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A Brussels Tale: Minister Sven Gatz publishes book on terrorist attacks
After the Paris attacks of November 2015, says Sven Gatz, “the French pointed at the Belgians, and the Belgians said, it’s not really us, and they pointed at Brussels, and Brussels said, hey, it’s not the whole city, and they pointed at Molenbeek. Well, Molenbeek is made up of a few parts of town, and they said ‘it’s them, over there, by the canal’. And those people had no one to point at.”
Molenbeek’s canal-area residents were one of the reasons why Gatz (Open VLD) wrote Molenbeek/Maalbeek: A Brussels Tale, which he will present at Waterstones in Brussels later this month. While writing books is nothing new to the minister – he’s published more than 20 – it’s his first foray into fiction and the first that has been translated into English.
Gatz (pictured) is in charge of youth policy, culture and media in the Flemish government. And he’s also the region’s minister charged with representing Brussels interests. He has lived in Brussels his entire life, his first few years in Molenbeek.
“My father’s family came to Molenbeek as part of a classic intra-Belgian migration story,” he says. “They came from Geraardsbergen in the Denderland of East Flanders. It was a poor area, so in 1958, they moved to Molenbeek.”
The arrival city
The Brussels municipality was, he continues, “very comparable to how it is today, socio-economically speaking. Molenbeek is a typical arrival city. My parents eventually left, like people still do, to move two kilometres further to Berchem-Sainte-Agathe. But it was a whole other world.”
Gatz was five at the time, and both sets of grandparents still lived in Molenbeek. So he spent a lot of time there. He now lives in Jette, again just a couple of kilometres from his roots.
“I don’t really see myself living anywhere else,” he says. While he is very fond of Pejottenland, to the west of the capital, “I would miss the vibes of the city. Even if it is changing from a demographic point of view, it still has the same feel. People change the city, but the city changes the people, too. I like that relationship.”
The March 2016 terrorist attacks at Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station only served – as it did for most residents, foreign or native – to strengthen his relationship with the capital. “Many people had the feeling that it would happen someday. You had other attacks – Madrid, London and, of course, Paris, which had the Molenbeek connection. The link was already established.”
That didn’t stop it from being horrifying when it did come, he realises, particularly the metro blast. The first bombing at 8.00 at the airport felt like an isolated incident, but an hour later when a suicide bomber hit a metro train in the EU quarter, it became a question of: Where’s next? “Maelbeek was extremely terrifying,” he says.
‘A wasted day’
What made it “very peculiar,” he goes on, “was that it was quite a beautiful day. The atmosphere in the city was strange. Certainly in the afternoon. The city wasn’t empty exactly, but it felt like a Sunday. Except too tense, too tense to be a Sunday. It felt like a wasted day.”
Two years ago, Gatz made the decision to author a novel on the effect the attacks had on various citizens. He has written or co-authored many books on governance and beer – some during his 16 years in the Flemish parliament, others from his three-year stint at the head of the national Belgian Brewers association, and still more when he took on the minister post five years ago. But this time he decided to try his hand at fiction.
“I wanted to try to grasp, to capture the spirit of contemporary Brussels,” he explains. “I thought it would be interesting to use the perspective of several Brussels residents, to have them look at and talk about Brussels, but on this very exceptional day.”
Since the terrorist attacks felt awful to everyone, but not always in the same way, Gatz created seven characters for Molenbeek/Maalbeek. Each tells the story of their day in snippets in the first person.
Every chapter is another hour in the life of each character. “The main goal of the book is to try to explain what Brussels actually is.”
Fictional characters, real stories
The characters couldn’t be more different, which is of course the point. Erik lives in Flemish Brabant and feels mostly contempt for the city to which he commutes every day. Hamida is a cleaning woman and lives with her husband and three children in Molenbeek. Claude is old-school Bruxellois, spending his time down the pub bickering over current affairs with his mates. Clive is a long-time British expat.
Ranging in ages, income levels and identities, the characters all bring different perspectives of what happened on 22 March 2016. Gatz drew on the stories he has heard over the last few years – and all of his life. Claude, for instance, is based on his stepfather. The upwardly mobile Nina is based on all three of his 20-something children.
The newly arrived immigrant Ghazi is based on the story of a young man Gatz met during a trip he took with a group of local youngsters. And Hamida is based on a very extraordinary visit with Muslim women who live in Molenbeek.
Gatz went to a simple coffee hour with a group brought together through the Académie de Quartier, a citizen-led initiative founded a few months after the terrorist attacks. The Académie brings together the residents of Old Molenbeek, the neighbourhood on and just west of the canal.
“I thought it was going to be this very easy-going tea and cake kind of thing, but it got very emotional,” Gatz says. “After the Bataclan attacks in Paris, they realised they couldn’t look the other way anymore. Somebody in our neighbourhood did this. So the feelings and experiences shared by Hamida in the book came directly from these women.”
And to create the final character, Gatz secured interviews and conducted very specific research. The character, Françoise, is a firefighter, a first responder at the airport, where two suicide bombers killed 16 people. Many more were injured, of course, and Françoise describes the devastation and the firefighters’ overwhelming job, both the practical and emotional aspects.
The Françoise chapters of the book are easily the most riveting, and the most educational. She explains, for instance, the effect of a blast on the body. The displacement of air caused by the explosion “is as powerful as being punched a thousand times, in a fraction of a second”.
But it’s Brussels that is the star of Molenbeek/Maalbeek. And while the capital’s residents might be the most inclined to read it, Gatz hopes very much that the rest of the country follows suit. What he wants people to take away from it is twofold: Understand the city a little more and realise that the future is bright.
“I want them to comprehend Brussels in a literal sense, to say ‘I think I understand better than before, and it’s really not so complicated.’ And then I want them to think a little bit more positively about how things could evolve. Even if there are lots of issues, like in any big city, so much is still possible.”
Minister Sven Gatz will present Molenbeek/Maalbeek: A Brussels Tale at Waterstones, Boulevard Adolphe Max 71, at 17.00 on 19 March
Photo: Cia Jansen