Rabie (1987) dancer, born in Brussels, lives in Brussel Nord
I’ve been a dancer for 10 years. In Benelux, together with my collective, we are the champions. I do organize events as well. I don’t think I have one identity. I was born here, I’m of Arab origin and my nationality is Belgian. Besides I’ve travelled a lot so I’ve got a different perspective on things.
In the United Sates I encountered the American mentality. In Korea I’ve encountered yet another mentality, which I’m very keen on by the way. Asian people are very futuristic and yet they respect their traditions a 100%. Even tea making is a matter of life and death. I’ve always appreciated that.
But I’m an Arab. I like to be an Arab and I love my culture. What matters to me most is to be happy. To enjoy life and make sure my family is in good health. To respect others as long as they respect me. That’s what I learned from the neighborhood and my mother of course. I’m a nice person but I’ve got limits that can’t be crossed otherwise my face turns red. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad but that’s the way it is. Street life is important. You learn to fight for yourself but to live together too.
WHEN I PRAY, THE CONNECTION I HAVE WITH GOD WORKS LIKE A WI-FI CONNECTION.
Religion is very important to me. I’m a believer. I pray, I observe Ramadan and I try not to hurt other people. My mother used to tell me to pray. So sometimes I prayed, sometimes not. About four years ago we met a friend who was performing in Las Vegas, the Devil’s city. He does live there but he never gave up on praying. I thought if he could do it in sin city, I should be able to do it anywhere.
When I pray, the connection I have with God works like a Wi-Fi connection. It gives me peace of mind so I don’t see any reason to stop. I believe we can all live in peace in any society. We can live together; respect each other and each other’s religion. To me it’s universal. Yet sometimes I don’t feel directly involved. For instance the Koran, it’s not something to be taken too literally. Some people apply it as it was back in the days. To me Islam is about showing respect to others and learning. The first message that was sent to the Prophet by God through the angel Gabriel was “Icra” (read).
People tell me “ma sha alah your beard has grown!” But it’s not a religious sign it’s personal taste. Like my mother puts it, religion is not about appearances but inner beauty. Back then Muslims let their beard grow and shaved their moustache to differentiate themselves from Jews and Christians who let everything grow. Nowadays who’s got a beard? Someone who dislikes shaving, someone who wants to be in, a hipster they might say. That’s it.
In general Moroccans from Brussels don’t mix. They listen to the same music, wear the same clothes and always go to Morocco for the holidays. I don’t mind, as long as they’re happy. It’s not wrong but I don’t share their beliefs.
IF I HAD TO CHOSE WHETHER TO LIVE IN A RICH SUBURB OR STAY IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD, I’D GO FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD. HERE YOU LEARN TO LIVE AMONG ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE FROM VARIOUS ORIGINS, TO EAT A BIT OF EVERYTHING AND TO SHARE.
Right now if I had to chose whether to live in a rich suburb or stay in my neighborhood, I’d go for the neighborhood. Here you learn to live among all kinds of people from various origins, to eat a bit of everything and to share. My friends come from all sorts of social and religious backgrounds and I notice there’re differences when it comes to sharing. For some of them it’s difficult. They’re not used to it.
When we had a banana we split it in eight if there was eight of us. If someone has to ask for his share because no one offered him a bite it’s strange already. Where I come from it doesn’t happen. We’re like brothers. We help one another. I don’t see that in more affluent neighborhoods. People keep it to themselves there.
We used to go to the park. It was one of the first neighborhoods to have wooden football courts. On holidays we played there the whole day. But things have changed. Back then we used to respect our big brothers. If they didn’t call for you, you did not go up to their homes. Nowadays kids do. They’ve got no qualms.
There’re a lot of skyscrapers where I live. They call it “Manhattan”. Before I lived in the neighborhood called “Chicago” and I moved back. It was in the 80s. The police had named the neighborhood Chicago because it was dangerous. One day on my way back from school I saw a friend of mine get killed. More big brothers died or ended up in prison. I got to know about life. I grew up faster.
I’ve got relatives in Molenbeek. I live nearby. People say it’s dangerous but any neighborhood can be if you get into trouble. To me it’s the same everywhere, there’s no difference from one place to the other. Perhaps white people find it different because they hear urban legends about the neighborhood.
I understand people are talking about everything that’s been happening in Molenbeek. They’re like “oh yeah, that’s where terrorists come from”. But there’ve always been terrorists in any place, any time. I don’t talk about that myself. If I do it means I agree with what they’re saying. Some guy cracked up, that’s all. It has nothing to do with me. Those who think Arabs and Muslims are all the same get it wrong.
Personally I’ve always liked to have a beard but I saw how people started looking at me different after I let it grow. They can judge if they want to, it’s not my problem. They are afraid. I’m not.
Yassin (1985) dancer, born and lives in Molenbeek.
DO I REALLY BELONG TO THE BELGIAN ARTISTIC SCENE OR AM I JUST SOME KIND OF EXOTIC FRUIT THAT PEOPLE LIKE TO BITE IN AND DISPOSE OF?
I started contemporary dance for my work. I come from hip-hop but I felt like moving towards something else, mixing. Now I like it. Dance is my means of expression. I never told my parents I wanted to become a dancer because it was haram. There were cool with it as long as it was a hobby, like break-dancing at the train station. But once I got serious about it, things got complicated. I couldn’t tell them.
Between shows, I hung out outside the house all day so they wouldn’t suspect anything. Now they know but they have never come to see me perform. My mother told me she wanted to but she couldn’t since it was forbidden by her religion. Actually she forbade it to herself. It hurt me. I hope one day she’ll show up. We talk a lot together. With my father I don’t, he doesn’t want to know anything about it. I’m an artist and I’m a Muslim. But somehow I have the feeling the two don’t go well together.
Everyone I’ve met and appreciated has had an effect on me. Every time someone brings me something I find interesting, I keep it. But lately I’ve started to think differently. I wonder. Do I really belong to the Belgian artistic scene or am I just some kind of exotic fruit that people like to bite in and dispose of? Where do I belong? I’m a Muslim. I’m a dancer. I’m a hipster. And yet I don’t relate to any category. I’m often by myself. I don’t have many close friends. Categories split people up.
I was born in Brussels and I’ve always lived in Molenbeek. That’s my neighborhood. However, lately it seems I’ve lost a lot of friends though. People don’t understand what I do. To them it’s strange. I feel sad about it. I grew up in a very friendly and mixed neighborhood. But things have changed. The more people from Morocco moved in, the more the Belgians moved out. And so my neighborhood became a ghetto. It was dangerous. Each area had its own gang. They used to cause a lot of trouble. It was rough. Back then delinquents were about 30 years old. Now they’re teenagers. It’s still as rough.
If I were raised somewhere else my education would have been different. I believe a tough life makes you tougher though. When I was a kid I wanted to live elsewhere. Today I’m fine with it. Although I wouldn’t mind moving to the outskirts of Brussels, where it’s quieter, or to Spain or Morocco to go by unnoticed. There we all look alike and share the same culture. Sometimes I’d like to walk about anonymously in a crowd. At the airport for instance, when we take off for a performance, I see how people look at me strange with my backpack. Each and every time I get searched. I feel targeted.
I’d like to perform in Morocco, outside in the mountains. I’d like to dance among the sheep, get inspired, change people’s mentalities and participate to Africa’s cultural emancipation. Belgium is my home, I belong here but I’m still searching for something else, without knowing where to head. At my age I should have figured all that out already, according to the society I live in. But I’m struggling for answers to my questions. How to live between two fires? What should I do to please you and me?
Actually I feel lonely. It’s not my choice to be alone. It gives me strength but it’s not a choice. To be a Muslim or not to be a dancer… Categories isolate those who throw them off.
I WAS ATHEIST FOR A WHILE BECAUSE IT HAD BEEN IMPOSED ON ME. NATURALLY IT CAME BACK.
Religion is as important to me as I want it to be. I’m not always in the mood. I use it when I need it. It gives me strength. I was atheist for a while because it had been imposed on me. Naturally it came back. At first I needed to understand why religion forbids certain things others are entitled to. Like why my parents couldn’t make it to my shows. I couldn’t tolerate that music was haram.
I look like a hipster. Visually I find it attractive to mix things up from different cultures. Besides, that’s how you fill out the box when you don’t know what else to put. My beard goes from a hipster cut to a Muslim one. I got so used to worrying about what other people were thinking that I started making a list of what they were thinking. It started when I was looking for a job. I had to appeal to employers. I went to interviews dressed in a way they didn’t expect. And it worked out! When I dance that’s also what I do. I appear on stage as a powerful man and I dance in a feminine fashion. I like to play with codes.
Interviews by Nora Mahammed — edited by Mélanie Cravero