On my recent trip to visit family in Brussels, after nine long months of erratic phone calls and Skype conversations over freezing screens of mounting frustration, a girl with blond hair in a ponytail and jeans apologized for bumping her bag against my leg. She sat next to me on the plane from New York to London and hurriedly snuck past me, mumbling words in Flemish-accented English in what resembled an awkward apology. She thought I was a foreigner.
I decided to play along. Looking at my country through a stranger’s eyes, I fumbled for my copy of Teju Cole’s Open City in my oversized, brown traveler’s bag, and looked for the chapter where the protagonist makes an attempt to find his grandmother, or oma, in Brussels:
“Even in the city center, or especially there, large numbers of people seemed to be from some part of Africa, either from the Congo or from the Maghreb. On some trams, as I was to quickly discover, whites were a tiny minority. But that was not the case with the morose crowd I met on the metro some days after my arrival. They had been to a rally at the Atomium to protest racism and violence in general, but in particular a murder that had happened much earlier, in April of that year. A seventeen-year-old, after refusing to give up his MP3 player, had been stabbed by two other youths at the Gare Centrale; this had happened on a crowded platform, during rush hour, with dozens of people around; the fact that no one had done anything to help the boy had become a point of discussion in the days following the murder. The murdered boy was Flemish; the murderers, reports said, were Arab. Fearful of racial backlash, the prime minister had appealed for calm, and in his homily that Sunday, the bishop of the city had bemoaned a society so indifferent that everyone around had refused to help a dying boy. Where were you at 4:30 pm that day? he had said to the crowded congregation at the Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule.
The bishop’s hand-wringing had gotten a swift and impassioned response from the Vlaams Belang (the Flemish right-wing party) and its sympathizers. Well-known columnists took a wounded tone and complained of reverse racism. The victims were being blamed, they said; the problem was not with uncaring passersby but with the foreigners who committed crimes. It was easier to get flagged for violating biking rules than for actually stealing a bike, because the police were afraid of being seen as racist. One journalist wrote on his blog that Belgian society was fed up with “murdering, thieving, rapping Vikings from North Africa.” This was quoted approvingly in certain mainstream sources. Efforts by the Muslim community in Brussels to heal the wound, such as their distribution of home-baked bread at the public memorial service for the murdered boy, drew a furious response from right-wingers. Later, during the elections, the politicians of the Vlaams Belang recorded gains once again, consolidating their position as possibly the biggest party in the country. Only the coalitions of the other groups kept them out of power. But the murderers in the Gare Centrale case; it turned out, weren’t Arab or African at all: they were Polish citizens.
Rereading these two paragraphs reminded me of the manhunt that succeeded the Boston marathon bombings on April 15 this year, which I covered for the Flemish daily De Morgen. Mass hysteria demanded a culprit. Two young men of Arab descent were profiled on the front page of the New York Post with the headline “Bag Men.” They ended up suing the tabloid for libel, emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hailed from Chechnya.
No amount of literature prevents parallels of tragedy from reoccurring all over the world, but the analytical comparison the eyes of foreigners facilitate could help prevent us make the same mistakes over again.