My father called it “Mini-Paris.” “We lived in Brussels in the 1950s when it was still a wreck from the war,” he told me. “The only people who spoke French were the cops. Everyone in the neighbourhood was a refugee from Italy. Except us, of course.”
My Israeli-American family had relocated to the city’s Saint-Gilles neighbourhood from New York after my father had fallen afoul with the government for smuggling weapons to Palestine from the United States. “Most of my neighbours speak Italian too,” I remember telling him, after taking a sublet in nearby Châtelain, after I first arrived. “They all work for the EU.”
Sixty plus years makes a big difference these days, particularly the difference between 1952 and 2014. Born to parents already middle-aged, in the late 1960s, I arrived in the Belgian capital at age 46, just before my father passed away, at 94.
“I hear the other neighbourhoods are a bit more southern than this,” I remember telling Elie. As a southerner himself, he appreciated the political reference. “Be grateful you don’t have to move to Damascus,” he joked. Already in its third year, the Syrian Civil War would come to cast a long shadow over Europe.
I was thinking ahead already, though not quite in such terms. I knew that I would have to eventually move to a cheaper part of town once the owner of the flat I’d taken returned from the UK. Eventually, I ended up moving north, to Schaerbeek, where being from the south was a lot less glamorous than Italians my father remembers living next to.
“Kebab is everywhere here,” I told a friend in Berlin, who lives in my neighbourhood there, Neukölln, an inner city area equally well known for its lack of fidelity to a national language. Arabic and Turkish are also the local lingua franca, along with English. “My neighbours are either North Africans or Turks, sometimes Kosovars, if I understand the language correctly,” I said.
But none of my travelling had ever taught me to identify the language spoken by the homeless African refugee, in this field recording I made in the fall of 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis. It could very well have been gibberish. But, given Brussels’ large expat population from the Congo, he was likely speaking a dialect from Central Africa. Walking through the Gare Du Nord train station, I’d often witness him singing to himself.
I didn’t move to make a recording of his singing though, until the last time I saw him. A gadget freak, I’d been obsessing over how to record him inconspicuously and was keen on learning how to make high-resolution audio recordings on my iPhone. The results aren’t as clear as I’d like due to the immense background noise of the station, but the contrast, with his voice, adds something poetic to the mix.
Without a doubt, one can hear the precarious of his situation. Sleeping at the station, in a sea of white noise, his singing, and its cultural specificity, confer on the old man something of an endangered species vibe. Both as an individual and as somebody clearly dislocated, likely by war, as much as economic circumstance. The refugee camp a few blocks away was unavoidable.
Full of Arabs, from Syria and Iraq, there were a few Africans, the times I walked through it, photographing refugees for work. While I doubt this man spent time there, he seemed part of the same continuum of persons driven out of the greater global south, to European capitals, albeit the European capital, Brussels. I don’t know what happened to him. But at least I got a recording.
Commentary, recording and photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.