“You go to Brussels – I was in Brussels a long time ago, 20 years ago, so beautiful, everything is so beautiful – it’s like living in a hellhole right now.” – US President-elect
On January 26, 2016, the US president-elect said that Brussels had become a hellhole. I could get offended at this statement and cite you all the reasons why Brussels is far from being a devil’s pit (a part from the fact that it’s neither hot nor dry). But I won’t.
Because Brussels did live through hellish times.
One year ago, the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (CUTA) rang the alarm by raising the alert from 2 to 4, AKA the highest level. The aftermath of the Paris attacks reached this small capital because the terrorists were suspected to be hiding in a infamous neighborhood, Molenbeek.
Brussels became deserted – only soldiers populated the streets. Meanwhile, schools, buses and offices were shut. A collective angst spread, diffusing the feeling that if we stepped one foot outside, a bomb would explode. Fear of bearded and veiled people topped the charts.
Actually, panic was so present that a buff guy got scared of me as I was jogging in a park. To my dismay, I was wearing a flat black beanie.
Okay, okay, it was not World War II. But for a Post-Cold War girl, the lockdown was novel and painful.
And the Belgian government, right or wrong, played a role in the general malaise by telling us to stay indoors. Brussels suffered an anxiety disorder similar to how preppers get ready for the apocalypse by investing in bunkers and survival packs.
But fear-mongering, finger-pointing and paranoia does not get a country anywhere. It does not put food on your plate. It does not prevent people from getting hurt. And it does not build the necessary trust to stifle hate.
Sure, calling to break down every house in Molenbeek, in the same way as convincing people of needing a gigantic 2,000 mile wall and a US Muslim registry, might get you some votes. But stranglehold is not a shield against attacks. In spite of every precaution, Brussels suffered March 22 bombings. She lived hell. But there is one thing Brussels is not.
Brussels is not stuck in a hole.
Brussels is breathing, alive and kicking. In the midst of fear, Brussels stood up for itself – and this is a big deal for Belgians, who are famous for being indifferent to their country. Today, it seems that Brusseleirs cherish their city. I know I do.
Discrediting the suspected terrorists came in an ironic and sometimes endearing response. When the police asked us not to share their whereabouts online during raids, Brussels did not react in fear, anger or apathy. No. Brusseleirs sent a deluge of kitty pictures on social media. How funny is that. Even the French were impressed and supported us. The kitties depicted softness in the face of brutalism, irony to ridicule the terrorizing adolescents, or just an absurd answer to the absurdity of the situation.
In the same way Brussels responded to terrorist threats, it stood up to the Donald Trump’s verbal “hellhole” accusation in a special kind of auto-derision. Hellhole became a marketing brand. On the artsy side, hellhole.brussels took up the hellhole label for a participative platform that features Belgian creatives and entrepreneurs’ love for Belgium through their art and goods. It even became a fashionable hashtag on Instagram.
So yes, Brussels was a hellhole – but it found strength to bounce right back.
Feature image: all rights reserved by Mikel Gasteiz