The second and third generation of Moroccans in Belgium are gaining a renewed pride in their mixed heritage and are becoming more assertive in expressing their political and cultural will to be recognised as full and equal Belgians.
A tour around the working-class Moroccan districts of Brussels can be instructive in helping an outsider glean what it means to be a Belgian of Moroccan descent. As with their Belgian counterparts, the linguistic cocktails on offer are both fascinating and exasperating to the unattuned ears of a foreign visitor – the various dialects of Arabic and Berber, as well as French, and the mind-boggling and syntax-bending mix of the three.
You can see the latest fashions parading down the streets beside the more conservative headscarves. Passing a Moroccan tea-house that stands adjacent to a Belgian pub, or a mosque that is in close proximity to a church, and, occasionally, a synagogue, in many ways is an encouraging sign of what a multicultural and tolerant society is about.
Although most young Moroccans today have not yet managed, for various reasons, to pull themselves out of their relatively impoverished backgrounds, they, unlike their parents' generation that migrated here in the 1960s and 1970s, have become such an integral part of the landscape that they rarely elicit much attention and are almost spoilt for cultural choice. They can shop at the supermarket or go to their local Moroccan grocers. They can hang out at their own youth cafes, take part in specially tailored activities at the local youth centre, buy Arabic pop tunes from music shops blaring out the latest Rai hits, or keep in touch with their other culture via the web or satellite dish.
However, such diversity comes with a price. Many young Moroccans find themselves living in an identity quagmire – often forced towards donning personas that hang on them like ill-fitting suits. Although they are in many respects fortunate for being part of more than one rich cultural tradition: Arab, Amazigh (the PC term for Berber) and European, they can often find themselves torn by the demands put on them by each and never fully being accepted into either.
Those who wish to relate to their Moroccan heritage find themselves excluded due to their more European outlook or their inadequate understanding of the language and culture. Meanwhile, those who regard themselves as Belgian are often hindered by their outlandish appearance.
A group of lively and cheerful youth in Anderlecht mull over the thorny question I have put to them during their weekly meeting at the local club they set up.
“I don't really feel Belgian but when I go to Morocco I don't really feel Moroccan either,” reflects Mohamed, who is in his final year of secondary school, summing up the confusion felt by his friends sitting round the table.
“Here I'm made to feel Moroccan but in Morocco I'm made to feel Belgian,” Mohamed adds.
“The only place I feel at home or welcome is in the neighbourhood,” notes Meloud, a fellow club member, who is sitting across the table, expressing his frustration that only in the few blocks around him does he have people whom he can really identify with.
“I don't think I feel like a Belgian but I feel like a Moroccan who lives in Belgium,” muses Khadija, a psychiatry student in her first year of university, who, although born here, does not have a Belgian passport because her parents thought, at the time, the procedure was too complicated.
Such a sense of exclusion can have far-reaching repercussions. They often lead to feelings of alienation and crises of identity that may never be satisfactorily resolved. In more severe cases, they can lead to extreme behaviour, such as rebellion against family and institutional authority, as the youngsters shakes off one or the other of the influences tugging at them or pushing them away.
“The issue is a complex one. The main factor at play is a rejection of rejection,” says Mohamed Ekoubaan, the Flemish Moroccan Federation's cultural attaché. He cites as one scenario that some youth, at first, do all they can to gain acceptance in the host culture by behaving and dressing like Belgians.
If their efforts end in perceived rejection, then some may go on a quest to find their roots: improving their Arabic, going to the mosque and wearing traditional dress, but they sometimes have a superficial or incomplete grasp of what that really means and entails, and may become a stereotype of what they think their true identity is.
Digging below the skin
There are other young people, particularly those of mixed descent, who are seeking a third way and refuse to be compartmentalised.
“I don't consider the blood part to be a very essential part of my personality or of my background because blood is not culture,” Yasmine, who is of mixed Moroccan-Belgian birth, tells me as she raises her voice over the not-so-background jazz music at a downtown bar.
An archaeology graduate who is preparing to go to America to do a masters in curatorial studies, Yasmine believes that her Moroccan father, who she has never seen because he has been divorced from her mother since she was born, and his native culture have had, at best, a vague or indirect influence on her.
“It [my Moroccan side] is like a fiction. You have your inner image and then you have the outer image that is different from other people,” explains Yasmine as she sips on her drink.
Moroccan youngsters are, in many respects, proud of their multicultural heritage and know they have an easier time of integrating than their parents or grandparents did when they first arrived into a society that was less equipped to greet them and was also more hostile towards them.
However, this can be double-edged and often drives a wedge between them and their elders. The new generation can have trouble relating to their parents, who, being from a far more conservative background, may find the way their kids dress and act even more baffling than the average parent of a teenager.
“There's a big difference between us and our parents,” volunteers quiet Malika back at the youth club. “Our parents had more problems integrating than we do. They didn't go to school here and they worked long hours… But we go to school and come into contact with society more, so we fit in better.”
The group agreed that their parents found it difficult to relate to their experiences and this made them feel that they could not always be entirely honest with their parents.
Khadija says that her parents found it hard to understand her needs and the things she wanted to do when she was younger but things had improved because her parents had learnt to accept that the environment she is growing up in is completely different from theirs.
However, there are other Moroccan youngsters, particularly girls, who feel short-changed because they do not, in some ways, have the same leeway as their Belgian compatriots who often get a less rigid and less traditionalist upbringing.
Inner city Brussels is very beautiful in its own chaotic jumbled up sort of way, something that does not present a challenge for eyes trained on grand anomalies such as that of Cairo or Bombay.
The government has, in recent years, tried to combat the problems of inner-city decay in the capital by luring individuals and businesses to invest in run-down neighbourhoods, some of which are becoming very hip, and young people whose families had fled the onslaught of the EU are returning.
However, the weathered and crumbling architecture has not yet disappeared. The cool dudes that hang out at street corners jesting and girl-watching, and the cramped living quarters that many families occupy, belie the underprivileged nature of the majority of Moroccans. This shows that more needs to be done, both by the government and the Moroccans themselves, to break the causal triangle of poverty, unemployment and under-education.
“It's not like we're starving of hunger, or anything, but we feel there is a poverty of opportunities,” a more solemn Mohamed fields to the table of friends.
“We don't have a lot of opportunities and I feel the government doesn't invest enough in us,” elaborates Meloud. “Because of all the immigrants living in the neighbourhood, it's been forgotten by the politicians because Moroccans can't vote,” he suggests.
Apart from Khadija who is already at university, the youngsters are, sadly, unsure whether they want to go on to further education and how useful it would be if they did. Mohamed has a vague notion that he'd like to study IT and Meloud, who is at a technical school, says he has heard that graduates of such schools find university tough.
Dimitri Thienpont of Link, a government-funded body that co-ordinates the activities of immigrant youth organisations, attributes part of the problem to the high unemployment level in Brussels, which has hit university graduates too. He says that young Moroccans, whose parents are often poorly educated, may have no positive role models of the benefits of a university education in their immediate vicinity.
Their parents worked without a university education and often cannot see the need to get one. This feeling is often reinforced in the youngster's mind when (s)he sees the few graduates that live in the neighbourhood mostly without work or employed in menial tasks, as the more successful in their ranks tend to move on to more affluent areas of the city or country. Due to a dearth of qualified teachers of Moroccan descent, most of their teachers are native Belgians and often not even from the neighbourhood, making the kids feel that higher education is not for their ‘kind'.
However, the tide is turning. More and more Moroccans are joining the ranks of the educated and political classes, with some 20% of delegates in the Brussels local parliament having Arab names and, according to the Moroccan Federation, the number of university students compares favourably to the national average amongst the less privileged classes.
However, the numbers tend to be skewed in favour of girls, who see university as liberating and have less immediate pressure on them than boys to provide bread for the family.
Youngsters like Khadija, who go on to higher education, are showing more determination to take on a more proactive role in their and their community's future. “Even if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn't move out of this neighbourhood because I feel good in this neighbourhood, I feel accepted and I feel I can participate in a positive way and construct something,” she says.
Her older sister, Touriya, is no less determined. Co-founder of the centre where the youngsters meet and de facto social worker for a decade, she is now working hard to get herself through university as a mature student.
A version of this article appeared in the 31 January 2002 edition of The Bulletin.