This month, Belgium celebrates its 175th birthday. Khaled Diab, its newest citizen, reflects on the significance of his newfound Belgianess and all things Belgian.
To be classed as a real Belgian, contenders have to be either abroad or dead. That is the opinion of Bert Kruismans and Peter Perceval in their book België voor beginnelingen, an entertaining look at Belgian identity.
This amusing book is disguised as a beginner's guide to Belgium – ostensibly targeted at newcomers to give them valuable insights into how Belgians live and think. However, it is actually a comical exploration of the defining stereotypes and quirks of the Belgian identity. It is divided into a number of sections, each dissecting a different aspect of the national psyche: how Belgians view their homes, their neighbours, their work, taxes, the government and food.
The oft-hilarious caricature of the typical Belgian that emerges is of a hermetically private food-lover with a penchant for building houses and garden sheds – and decorating them with fake ornaments – who harbours an innate distrust of authority and engages in the national pastime of evading taxes and doing things “in the black”.
“The further we are from home, the stronger our sense of nationhood,” the authors write. “It is as if we are ashamed of the country as long as we are inside it. But, abroad, Belgians discover their true ID and become unashamedly patriotic.” Especially, they point out, when it comes to spreading the word on liquid refreshment – their mission being to teach foreigners how to savour ‘real' beer rather than the ‘dishwater' they drink.
Personally, I don't recall witnessing such missionary zeal from my wife, Katleen, when we first met all those years ago, even though it was in a Cairo bar. I don't recall her ordering the waiter to take back the Egyptian Stella – not the same as the Artois variety – and use it to mop the floor, and I don't remember her standing up and preaching to the friends who introduced us or the heathen hip reclining in the dimly lit pews about their sacrilegious drinking habits.
In fact, she holds that one distinguishing mark of Belgians – particularly compared with their neighbours – is their modesty and the fact that they do not go around advertising themselves, to the extent that they often undersell themselves and their achievements.
Nevertheless, Belgians seem to have won many converts to the cause. In fact, Westvleteren Twaalf, brewed in silent reverence by trappist monks, was recently voted the best beer in the world, despite the fact that it is only available at the monastery shop.
Sadly, the monks who brew the beer are not so pleased with how well the message is spreading. In fact, it so aggravated them that Brother Joris, one of the brewer monks, took the extraordinary step of speaking to the press. “Such a title will only lead to more recognition, more demand and more work,” he complained in a rare interview.
Given that he is a trappist, one wonders whether he actually spoke these words or wrote them down. My research reveals that trappists don't take an actual vow of silence. However, their other vows render them effectively silent, except when absolutely necessary – and one supposes brewing too much beer would distract them from their prayers.
Scratching below the beer barrel
My interest in ‘Belgianness' flows much deeper than a beer barrel – as well as chocolate and fries. Having recently gained Belgian nationality myself, I found it intriguing that these two respected authorities – one is a just judge (rechtvaardige rechter) and the smartest person in the world (slimste mens ter werld), while the other is a playwright – suggest that the best way to express my newfound identity was either to fly or to die. Since I'd rather cross a physical than a metaphysical frontier, I'll have to put their theory to the test next time we run into compatriots abroad.
Since I received my brief letter of congratulations, I have caught myself pondering profound questions of identity: does having Belgian nationality make me more of one than I was before I got it? Am I any less Egyptian? Does it change anything about who I am/was? Can one draw a clear before and after line? What exactly does it mean to be a Belgian? And why exactly do they call the process ‘naturalisation' – does that mean you were some kind of imitation beforehand and then you were transformed into the genuine article? Is it a form of bureaucratic poetry depicting one's documentary metamorphosis from foreign caterpillar to native butterfly – a cross between Kafka and Wordsworth?
My quest to come to terms with this new aspect of my identity has taken me high and low – and family and friends have provided a helping hand. For instance, the Kruismans-Perceval book – the first complete book I've read in Dutch – was given to me by my father-in-law as preparation for the big day. One friend gave me a book of Belgian jokes after my ‘naturalisation', and another advised me to get myself a Flemish flag and join the ultra-nationalist zangfeest every year. I wonder how well I'd blend in there.
I have also recently been to the Visionary Belgium exhibition, where sublime Margrittes are juxtaposed near a bizarre shit-making machine, and attended the open day at the lavishly equipped Flemish Parliament. Always one for a good party, we will probably be joining revellers on the streets of Brussels on 21 July to celebrate Belgium 175th anniversary.
Ever since I moved to Belgium, I have endeavoured to gain a better understanding of the politics, culture and history of my wife's homeland, and sometimes find, being a journo, I am better informed than some locals.
A few months on and I'm beginning to wear my loose-fitting identity a little more snugly. But I am not certain that I will ever be able to persuade anyone completely of my Belgianness. On the surface, at least, I feel like something of an impostor.
Having grown up in the UK and Egypt, I also do not sound typically Belgian and, despite the fact that I have made massive linguistics strides in this multilingual land, I doubt I will ever fool anyone's ears.
I speak Dutch fluently now but – having picked it up as an adult – I don't sound like a native. I certainly sound like a daft foreigner in French: a language I can use if I need to, but the results are neither elegant nor pretty.
But this underscores the complexity of identity in the modern world – i.e. that you should never judge a passport by its cover, or a person by their appearance. Prior to joining the ranks of binationals, I wasn't entirely satisfied with my designated identity as an Egyptian: I feel it does not tell the whole story of who I am. Indeed, there's more to many people I know – including my wife and numerous friends – than meets the eye – what with all the cultural overlap, mixing and cross-fertilisation going on.
Both my parents are Egyptian – although my father is now a UK citizen as well – so that makes me biologically an Egyptian, whatever that means. However, culturally the tale is more twisted. There is, of course, an Egyptian part of me, but there is also an English part and now a fledgling Belgian aspect.
I find that my mixed upbringing and contact with numerous cultures has made me relate to all of them and none of them. In Egypt, there was strong cultural and linguistic cement linking me to the place, but my progressive lifestyle and views and different frame of reference made me feel somewhat alienated.
Similarly, many people, when they hear me speak, get the impression that I am a Brit. Indeed, I feel that I have a lot of history in and a certain affinity towards the UK. But its cultural insularity and military adventurism is a bit of a put-off. I also find it unfortunate that British officialdom goes out of its way to make me feel like Johnny Foreigner whenever I visit.
Despite my strong Egyptian and British aspects, there is a less visible – and nascent – Belgian aspect to my personality. In addition to being married to a Belgian, I have spent the last four years of my life in Belgium and so my frames of reference have become intimately tied with the ebbs and flows of life in this country.
The far right might see all this as a good excuse for cancelling the fast-track law (the snel Belg wet) that allowed me to become Belgian. But just because I have a complex identity does not mean that I do not deserve to be recognised as a member of society. Besides, complexity and confusion are the order of the day in this trilingual salad of a country.
I think offering people full membership of society makes sound practical and moral sense. Being a productive member of society, I feel I am entitled to the same rights as everyone else. And being embraced as fully fledged member of the greater family, so to speak, I feel I have a stake in this country which can only enhance my affinity towards it.
Curiously, I have been told that my cultural transformation is moving ahead quite rapidly. We recently decided to buy a house and, as everyone knows, Belgians have a brick in their stomach.
Despite this perilous mutation, my dream is to become a world citizen, a member of the human race. If they ever start handing out those passports, I'll be first in the queue.