Tag Archives: Belgium

The thin line between irony and auguring.

4297357401_97b14e670fOnly a few years ago, not so long after the death of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, Chile opened its museum of memory and human rights. It’s an important part of a nation seeking justice for past wrongs, of how the truth is unearthed -often literally, reconciliation achieved between former adversaries.

The Museo de la Memoria is an imposing edifice, its geometric single-mindedness proportionate to the enormous task at hand. You can’t miss it. Due to clumsiness on my part -Google was not at hand- I did miss it. As, to my surprise, did most Chilenos and Chilenas I interrogated, I mean asked. A few shrugs here, a false lead there. So much for ‘memoria’. Visitors were a mix of well-to-do nationals and foreigners. In defense of absent masses, it was a weekday and, you know, workers be workin’.

The years, starting on that other September 11th, 1973, were dark indeed. But how tenacious a plant is justice. How much effort has been expended to find out what happened to whom and where. No matter what the regime did to its opponents; kidnap, torture, kill -buried in mass graves or thrown in the Pacific Ocean tied to steel beams, what goes down must come up again. Bodies were exhumed, (rather quickly miss-)identified and years later exhumed again to be properly investigated with all the modern means at the government’s disposal. That task, over 25 years after the reestablishment of democracy, is ongoing.

allende-chile-coup-1973-stadium-200x148Weirdly a lot of people supported the junta. The well-offs did anyway. Law and order. A bit of discipline for the greater good. 12.000 people corralled in a sports stadium cum improvised concentration camp. Summary executions, you name it. Who are these people, I wonder? Today, I mean. Is it the elderly man with the meticulously maintained half-moustache and fine watch -the kind you never really own but merely pass on the next generation- sitting in the metro opposite me? The Audi driver at the crossroads? The lady in the black skirt and expensive sunglasses?

What fickle beast is democracy. How easily disturbed. Ears pricked up to the snapped twig a couple of bosques away. On the run at the first whiff of a predator. In this case, the United States. The museum doesn’t mention their role in the overthrow of the left-leaning Allende government. But ask any Uruguyan, Argentinian, Chilean citizen -I did- and they will tell you: “The Americans fucked us over.”

Bygones I guess. Recent US administrations have been solely guided by the advance of democracy and the universal application of human rights. Ahem.

Belgium went through a similar phase in the seventies and eighties: Left-wing militants and criminal gangs widely believed tied to right-wing security-sector elements cooking up a stew of fear and instability. Every so many years new investigations are announced to fill in the details but efforts, on a par with the relatively mild Belgian brouhaha, languish. And yet, questions remain, and as long as the dead have living relatives, and relatives of relatives, the search goes on. Thus is the way of the human spirit. 2016-01-08 14.57.06As indeed evidenced by the indigenous-inspired murals found all over Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile (probably some of the most de-indigenized Latin-American nations, but the only ones I’ve visited so far… watch this space). The one pictured above sits right across the street from the Museo de la Memoria. Signifying the thin line between irony and auguring, I guess.


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Filed under extreem-rechts, Human Rights, International Affairs, Mensenrechten, Travel, United States, Verenigde Staten

De Kansmachine

De Kansmachine – in de boekhandel vanaf 27 mei.

A Billion Worlds – in English later this year… stay tuned.


312 pagina’s
Eerste druk: Manteau, Antwerpen (België)

De Kansmachine

De Kansmachine

Martine Brumagne gaat aan de slag als secretaresse bij een Brussels bedrijf. Ze moet wel. De boerderij van haar echtgenoot staat op de rand van het bankroet. Terwijl ze terugblikt op een leven van verkeerde keuzes, maakt Brussel iets in haar wakker. Plots zijn er weer mogelijkheden. Zoveel dat het haar duizelt. Haar collega Jennifer zwalpt intussen van de ene onenightstand naar de andere. Haar ouders wachten op kleinkinderen. Zij wacht op… ja, waarop eigenlijk? Of op wie? Alvast niet op de ver van pientere Miko, die haar bespioneert in opdracht van de Amerikaanse inlichtingendienst – althans, zo denkt hij. Of grote baas Serge Huissier, oudgediende van het vreemdelingenlegioen, versierder en beste maatjes met meer dan één corrupte Afrikaanse kolonel, generaal, rebellenleider, noem maar op. Een man met meer dan één geheim ook. Een e-mailtje van Miko dreigt er daar eentje van te onthullen: in het Brusselse misdaadmilieu werkt Huissier aan een betere wereld. Niet zomaar een betere wereld – de beste van alle mogelijke werelden. En daarvoor is hij bereid over lijken te gaan.

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Filed under Books, Thriller

Back asswards

These are tough times. “But not end times,” as Jon Stewart put it.
Still, there’s something in the air. A bit of a rumble. Like an empty stomach, or heads churning to try and make sense of what seems like a polar shift afoot. Where’s all the money gone?

It certainly hasn’t gone to that lady over there. The lady who’s asleep -one hopes- underneath a bench on the feted Place de Brouckère in Brussels, exalted by Jacques Brel, adorned by the Hotel Metropole; the only 19th Century hotel still in operation, birthplace of the Black Russian cocktail, and backdrop to the famous 1911 ‘Conseil’ Solvay, the first global physics conference attended by such luminaries as Marie Curie, Ernst Rutherford, Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, and Hendrik Lorentz. Not to mention a certain Albert Einstein.

That lady over there has turned her back on lapsed glory -the part of her back that often goes by another name. A can of Gordon’s sits on top of the bench; the second floor, if you will, of the recumbent lady’s abode. Shocked passers-by cast a quick glance at the half-exposed derriere and, well, pass by. The bleakness of the skin, the motionlessness of this prone human form begs the question: Is she alive at all? Has anybody called anyone?

I decide to flag a police cruiser, and am happy to discover someone else has had the same idea. Accosted in French and Flemish at once, the officers pull over. To protect and to serve and, in this case, immediately don surgical gloves. The bright side: if you’re not at the doctor’s, and people put on latex gloves before even approaching you, the only way is up. One of the officers leans over a bit and starts talking to her, snapping his fingers above her head for added effect. The other patrolman thinks gently shoving her backside with his boots is the way forward.

Then there is movement. An arm rises up as to a charmer’s tune. Rather dizzily. She’s alive. Thank God. The finger-clicking policeman finally does her the courtesy of trying to nudge her coat to conceal the pallid flesh. The other policeman kicks the woman’s backside once more before finally reaching behind the bench and hauling her to an acceptable state of disrepair. Gloves are binned, and off they go. A job well done. These aren’t end times, but one wonders, how much further down is it?

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Filed under Brussels, homeless, Poverty

Brussels pouts.

Belgium, still reeling from an acrimonious electoral cycle, an unresolved institutional conflict about the balance of power between regional and federal authorities, not to mention rising crime and unemployment, engages in much-needed soul-searching. Slowly a national consensus seems to have merged about the need to… ban the burqa. Jostling in online polling rounds, revving up for new elections in 2011, mainstream political parties have identified an issue on which, amid political gridlock on more pressing matters, everyone can easily agree.

The argument goes that by banning the burqa, or full-face cover as seen on the streets of Kandahar, and on a rare occasion, Brussels, the women who are forced by their husbands to wear them, will be liberated, bringing to a halt the perceived menace posed by Islam to a largely secularized society. The burqa is not to be confused with the traditional head cover as donned by a large proportion of Muslim women from a sense of religious piety, modesty, even the idea of shielding men against their own salacious impulse, or simply conforming to cultural custom. Although the debate is a distinct one, the motivation of wearers and detractors run along parallel lines. Confusingly, the terms are often used interchangeably, by accident as often as in an attempt to widen the discussion to other problems related to the integration, or proclaimed lack thereof of Muslim minorities, mainly of North-African origin in European society.

Regardless of the low number of people whose behavior the law aims to correct –no official statistics exist but anecdotal evidence points to a low three-figure ballpark in a population of ten million- the proverbial jack is out the box now and the question, despite its manifold motivators, from the feminist, the populist to the downright xenophobic, needs to be deliberated at face value. In view of the proposed legislation, which targets the burqa only at this stage, a couple of questions are in order.

The first question touches on political philosophy where the current polemic seems to conform to a European tradition of states’ involvement, not just in the socio-economic relation between individuals and groups of people, but advancing far into the personal sphere of citizens.

The combined belief that societies are ‘makeable’, and that lawmakers have a role in combating the perceived negative effects of the burqa, seem to guide the ongoing efforts. Despite unconvincing attempts to turn the question into one of public safety, the specter of Iraq or Afghan-style suicide bombers lurking anonymously underneath a billowy version of ninja uniforms, the Belgian state aims mainly to legislate a dress code in the hope of changing a backward mentality associated with that code.

Which brings us to the second question. Will banning the burqa achieve the aforementioned aims?

An assumption is made that all women who wear the reviled garments do so because of their husbands’ chauvinistic, if not downright misogynistic bent, and that those who do not are free and emancipated. It is unclear at this stage whether police will be instructed to merely fine offenders or forcefully remove the illegal attire on the spot. Either way, the action is expected to have an emancipating effect, or at least make the delinquent think about what she did wrong.

Assuming for a second that yes, states should legislate what individuals wear, and that by doing so, some kind of mental benefit will accrue, what side-effects are likely to occur, and how do they stack up against the benefits?

Belgians, like most people, are a heterogeneous bunch. A fragile balance between French-speaking Walloons, and Dutch-speaking Flemish is maintained by means of an intricate system of checks and balances. The inherent stability or, some say, rigidity of this setup has so far precluded an effective response to the problems associated with integrating an increasingly vocal group of Muslims or people of Muslim descent into the country. Tensions run high, and mutual accusations of discrimination and distrust, mix in with urban decay and a fumbling police response to the nuisance caused by bands of disaffected young males hailing from neglected, predominantly Arab neighborhoods.  By attacking a numerically insignificant phenomenon, Belgian policy makers are effectively increasing its symbolical value, to be espoused or abjured along with a penumbra of issues associated therewith by dint of a sloppily waged debate. Burqa vs. no burqa. Muslim vs. Christian. Assimilate vs. keeping it real.

In such an atmosphere of polarization any honest discussion becomes nigh impossible. Rather than clearing the air, a burqa ban kicks up the dust even further, creating opportunities for extremists on both sides. The underlying problems fester. Everybody loses.

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Filed under Islam