After the November terror attack in Paris and before the March bombings in Belgium, a neighborhood on the fringe of Brussels was already in a state of lockdown, alternately swarming and screaming with police raids and media cameras and quiet as residents stayed indoors.
Molenbeek has long been working class, outside the gilded halls of the European Union’s capital and the Royal Palace of Brussels. These days, the inhabitants are mostly Muslim immigrants and their families.
In December, just after the National threat level dropped a notch from 4, the top number, my cousin Sarah picked me up near the train station, Gare Du Nord, in a red Citroen mini. We drove at twilight along the industrial Brussels-Charleroi Canal and past a massive meat processing plant where tan men in overalls were forever loading and unloading delivery trucks and crows circled dumpsters.
Further down, artists’ lofts and co-working cafes mirrored the cool Anderlecht neighborhood across the grey water. But when we turn onto Rue Nicolas Doyen and towards the heart of Molenbeek, the streets are nearly empty. A woman in a black hijab and dress pushed a stroller, and two men stood outside of a corner store on Rue des Quatre-Vents.
This is where we stopped.
Although Sarah was born and raised in Belgium, she had never been here. Her golden hair and green eyes caught stares in the mainly Moroccan and Algerian streets. “My friends would think I’m crazy,” she said. “They call this Une Ville Terroriste.” With my dark hair and eyes and wide face, I look nothing like Sarah, although our mothers are sisters.
They grew up here, in this century old townhouse across from where we stand.
Our grandmother, Ida, was an Orthodox Jew in a small village in the shifting shadows and borders of the Carpathian Mountains—in her lifetime, a part of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine. The family would alternate meals, a dozen children whose stomachs grumbled in shared beds.
Winters were brutal and life was hard even before Hungarian and German troops invaded in 1938. It got harder then.
Almost all of her family died in Auschwitz or en route to it. Ida wound up working as a seamstress and housekeeper in Antwerp and then Brussels, wearing a crucifix around her neck instead of an obligatory yellow star and marrying a fair-haired Catholic drunk who mistreated her and her three daughters until he died of a heart attack while sitting at a bar, a beer in his hand. The daughters became strong, successful women.
In Judaism, it’s customary to name children after ancestors. I was named after him—the grandfather we never speak of.
When my grandfather wanted to provoke my grandmother, my mother remembers his go-to insult was “sale Juive”—dirty Jew.
Anti-Semitism still runs deep in Brussels, alongside swelling anti-Islam and anti-immigrant sentiment from the ethnic Belgians. Today, it’s more common to hear “Sale Arabe,” or “Sale Musulman.”
Many of the Islamic State terrorists responsible for killing scores of innocents in today’s seemingly endless war are from Molenbeek—like me, they are the descendants of immigrants here.
I held up a photograph of my family’s building, taken in the late 1970s, and our grandmother is standing outside her general store—where she sold candy, gifts, cigarettes—with one hand on her hip and the other resting on the window frame, which advertises “liquidation totale.” I wouldn’t have known it from the determined woman in the photo, but she was nearing the end of her life. She was selling the building to move into a small apartment next door.
Sarah and I compared the building in front of us to the one in the photo. The image shows a clean white paint job and crisp commercial lettering running down its side. In front of us was peeling paint and a dark window. But the same two steps led up to a wooden door.
The younger of the two men standing on the corner approaches and warns us that this is not a good time to be in Molenbeek.
A handsome middle-aged woman in a black-and-white hijab opens the door with a smile.
What was once my grandmother’s cigarette shop is now her sitting room—Arabic majlis seating with gold details, fresh white walls. The woman serves coffee on a silver tray, speaks French with a heavy Moroccan accent, and tells a story that echoes my grandmother’s.
As a 19-year-old from Tétouan, she left Morocco for Belgium for an an arranged marriage with a cabbie. Unable to speak French or Flemish, she spent days crying at her bedroom window watching Belgium’s perpetual rain fall.
She had five children, the youngest of whom is now a tall 28-year-old man who lives with his family on the top floor and who inherited his father’s cab.
The son tells us that he can’t recall a time when didn’t feel stigmatized in Brussels as a Muslim man from a Moroccan family. He said that raising the terror threat after the Paris attacks was a joke—“because we always live that every day here.”
“Don’t use our names if you write about us,” his older sister warned. “It’s not safe.”
While my mother was growing up in that house off of Rue Des Quatre Vents, in 1964, Belgium signed labor treaties with Morocco and Turkey to recruit workers to rebuild infrastructure, work in mines, factories and on the canal. Those workers settled like Bruxellois before before them in Molenbeek, close to the city center and its jobs but across the river and industrial enough to remain affordable.
There was a boardinghouse that would fill with male workers my mother would avoid while walking home from school. They’re doing the jobs that Belgians don’t want to do, was a common sentiment.
The woman’s husband, the cab driver who died long ago, was one of those recruited workers.
After our meeting, I walk the streets of Molenbeek as my grandmother once did, alone and unable to really grasp the language.
The shopping district, Chaussee de Gand, was vibrant with clothing—bright scarfs and dresses.
But even on a Saturday, people shopped quietly, and most were cautious and cold to a foreigner with a camera. “We don’t want to speak to anyone from the media,” a young mother told me angrily.
In the main square, a Japanese television crew reporting on Molenbeek had all but given up. “Nobody will talk to us,” said the producer.
Our mothers—Sarah’s and mine—are the daughters of a survivor, and so we were raised in a state of perpetual fear.
I came to Molenbeek having just lost a job, with a dwindling bank account and a rental apartment back in New York. It sat vacant for the week I wandered the streets of Molenbeek until my feet became blistered as I struggled to find people to speak with in broken French for a story that will never run, finally rendered obsolete mid-edit by March’s terror.
On one of the last days, I met a 40-year-old Algerian near pigeon cages at the sprawling Abattoir Anderlecht market and he kissed me on the second floor of a café. I burned my tongue on tea with steaming mint leaves. He grabbed my hand under the table and pulled it to feel an erection in his jeans.
“I’m just here to find a story,” I told him.
He replied: “What story is more important than love?”
He said it had been hard to date a secular European woman. He’s open to it, but they don’t seem to be.
Sarah has been having nightmares for months. She wakes drenched in sweat, she is being attacked from within. She lives in a fixer-upper townhouse near Mons. She had bought it to start fresh. That’s what I need to do, I’ve told her. Yet we dwell in the past together.
I slept fitfully too. The heat’s broken in my aunt’s apartment, and the weather’s freezing. “It’s a very Belgian thing,” a friend—an American who’s been living in Brussels for the past few years—tells me, “to be in denial.”
The entire society has been in denial about the immigrant and inequality problem for decades.
Sarah watched a debate play out on her Facebook feed among some friends who were vehemently anti-Muslim and anti-refugee. “I tell them, if my grandmother was not a refugee, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “Don’t talk about these people like that.”