On looking at your home through a foreigner’s eyes

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.

Dagboek Boston bombings in DM

Heel erg bedankt voor al jullie bezorgde berichten en steun vorige week, die begon met een aanslag op de jaarlijkse marathon, en eindigde met een shooting en aanhouding van de overlevende verdachte, Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

De broers bleken immigranten te zijn, moslims uit de zuidelijke Kaukasus, maar opgegroeid in Amerika. Het debat barstte daarop los over de bredere implicaties van hun identiteit voor het Amerikaanse integratiebeleid dat de schok van 9/11 nog steeds niet verteerde. Enkele medestudenten uit Afghanistan en Irak wezen ook op de schijnbare relativiteit van menselijk verlies volgens sommige westerse media. Waarom lijken hun doden minder waard?

Van maandag tot donderdagnacht hield ik een dagboek bij voor De Morgen. Dank aan zij die een exemplaar van de krant bijhielden; en aan Summer, Andy, Annie, en Natalie die me hielpen de ervaring te verwerken en op de marathon aanwezig waren. Emails, belletjes, tweets, en likes zijn steeds zeer welkom.

Boston voorpagina Zeno

HuffPo op-ed: Europe Faces New Political Reality at Harvard

downloadAfrica has one. Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia have one. But until this weekend, Europe didn’t have an annual conference at Harvard University during which leaders from the region discuss the political and business future of the continent in two days of debate, keynote speeches, and hallway gossip. Rarely Europe follows into the footsteps of its southern counterparts, but this year the region bowed to the reality of a changed geopolitical order. Read more here.

Radio Interview Klara on Saudi movie Wadjda

“Wadjda,” the first movie by a Saudi female director shot in the Kingdom, reached Belgian cinemas last week. Haifa Al Mansour had to hide in a van and use a walkie-talkie to work with her crew, but she did it. Please take a look at the trailer to watch Wadjda finally ride her bike around Riyadh with her bosom friend Abdullah. Mijn interview op Babel vandaag: van 1:12:20 tot 1:25:10, maar ‘Les Valseuses’ van S. Grappelli is ook niet mis. Dank aan Klara voor het mooie gesprek.

Gastcollege Pascal Decroos

My guest lecture on international reporting at Belgium’s Master in International Research Journalism program at Lessius Mechelen. Hoe maak je internationale verhalen en breng je deze aan de man? Een praktijkgericht seminarie voor de aspirant-freelancer met aandacht voor oost-west problematiek, (internationale) mediawerking, het vinden van nieuwe ideeën en je eigen niche. Dat allemaal in drie uur over ‘How to freelance your way around the world.’ Een catchy title zegt u?

Ervaringen delen met een fijne groep studenten stond garant voor een boeiende avond. Dank aan het Fonds Pascal Decroos voor de organisatie van het International Research Journalism programma aan Lessius Mechelen. Boekingen voor lezingen kunnen via het contactformulier in het bovenstaande menu.

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Latest HuffPo op-ed: Katniss Everdeen vs. Anna Karenina

download2012 has been a busy year for female heroines in books and movies alike. Katniss Everdeen and Anna Karenina, to name just two, won hearts worldwide. For those unfamiliar with their stories, Ms. Everdeen saved her people from exploitation in a post-apocalyptic North-America, but Ms. Karenina — slightly out of tune — threw herself into a passionate love affair and then in front of a train when her lover’s passion subsided. Never mind that she left her son and friends behind; she killed herself. For a man. Read further here.

Cross-border romance: a balm to Europe’s national tensions?

When former exchange students meet up after a long absence in the movie “Russian Dolls,” they celebrate the marriage of a British friend to a Russian ballet dancer. As they exchange tales of their respective journeys since their last meeting, friendships are revisited and romance flourishes.

The movie was filmed seven years ago. But a recent study by Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical office, shows that the storyline was not just the stuff of dreams. More Europeans are marrying across national borders – a trend reflecting a step toward an ideal of greater integration, even amid growing uncertainty about the region’s future. Read more here.

Interview Radio 1

podcast_icon_bigHoewel het gevecht maar 82 seconden duurde, schreef de Saudische judo-atlete toch geschiedenis als een van de twee eerste vrouwelijke atletes van het Saudische Olympische team. Mijn interview op Radio 1 wijst op de blijvende moeilijkheden die vrouwen ondervinden om aan sport te doen in het Koninkrijk, waar basketbalcoachen zichzelf pastechnieken aanleren met YouTube filmpjes. Klik hier om het interview te beluisteren.

For one Saudi woman athlete, participation is a victory

As Wojdan Shaherkani stepped onto the mat Friday morning at London’s Excel Center, she was greeted by a cheering crowd that was eager to watch the girl perform. Ms. Shaherkani’s Olympic debut was brief – the match only lasted around 80 seconds before her opponent struck her to the floor – but she made history today as the first Saudi female athlete ever to compete under the Saudi flag. The London Games are the first to host women’s teams from all participating countries. Read further here.