven years, and I have observed how the place have changed. I think intellectuals have a main duty –  inform people. Given what was written about Molenbeek the last ten days, I could not stay quiet. This post is not an attempt to understand the incomprehensible; this is just my point of view on Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. This op-ed was published in French by Le Monde and I put on this blog a corrected version; both versions were visited by more than 5,000 readers each. I thank you a lot all the readers who wrote me “Thank you for this text”. That’s the proofs words and long-read are helpful. Also, I thank you a lot my friend and translator Jean-François Caro who quickly translated my text in English – Jef, I owe you more than a couple of Belgian beers for that! If some misprints remain, they are all mines. Comments are possible, even if I don’t have the energy anymore to engage in a debate. Now it’s time to rest a little, after the last ten days of darkness.]

Molenbeek-Saint-Jean has now become an infamous place world-wide. Unfortunately, some won’t be surprised to learn that a certain number of the terrorists who have spread death in Paris lived in my borough. The list of people from Molenbeek involved in international terrorist affairs is alas too long now – from Dahmane Abd al-Sattar, involved in Commander Massoud’s assassination in 2001, to Salah Abdeslam, held today to be among the principal culprits of the recent Parisian attacks, to a good dozen other individuals. Living and working in Molebeek-Saint-Jean, in the heart of one of the neighborhoods considered as the “Belgian hub for international Islamist terrorism,” a several dozens of meters from the apartment of one of those presumed responsible for the Parisian abominations, it is difficult not to write these few lines.

We should first provide some context. Contrary to what several media outlets asserted, Molenbeek is not a “suburb.” “Brussels” refers to one of the three Belgian Regions; it is composed of 19 communes or boroughs, among which “Brussels City” and Molenbeek. Even though an undeniable physical, social and symbolic boundary is traced by a canal running between the two boroughs, the center of “Brussels City” is only a 15-minute walk – or three subway stops – away from where I live. It therefore seems that “suburb” is shamefully employed to evoke those Île-de-France cities remote from the center of Paris where a Muslim community increasingly plagued by poverty – and thus by radicalism – allegedly resides. Molenbeek is not a suburb, and, just like the entire Brussels region, it is composed of highly disparate micro-neighborhoods. There are several Molenbeeks, and it is essential to take this disparity into account. 

What does one of these now internationally scrutinized Molenbeek neighborhoods look like? The answer is simple: most streets are lined with typical Brussels brick-houses, with the exception of a few “council estate”-styled buildings that blend into the surroundings. Without going back on the long and fascinating history of the borough (which sheltered exiled Parisian Communards in the 1870s, at a time when its flourishing industry earned it the nickname of “Little Manchester”), Molenbeek includes today several micro-neighborhoods composed for 80% of Belgian inhabitants belonging to a Muslim community that has major ties with Morocco, and among which a particularly high number of (sometimes very young) men or women have embraced the Jihadi cause in Syria. That said, the few statistic figures available show that while one half of the Belgians who left for Syria come from the Brussels region, the other half comes from Flanders, especially Vilvoorde and Antwerp – where in the latter city the Sharia4Belgium Salafist proselytes were identified as the main recruiters of Belgian jihadists by the Belgian authorities. The issue of Islamism extends beyond the limits of Molenbeek. The press has qualified the borough – or at least a number of its (micro-)neighborhoods – as a “ghetto.” In spite of my doubts regarding the true meaning of the term (unless, following Max Weber, we define it as an “excluding closure”), the wealthy borough of Uccle, brimming with French tax exiles, is to me far more “ghetto-ized” than my own borough, a place characterized by its diversity, where more than 100 nationalities live without the slightest inter-community tension. 

Let us now raise the critical issue: the high density of the Arab-Muslim population in several neighborhoods, mine included. The young boy generally presented as the world’s youngest jihadi is called Younès, a 13-year-old kid raised in Molenbeek who left his parents shaken with incomprehension. He was taken to Syria by his older brother, Adbelhamid Abaaoud, one of the main alleged backers of the recent Paris attacks, who died in Saint-Denis. Younès went to school at several hundred yards from where I live, and I have often thought that I may have crossed his path at some point. Maybe he was that kid who looked up from his portable PlayStation and smiled at me as he walked in my street, ten feet behind his mother covered in black from head to toes, hands included, herself walking ten feet behind a husband absorbed in prayer. It would be dishonest not to write that since several years, the weight of religion has been increasingly present in the daily life of the neighborhood, insidiously. 

A certain number of women and girls working in bakeries and grocery stores who were only wearing a simple headscarf a couple of years ago now wear the hijab. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see 5-year old girls walking in the street wearing a beautiful, coloured hijab –while this was far less frequent, and even nonexistent, a couple of years ago. Despite being banned from the public space, the niqab is quite visible in front of the closest school from where I live. In the old local post office, it is not unusual to hear religious chants playing on cell phones (I once asked a woman to mute the sound, arguing that she shouldn’t impose me prayers from a religion that was not mine; she immediately complied, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that she felt it was an odd demand). It is not unusual, either, to find flyers stacked on bakery counters advertising one Muslim event or the other, adorned with the faces of foreign preachers who, it turns out after a brief Internet search, appear in videos where they call for “burning the Jews.” Let’s not forget the sinister-looking bearded proselytes who move in groups of three, going from door to door or lecturing young people hanging out in the street. In early 2015, a war photographer and anthropologist decided to leave Molenbeek, explaining his decision as follows: “[Here] everything has gone grey, everything reeks of pessimism. The radicalism and the gloom that have taken hold of my neighborhood have thrown me in a depression. I find it terrible that certain people have tried to convert me to Islam in the street.” While no-one has ever tried to convert me, I sadly share the same conclusions regarding this greyness and pessimism (even though greyness has more to do with Brussels – if not Belgium – than with Molenbeek itself: after all, Brussels is not Marseille). Perhaps what the photographer called “greyness” also referred to the filth that litters certain streets that have become genuine open-air garbage dumps with smashed sidewalks where the trash sometimes lies for weeks before the borough collection service ends up cleaning it (which at times lead to infinitely sad scenes, such as when Romani come to pick up the what little reusable waste is left by their neighbors, followed by Eastern-European immigrants looking for metal – there are the poor, the poorer, then the even poorer).

The existence of communautarist and religious temptations in some micro-neighborhoods is undeniable, and gets increasingly apparent. Some people logically turn toward the neighborhood’s main mosque, one of the most attended in the entire Brussels region, that sometimes invites preachers who speak only Arabic and give dreadful discourses (a practicing Morrocan man, who was my neighbor for several weeks, went there once: he came back horrified after hearing a violent rant against women). Despite claiming the contrary, this mosque had trained a great number of preachers who then embraced Salafism and left for Syria, sometimes seizing the opportunity to take local youth with them. A politician formerly part of the Molenbeek borough council, told me once that the mosque had been watched by intelligence services for years – but apparently their action was inefficient, as until very recently, a number of youth attending the place decided to “fight for the jihad.” (Since Friday, November 13th, the mosque’s home page has displayed a clear message forcefully condemning the Paris attacks; it was much appreciated, but it would be even more so if the Friday prayer was also open for non-Muslim people). One could also mention the more-or-less official mosques that pass for non-profit associations but turn out to organize meetings in obscure garages aiming at making disenfranchised young people join a despicable cause. 

All of this has been well known for years. The coming weeks and months promise heated debates on the state of Islam in Belgium – according to Brussels minister Rachid Madrane, “the original sin for Belgium was to give Saudi Arabia the keys to Islam in 1973.” During the civil gathering in homage to the Paris victims that took place in front of Molebeek’s borough hall last Wednesday, a mosque official told me that he had repeatedly asked a number of Sharia4Belgium “representatives” from Antwerp to “clear off,” before reporting their presence to the police; another religious official claimed that some of the bearded proselytes pacing up and down the streets travelled from England to recruit “fresh fodder.” Everything is far more complex than what we imagine, and once again these issues extend beyond the sole borough of Molenbeek.

I do not know what got in the mind of young Molenbeek inhabitant such as Brahim Abdslam, who used to kill time smoking pot and drinking, then a couple of months later, after a brief “training” in Belgium, detonated his explosive belt on the terrace of a café in Paris. This goes far beyond religion, despite the involvement of its more extremist factions in these events. Brahim Abdeslam owned a café that closed by administrative decision in early November on the grounds of “drug trafficking.” Every local knows that many cafés or grocery stores – where only a couple of Coke bottles sit on the shelves next to three crisp packets – are in fact drug-dealing spots. The nice kebab-shop owner from down my street was unfortunately replaced for several months by such a café, where young bearded men smoked cannabis on the terrace while inside Al Jazeera was on permanently. Everyone knew about these activities, yet it is always surprising to note how long it takes  to the public authorities (several months and even more) to shut down such places that contribute to the terrible reputation of the borough.

In spite of its greyness and of its filthy streets, in spite of the weight of religion and of the drug-selling cafés, Molenbeek is not more dangerous than other boroughs. In seven years, I was never once assaulted. Here, no cars are set on fire during New Year’s Eve; never have Molebeek or Brussels been the theatre of riots like Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005; even in the most difficult neighborhoods, the police rarely get stones thrown at them, while such a thing is extremely frequent in many Parisian suburbs. In terms of “communautarian attitudes,” the situation is far worse in some French suburbs than in Molenbeek. There is no such thing as a “Molenbeekistan,” contrary to what certain media outlets claim (even though, as this has been a known fact for years, there are urban areas where gunrunning and radical discourses go hand in hand, as is also the case in Anderlecht). In Molenbeek, “feelings of insecurity” stem more from cars driving up one-way streets in the wrong direction (a widespread local tendency) or going too fast (the street with the highest accident rate in Brussels is located in Molenbeek), from these grocery stores that barely hide their drug-selling activities, from the filth that plagues some of its streets. It is the various forms of diffuse, daily incivilities (among many others) that give birth to these “feelings of insecurity.” One could argue that borough agents indeed patrol in the street – some of whom have clearly been hired because of their Arabic-Muslim origins (in a way not dissimilar from the “older brothers” policy implemented in some French neighbourhoods) –, yet I was confused to see three of these agents walking in the street, shaking hands with notorious local drug dealers while speaking in Arabic, before peacefully moving on?

99% of the Molenbeek population are obviously not jihad candidates, nor do they plan on “burning the Jews” (even though, because of the Palestinian conflict and of certain religious lectures, I think that unfortunately, most of my neighbours suffer from a boorish form of antisemitism). 99% of the population yearn to live in peace with each other. If several factors may explain the situation in some neighborhoods (the influence of religion, a sense of impunity, a dense territory providing easy hiding spots for terrorists, and so on), the main causes of “all the evils” that plague the borough are to be found elsewhere. And most of them have been known by all for far too long. One only needs to look at the figures, namely those issued by the French Community Commission (Cocof), which are well-detailed because they do not only focus on the entire borough, but also on its micro-neighborhoods.

Molenbeek is the second poorest borough in Belgium (the unfortunate record belongs to another – and far smaller – Brussels municipality: Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode, a stone’s throw from the European district); some of the borough’s neighborhoods rank among the most densely populated in Brussels, large families make up a significant part of the households, and the global population in neighborhoods inhabited by the Muslim community has dramatically increased since the 2000s (the birth rate, strongly increasing since a couple of years, is the highest in the Brussels region); the ratio of young people (15-24) to the global population is particularly high; the mortality rate is higher than the regional average, as well as the part of inhabitants reporting poor health; the average income rate is below the national average, especially in the most densely populated areas, and the number of social welfare grants is very neatly over-represented; the average unemployment rate is therefore logically superior to the regional average, and one youth out of two is unemployed, which may be explained by the fact that the proportion of youth enrolled in general education is far below the regional average. 51% of the Molenbeek inhabitants do not pay income taxes, the median income per inhabitant is €1.100 per month, and 57% of the population live below the poverty line.

Molenbeek is a poverty-stricken borough where more than one out of two inhabitants is just trying to survive, especially among the younger, under-educated population that becomes an easy prey for the bearded recruiters touring the streets. Beyond Molenbeek, and because, sadly, the journalist seldom report it, let us remind that within the capital of Europe, Brussels as a region, a third of the population lives below the poverty line, an edifying figure when, besides, it is known for fact that Brussels generates more wealth than the two other Belgian regions (it would be interesting to know if there is a relation between this figure and the recent statistics published by the International Organization for Migration revealing that 62% of the Brussels region population were foreign-born or coming from families that immigrated here, “which makes it the second-ranking city in that respect”). Thus Brussels is a highly contrasted region: in Molenbeek, the average monthly income per inhabitant is €776, that is, 4 times fewer than the single residence allowance given to a European commissioner, and 26 times fewer than his or her own income. (Let us add for the record that the European Union agents are exempted from the personal income tax that every taxable Belgian has to pay. In other words, a low-income Molenbeek resident paying this tax represents a more important source of funding for public infrastructures in Brussels than the European civil servants who thus benefit from them without paying this tax while earning considerably higher salaries – but so be it.)

Molenbeek is thus plagued by poverty. Few journalists point out that a couple of months ago, the borough was on the verge of bankruptcy (which once again gave a number of politicians the opportunity to stigmatize it even more): the reasons have been the increasing number of residents unable to pay taxes while mechanically needing more public resources (social welfare, etc.), combined with their impoverishment (the average income in Molenbeek has decreased by 5% over the last ten years), logically leading to a decrease of tax revenues; in parallel, according to a borough councilman who publicly spoke about this near-bankruptcy, the middle class (that is, the taxpaying class) is slowly disappearing: “The lack of cleanliness, of (quality) schooling, of decent, affordable housing and of pleasant public spaces, combined with feelings of insecurity, are the main causes of the middle class’ departure from Molenbeek, especially young families.” It is hard to admit it, but Molenbeek’s downward spiral continues – it is a mechanic process. All of this therefore contributes, in certain neighborhoods, to turn this social and intellectual deprivation into a fertile ground for recruiters promoting an abject ideology. What future prospects, given its financial and social state of dilapidation, can this borough offer to a population on its way to pauperisation? How to fix a social situation with nearly 55.000 people living below the poverty line?

The Belgian Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon, a member of the Flemish nationalist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA), with a blaring rhetoric reminding Vladimir Poutine’s wish to “flush down the Chechen while they sit on their toilets,” declared after the Paris attacks he wanted to “wipe Molenbeek clean.” Dear Mr Jambon, given the filth that litters my neighbourhood, this is a very welcome decision (the next garbage collection is on Wednesday). However, isn’t it slightly late? Why did the Flemish Community, where your party is a majority, cut all the subsidies granted to the historical association Foyer [Shelter], whose work initiated in 1919 has provided essential contributions in terms of social assistance, of insertion, of training, of inter-cultural mediation, at the heart of one of the most difficult neighborhoods of Brussels? This association manages to accomplish a significant fieldwork on a shoestring, using subsidized contracts. After the Paris attacks, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announced that “there has been a form of laxity, of permissiveness. We are paying the price of what has been done in the past.” Dear Mr Prime Minister, I thank you for publicly acknowledging the “laxity” of the public authorities in my borough; however, this is absolutely not an apology. We are collectively – the people of Molenbeek as much as of Paris – paying the “bill” (an odd term to describe the victims of an attack) because the successive federal governments have refused to pay the bills related to education, prevention, police and justice for too long.

Some years ago, a Flemish television report that has resurfaced on social networks following the Paris attacks gave voice to social workers that were already preoccupied by the lack of political attention toward the deprived youth of immigrant origins, in whom they saw as a fertile ground for a certain form of religious radicalization. When the journalist asks Marcel Piccard, the then-mayor of Molenbeek, what he needs to face the issues of his borough, his answer is simple: “money”; however, he notes in a pessimistic tone the steady decline of the federal allocations for Brussels. An interviewed Muslim person affirmed that if the situation worsened (unemployment, isolation, etc.), the people would increasingly turn toward God. Johan Leman, the director of Foyer, this association that saw all of its Flemish fund disappear, claimed that if nothing happened, the next generation would rebel. This is precisely what is happening today, even though the face of uprising and of violence is perhaps not the one we expected. Dear Mr Michel, I cannot hold you responsible for not having done anything to address the situation for you were only 12 at the time: the report outlining these alarming conclusions dates back to 1987. That was nearly thirty years ago!

The issues have therefore been identified for a long time. I am keenly aware that given the complexity of the Belgian administrative layers (boroughs, Regions, Communities, the federal State), certain decisions or investments take time to be enacted, yet in spite of this I am not far from sharing the opinion of many residents who think that the federal State has left Molenbeek to its own – and increasingly impoverished – devices. I will not mention the inappropriate reflections of Molenbeek’s penultimate mayor, he who has ruled over the borough for 20 years with a relentless vote-catching attitude towards communities, but today dares deny his responsibility by putting the blame on the current office for the borough’s state of near-bankruptcy and the high number of terrorists hailing from Molenbeek (dear Mr. Moureaux, the borough’s deficit dates back to 2006, while you were in command, and was then higher than in 2014). The current mayor, Françoise Schepmans, was elected in 2012. One shoud note that she has also been a federal deputy since 2014. Dear Mrs Schepmans, don’t you think that, given the current state of affairs, Molenbeek deserves a mayor that devotes all of her time to her borough?

The efforts to be done in Molenbeek are immense, and it is disheartening to note that in such a terrible situation, the few educational support associations in the borough work with ridiculously low financial means. An increased police presence would be welcome (as the head of the West Brussels police area just admitted, “the financial standard of police areas has not been reviewed since 12 years”); so would be “deradicalization” programs. But the main concern remains education: how come, given the significant population growth since many years, that no major nursery and school construction plan has ever been anticipated? A new contemporary art museum will soon open on the banks of the canal that separates Molenbeek from Brussels. There is no doubt that this site will favour the rampant gentrification affecting the “Canal District,” which does not bode well, and the educational activities for school groups will surely be beneficial for certain children. However, we do not need a museum in Molenbeek; we need schools that provide a degree of diversity that will encourage the middle-class to stay in the borough (even my favourite grocer, a practicing Turkish Muslim, decided not to put his children in the closest school from where he lives because of the lack of diversity, a decision that speaks volumes). What is the relevance of such a museum in a borough where – and it just takes hearing some young people speak in the streets – illiteracy affects so many of its inhabitants? A museum is not the right answer to social and educational impoverishment; it is putting the cart before the horse.

Beyond the issue of education also lies that of mobility and of urbanization projects. One example: the escalator leading to the closest subway station to my home, a station that happens to be located next to a vacant lot turned into a filthy dumping ground, has been breaking down every to days since years without alarming anyone, which de facto blocks the access of public transportation to mothers pushing trolleys (as they are many in the neighborhood). (These are typical mobility issues that lead to “ghettoization.”) There is also the obvious issue of cleanliness: it is unconceivable to improve a borough where the streets look like landfill sites; nothing gets built upon ruins. 

 The work to be done is immense in all respects, and it must start from the gutter. It will not be a matter of weeks or months, and it will require significant financing from every actor, including and above all from the federal State (the borough is broke anyway). Claiming there are insufficient funds is a lie: the very day when, last year, the federal government announced an increased monitoring of the unemployed’s water and gaz consumption in order to “fight against social fraud,” we learned a couple of hours later that, following a fiscal agreement between Belgium and Luxemburg, hundreds of millions of tax money due by major Belgian companies were no longer going into the Belgian treasury. Controlling these “poor unemployed bastards,” who are overrepresented in Molenbeek, is apparently more urgent than repatriating Belgian tax money boosting Luxemburg’s wealth (a country which, of course, leads a miserable lifestyle thanks to Amazon, Apple, or Ikea).

I will make three last concluding remarks, even though there is so much more to say.

1/ Despite the unflattering depiction of Molenbeek, or at least of some of its micro-neighborhoods (but the figures and the streets are what they are), life here is not only “greyness.” There is, in Molenbeek, a small Bataclan of sorts called the VK, a well-known concert venue among Brussels residents, as well as various other places (such as the Musée de la Fonderie or the Molenbeek Centre for Cultures and Social Cohesion, managed by the borough administration). Molenbeek is not the “complete wilderness” that media outlets sometimes allude to, yet it is saddening to note that for the most part, these places are rarely attended by the inhabitants themselves (or at least by those living in the most communautarian neighborhoods). This is once again an educational issue: how can the cultural infrastructures of Molenbeek be attended by the borough’s residents when half of its population is just trying to survive and a third suffers from illiteracy? Associations such as Bonnevie, La Rue or Foyer also accomplish valuable fieldwork; without Foyer, Mrs Laanan would never have been able to take literacy courses, and her daughter Fadila would probably never have become minister of Culture, Communications, Public Health and Equal Opportunity. As I am writing this, Foyer have unfortunately not balanced their 2016 budget; in short, none of their employees’ meagre wages are guaranteed yet for next year. The situation is truly nightmarish.

2/ On Monday, November 16th, I went to rue Delaunoy, 150 metres away from my home, where a major police operation took place. Journalists and passers-by were gathered at both ends of the street that was barricaded by the police. I spent two hours there. There was nothing to see but a lot to hear: journalists were interviewing young people and locals were speaking with each other. I talked to several neighbors about the stigmatization of the borough that has been rampant since a number of years because of radicalism, about the filthy streets, about the fact a perfectly trilingual neighbor (Arabic, French, Dutch) finally got a job because he had removed his Molenbeek address from his resumé, and so on. There was no tension, but many discussions. 

That same night, during the 7:30pm news broadcast, La Une – the main French-speaking public TV channel – reported on the operation, claiming that “the entire neighborhood was shutdown,” which was untrue: only one street and one intersection were concerned, and one could perfectly move around them, which I did when I had to meet the Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times (the only journalist – alas – who contacted me after I had invited the media to do so on via social networks if they wished to hear an “insider’s point of view”). The neighborhood had nothing to do with the “no-go zone” described on television. More pathetic still, the journalist mentioned the state of “severe tension” that weighed on the theatre of operations. This is pure disinformation: there was no tension whatsoever, everyone exchanged their thoughts without the slightest confrontational tone, even when people disagreed (I had such a disagreement, and quite a strong one, with a young man who knew Salah Abdeslam well, calling him a “pretentious muppet,” yet things never came to a head).

Molenbeek has been pilloried in a large part of the Western world, rightly or wrongly, and what we residents of Molenbeek need is that journalist do their job more seriously instead of crushing us down some more. A technician from French channel TF1, who had covered the violence riots in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005, told me he was extremely surprise by the kindness of Molenbeek inhabitants during interviews, compared to the aggressiveness of certain “Parisian banlieusards.” What he had learned about the borough, through the media, provided him with a disastrous image, so much that he seemed glad to observe that he had been given a fallacious representation – proof, if we ever needed one, that the media are responsible for this. On Wednesday night, during the civil gathering in homage for the victims, a journalist for the BBC facing the camera declared that “there were only white people here,” which was obviously false – excluding the hundreds of journalists, a good 2.000 of the inhabitants that came together that night belonged to the “Muslim community.” Denying its presence to the world during this gathering is disgustingly vile toward Muslims.

3/ Beyond endemic poverty and the weight of religion, my neighborhood mainly suffers from one thing: the near total lack of “common.” I can cross the canal in five minutes by bike and join my friends for a drink near this waterway that separates me from the true diversity of thought, but there is no café like Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Café Bonne Bière, La Belle Équipe or Le Comptoir Voltaire in my own micro-neighborhood, these Parisian places of encounter and of merriment, where people from every origin and of every political or religious conviction got together around a drink before dying under bullets shot by my neighbors. 

It is striking, though maybe not all that surprising, to note that these young neighbors went to spread death in gathering places that precisely do not exist in Molenbeek, or are so rare. This lack of “common” is very clearly what increasingly drives down the difficult areas of Molenbeek. To be sure, we may choose between tea salons, a few typical Brussels-style breweries, and bars frequently owned by people from Eastern Europe. But to go to a tea salon means to go there without feminine company (partner or sister) in order to avoid inappropriate looks; going to a “typical Brussels brewery” means “finding oneself around mostly older white people”; and going to a café where customers speak only Russian or Romanian doesn’t help exchanges. Here, people run into each other on the street, greet one another, sometimes exchange a few words in grocery stores, but essentially, we don’t talk and rarely laugh together. Simply because the places where one could do that are almost inexistent. Here, in these “sensitive neighborhoods,” it is virtually impossible to find a place such as La Belle Équipe, this Parisian café targeted by my neighbors that was owned by a Jewish man and a Muslim woman – it is unconceivable.

At the heart of a crumbling Europe, and at a time when barbed-wire fences start reappearing, at the heart of this capital of Europe where a third of the population live in destitution, at the heart of a borough from the capital city of Europe where dozens of thousands of people struggle to only survive, recovering the “common” in local, everyday terms is, beyond the political answers to the current disaster, a citizen’s project that everyone – Muslims, Jews, non-religious people, or anything else – will need to carry out together. Now the ball is in my Muslim neighbors’ court. Maybe one day, even in a long time, I will sit in a neighborhood café owned by a Jewish man and spend some time with young Younès, who, if he ever comes back from Syria, won’t be that young anymore and who, if he is not entirely brainwashed by barbarism, will have some things to teach me about human madness.



  1. Hi Alexandre I just walked past this on my daily commute and was reminded of you. This weeks cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye:


  2. I visited Bruxelles many years ago when my daughter worked there. It was a small, friendly, comfortable place. The citizens were kind and very welcoming. The filth was obvious in the uncleaned gutters, sidewalks, and random garbage pickups. People left garbage in bags on the sidewalks, often in paper bags. I asked her about it, and she said it was pretty dirty. Telephones were hard to get; she had one due to her employer. I liked it.


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