Crossing Brussels' Berlin Wall into 'Jihadi Central'
A week discovering the reality behind the suburb which summons visions of fanaticism, and witnessing an artist's Rising high dudgeon
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
I went to Brussels, Dublin and Serbia. I saw the trauma of a city under attack, watched Martin McGuinness applaud the gardai, and was invited to fire an AK-47 after a long dinner. I am writing from Cork where I have at last come to earth. My working life has delivered many unusual periods but the last week surpassed them all.
First to Brussels. I expected something very different. The canal, we were told, was like the Berlin Wall. On one side of it sat the political capital of Europe, on the other 'Jihadi Central', the seething and dangerous suburb of Molenbeek where suicide bombers had hidden and plotted their attacks on Paris and Brussels, and unemployment runs at 40pc. It is a fact that some bad men had come out of Molenbeek to spread havoc. As a consequence, the mere mention of the place, along with its neighbour Schaerbeek, summons up visions of alienation and fanaticism. Except that my experience suggested a more complex and hopeful reality.
I spoke to more than a dozen people from all walks of life, all of them Muslims. Some with jobs, some without. Old and young, male and female. There was not one whiff of 'whataboutery'. The IS attacks were evil, plain and simple. As Asma, a 24-year-old media worker and devout Muslim, put it to me: "I am sorry for everybody who was hurt, who is waiting for news of their loved ones. The real cancer is IS." I wandered up the street and met two youths sitting on a bench. They were students. Mohammed was in his second year of engineering studies. Why did he think young men were joining IS. He thought they were mostly boys without education, "rebel personalities" who got involved in petty crime and then drifted into the ranks of the fanatics. He had plans for the future and he felt "as Belgian as anybody else". Of course, quite what it means to be Belgian, in a country so politically and linguistically divided, is another story for another day. Before leaving, I stopped to do a piece to camera, the part where you try, frequently unsuccessfully, to summarise the meaning of a story. I was a few words in when a man approached and put his hand over the lens. "No filming here. No filming. You must go," he said. He wasn't a fanatic and he didn't hate westerners. He was a market stallholder who thought his neighbourhood was being stereotyped. There was no point in arguing and escalating the situation. He wanted to be left alone. I couldn't blame him.
The morning began in traditional fashion. There was a row over politics. I couldn't quite make out what started it except that the artist Robert Ballagh took great exception to the portrait of John Redmond being placed on College Green. At least one of the journalists sitting with him vigorously proffered an alternative view. Matters deteriorated. Sharp words were exchanged, the precise nature of which eluded me. I was having breakfast in the media canteen and couldn't help but notice the disturbance nearby. The artist departed in high dudgeon for another table. I have often wondered if there is such a thing as low or even middling dudgeon, a lesser form of outrage that might save such unhappy departures. Ruminating on this at my table, I Googled 'dudgeon' and found that it had only possible interpretation: the higher end of indignation. As a matter of inter-cultural respect I should point out, the word may have its roots in the Welsh word 'dygen' meaning anger or grudge. I feel some of you will be grateful to have learned this.
That was the end of anger for the day. What followed was a dignified and inspiring commemoration of the birth of our nation. Some have complained about the amount of military hardware on display. I would remind them that seeing armoured vehicles rolling down your main street under the authority of democratically elected politicians is a privilege. There are many in the coup tormented post-colonial world who watch the tanks emerge with dread. At one point there was an announcement about gardai killed in the service of the state. A group of mounted police officers rode past the reviewing stand. Martin McGuinness, whose former IRA comrades once killed policemen, stood with the Taoiseach and the President and applauded. It was another of those moments that reminds us of how far we have come in a short space of time.
We were starving and Lola said the lamb was the best to be had in the mountains. A sign by the road read 'Serb Hollywood.' Sure enough, there was a beast roasting slowly on the spit. Glasses of raki were produced. The host was short, burly and already well refreshed. "Drink, drink!" he shouted. Lola, the translator, does not drink. Like myself, he once drank deep but is as proud of his sobriety as I am of mine. He pleaded our case and the host relented. It meant double rations for our two colleagues, a Yank and a Brit. They did not thank me for it.
A group of bikers arrived. They were followed by a posse of local farmers. We were all placed at a long table. Dinner passed with little conversation between the two groups. We sat in the middle and nodded when spoken to. When our neighbours laughed, we laughed. The host was fond of the Irish. This was because he disliked the English. I did not get the chance to explore the roots of his animus except for a brief reference to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.
At the end he told me to come outside for a special treat. A friend suddenly appeared with an AK-47.
I quailed. Treat? "Now Irish you shoot!" I fear he may have mistaken me for some of Martin McGuinness's old friends. I panicked. I had no desire to wield this weapon of war. I could also imagine the trouble if I were photographed by my new friend and the image distributed on social media. Happily he let me be. Then suddenly he raised the weapon, pointed upwards into the darkness and blazed away. In this way the evening was brought to a thunderous close.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent