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AlterBrussels tours offer a people’s history of the capital

14:17 25/04/2018
A fascinating little tour organisation is introducing tourists and locals alike to sides of Brussels they never knew existed, and only if you come from somewhere else are you allowed to be a guide

Anyone who’s struggling with the idea that it is impossible to change hearts and minds have never met Fatima Rochdi. She is the woman behind AlterBrussels, a non-profit tour outfit she founded to combat infuriating stereotypes about the Belgian capital.

Back in 2010, Rochdi, who was born and had lived her entire life in Brussels, was working for a company in Luxembourg. She soon discovered that her international colleagues – many of them German – had nothing good to say about her hometown.

“They said things like ‘Brussels is dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s full of foreigners’ and so on,” she says. While Rochdi does not have “an overly nationalist sensibility,” she was shocked to hear such stereotypes.

Occasionally, they all had to travel to Brussels for meetings. “They were even afraid to take public transport in the city. I tried to tell them that what they were saying was not true, but they insisted that it was. So I asked them: What do you really know about Brussels?”

It turned out, not much. So one week she arranged for her colleagues – about 20 altogether – to stay in Brussels a few extra hours. And she organised a tour “on the spur of the moment”.

DIY tour

But she didn’t call any tour guides; she organised her own kind of tour. Rochdi had volunteer at a few non-profits, “so I called some of my contacts and said ‘I’ve got some colleagues, all foreigners. Do you mind if we stop by your organisation – or shop or church or whatever”.

She led the Germans and the rest through the Turkish neighbourhood in Saint-Josse – to organisations, a mosque, a jazz club. They met residents, had conversations and got to know the municipality from the inside-out.

“They weren’t all convinced,” Rochdi fully admits, “but one couple went back to visit the same area. And later they went to Turkey on holiday, whereas before they were reluctant. So for me, if this is even one person … I felt like I had an impact.”

Little did she know it at the time, but this was a tour that would lead to many, many more under the name AlterBrussels. The name stands for “alternative”, but it could also stand for “altered”.

Rochdi officially founded the organisation shortly before moving back to Brussels in 2013. She began to learn as much as she could about the history of Brussels’ neighbourhoods – the people’s history.

On an AlterBrussels tour, you won’t find out if a building is Art Nouveau or Deco or if a wealthy industrialist lived in a certain house. Instead you will discover how average people – and often immigrants – to the area changed it, how they altered it.

‘Human heritage’

“We show places, but our main focus is the heritage of the human beings,” Rochdi explains. “We go to associations and to churches or mosques, we meet people. So someone whose great-grandparents came from Italy, for instance, we might sit down with him and let him tell us about himself and what he does and why he loves Brussels. And then it’s not about the buildings. It’s about the people, their journey to Brussels and the change they brought with them – how they have built the Brussels identity.”

Alter has grown into tour group to reckon with, as more people are looking for, indeed, alternatives to run-of-mill tours of Grand’Place and Manneken Pis. “I’m fascinated by Brussels and by its diversity,” says Rochdi. “I find it an amazing opportunity to live in such a moving, buoyant city. I find it such a pity that it’s not always seen as such. When I founded Alter, I thought, it could be useful for the image of Brussels to say, OK, the diversity is there, all these foreigners are present. So we either say ‘oh my God’ and try to hide that reality, or we transform that into an asset.”

Alter tours are massively varied. On one, you might learn about the Spanish in Saint-Gilles, in another about the 1960s protests in the Marolles. You’ll see the Resistance Museum in Cureghem or discover that Molenbeek used to be Brussels’ wealthiest area.

Guides integral to tour

Alter is special for another reason – all its tour guides have either come from somewhere else or have immigrant roots. This includes former (or current) asylum-seekers, second- or third-generation immigrants, international workers. “They might be Belgians, but they may have other nationalities as well. They also must live or work in Brussels and have a basic A2 level of French.”

As a testament to the diversity of the guides, tours are offered in about a dozen languages, including English, French, Dutch, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, Romanian, Spanish and Chinese. “As many languages at the guides can speak.” Alter trains the guides for free, thanks to public funding and grants from the King Baudouin Foundation. The guides receive a stipend for the tours they lead.

Alter has a partnership with the BELvue Museum, dedicated to Belgian history. Among the tours of the museum is the New Roots Welcome Tour, devoted to refugees and other immigrants who are very new to the capital. It’s times like this that having an immigrant lead the tour really pays off.

One room in BELvue is always especially interesting to the tour’s participants: the one devoted to migration. “On one wall, you see the periods when Belgians had to emigrate, like during wars and economic crises. And on the other wall, parallel, you see the stories of people who came to Belgium. These people are kind of shocked because you suddenly see that, in the end, we are all the same. If you have a problem, you look for a better life. If you need to go, you go.”

Written by Lisa Bradshaw