What Is Brussels?

A crossroads of history, a city of immigrants, an unfinished but essential project to end the cataclysmic conflicts on the European continent.

Molenbeek, Brussels
People take part in a “multicolored” march for peace and “living together,” organized by the residents of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, on June 24, 2012.

Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images

What is Brussels? The images of Tuesday’s attacks are of a city in transit, a crowded metro and a bustling airport, banal sites of everyday movement—now turned into spaces of death. The city is much less legible and familiar than Paris.  We learn of fragments of its geography—an immigrant neighborhood called Molenbeek and downtown subway station called Maelbeek—but what connects them?

Brussels is many things at once: the de facto capital of the European Union, a contested site in the long-running conflict between Dutch- and French-speaking groups, and a city of immigrants, remarkably cosmopolitan and diverse—a crossroads of histories and conflicts. The city is a place, but we should also think of it as a project: imperfect, unfinished, but essential.

Belgium was occupied by the Germans first during World War I and then again during World War II. In time, Brussels became the capital of a project meant to put a permanent end to the cataclysmic conflicts within the continent: the European Union. I was born in Brussels in 1971. My family moved to the U.S. soon after, so the city has remained for me a kind of distant home—as I grew up, I witnessed it change, from one summer visit to the next, in a kind of stop motion. I vividly remember seeing the giant buildings of the E.U. headquarters going up, displacing older neighborhoods, and visiting the transformed center of Brussels with my grandfather—who had served for a time in the Belgian government—traveling through the Maelbeek station that was bombed Tuesday. The transformation into the capital of Europe profoundly reshaped Brussels, helping to make it the global city it is today.  

Despite being home to this somewhat utopian project of unity, however, Belgium and Brussels have also long been consumed by a deep, internal conflict. The country has two linguistic groups, the Flemish who speak Dutch and the Walloons who speak French. After Belgian independence from the Dutch in 1830, French became the dominant language of education and of the state. By the 1960s, however, Flemish activists increasingly contested this linguistic dominance. This was a battle about much more than language: It was about access to educational institutions, about the language of the administration, about patterns of exclusion and social mobility.

Thankfully, Belgians have a good sense of humor: The main symbol of the city of Brussels is a statue of a little boy peeing, after all, and one of our roles is to be the butt of a vast compendium of jokes French people tell. But funnier than most of these are the various self-deprecating jokes Belgians tell about themselves and their dysfunctional nation. An uncle of mine once explained that in fact there really is only one Belgian: the king. Everyone else thinks of themselves as either Walloon or Flemish.

This long-running conflict does have one thing going for it: No one, to my knowledge, has ever been killed as part of it. I’ve sometimes thought that the world might benefit if, along with beer and comic books, Belgium found a way to export its model of remarkably nonviolent civil war. Still, it has taken its toll, often causing political paralysis around other issues, including the questions of how to deal with social and educational challenges posed by immigration.

Today, the majority of residents of Brussels are immigrants: A full 70 percent were born outside the country. Some of these are professionals who work in the bureaucracy of the European Union, others are working-class immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. But more than half of those—about 36 percent of the entire population—are of non-European origin, largely from Morocco, Turkey, or Central African countries once colonized by Belgium. 

As a result it is now a deeply polyglot city. The presence of the European Union has made English a kind of lingua franca in some quarters, and immigrant communities speak many different languages alongside French or Flemish: Turkish, Moroccan, Kikongo, Lingala, and other Central African languages. Marie Daulne, the founder of the marvelous Belgian band Zap Mama, describes herself as a “Bantu-Walloon,” producing music that in some songs brings together Congolese traditions with those of medieval Europe.

There is a younger generation of Belgians who often speak English as a second or third language and see Europe as a whole, rather than just Belgium, as their home. The issue of French versus Dutch language is increasingly seen as a distraction from much more serious issues surrounding religion and culture, particularly the place of Islam. In Belgium as elsewhere in Europe immigrant communities have struggled, facing barriers to education and employment, and Islamist groups have gained a foothold in some of Brussel’s neighborhoods.

Last November’s attacks in Paris were planned from Brussels, organized by the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He was killed in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, soon after the attacks, but another Belgian participant named Salah Abdeslam escaped back to the neighborhood of Molenbeek, Brussels, where he and Abaaoud had grown up. The Paris attackers specifically targeted spaces of mixing and cosmopolitanism, including the Stade de France, where the country won the World Cup in 1998 with a team led by Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants. To attack Brussels is in a sense something similar: While there are many deep divisions around class and ethnicity, this is a city now defined more than anything by its diversity. In Paris a number of the victims were Muslim—including the cousin of one of France’s national team football players, Lassana Diarra—and there is a good chance we’ll learn that was the case in Belgium as well.

The attacks will no doubt lead to deeper tensions within these societies and will likely be seized upon by politicians who want to restrict immigration. But the fact is that these European societies are now resolutely, and irreversibly, diverse. They are as much African and Middle Eastern as European, and in fact these are societies where it is extremely difficult to draw the lines between categories. The open, and urgent, question is what these societies will ultimately make of this now established diversity.

If there is a soundtrack to today’s Brussels it might be the music of Stromae, whose father is from Rwanda and mother is from Belgium. In his 2013 song “Moules Frites,” he plays off the ubiquity of this (delicious) national dish, telling the story of an ill-fated Belgian done in by a contaminated mussel. But out of this he produces a song at once ironic and strangely stirring as it brings together African pop styles with a story of a Belgian meal gone bad.

Stromae first became widely known through his 2009 hit “Alors On Danse”—“And So We Dance”—which might just be one of the most mournful pop dance tunes released in a long time. Its portrait of unending individual problems (debt, divorce) folds into an evocation of broader ills: “whoever says crisis says the world, whoever says famine says the third world.” Stromae only half-heartedly, and with a studied fatigue, offers a solution: “And so we dance. And so we sing.” Stromae’s music is, in some profound way, Brussels, capturing its mix of energy and fatigue, of endless layers of irony but also conviviality and openness. 

In 2014, Stromae released a song and video meant to serve as an anthem for one of Belgium’s most successful and popular institutions: its soccer team. The Diables Rouges, or Red Devils, are—somewhat surprisingly—ranked as the top team in the world currently. They are heading into this summer’s European Championship as potential favorites to win the final, which will be played in the Stade de France in Paris that was attacked last November.

The Belgian national team has joined the king as a true, national institution. The team is beloved not just for its successes on the field but also because its diversity represents Belgium as it is today. Its members are both Flemish and Walloon, but many are also of immigrant backgrounds. Marouane Fellaini is of Moroccan descent, Radja Nainggollan of Indonesian, and Divock Origi’s father was from Kenya. The star striker Romelu Lukaku’s father once played for the national team of the Congo.

The father of Vincent Kompany, who often serves as the team captain and is the pillar of the defense, was also from the Congo, and his mother was Belgian. He grew up in a Brussels neighborhood where the population was largely Muslim. Last year, after the attacks in Paris, Kompany gave a wide-ranging interview in which he connected the radicalization of some in Belgium to the lack of opportunities and the fact that the country’s politicians had failed to deliver “the beauty of democracy” and had effectively abandoned and disenfranchised immigrant populations. “All we hear is declaration of wars—and wars against whom?” he asked. “Ultimately you’re only fighting your own people.”

In that November 2015 interview he expressed hope and affection for his city: “Brussels will always be this city of diversity, of wealth of culture, and I encourage everyone to speak and say how much they love the city.” After Tuesday’s attacks he tweeted that he hoped that Brussels would “act with dignity.” “We are all hurting, yet we must reject hate and its preachers. As hard as it may be.”

The world is in Brussels. And at least for a brief moment, Brussels is the world.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Brussels terror attacks.