Brussels, November 24, 2015
It is the fourth day of security level 4 — “imminent attack.” Feels like a mixture of having an extended public holiday and inhabiting a war zone. And everyone knows that this state of things will not disappear when we are officially allowed to go to work.
For two days, there was no information on the reasons for the security alert. Eventually, we were told that the security forces are chasing suspected terrorists, in three municipalities, including mine. “So do I open the door if someone knocks?” asks my daughter. Her brother plays it clever: “No, because it might be a terrorist. If it is the police, they will ring the bell.” They look at me to check if it is actually funny. I laugh, but only then.
The government’s instructions are to stay away from public gatherings, preferably home. So I went to a Scorpions concert (don’t ask) in nearby Antwerp. The concert hall was expected to be empty because the main hits in Paris were at a venue where a heavy metal group was performing. Wondering what to wear, I ask my teenage kids for fashion advice: “What shall I put on?” Mirella advises: “Something comfortable — to be able to run.” Just like that: no fuss, was not even a joke. This is the dawning of fashion in 2016.
The concert hall was packed, despite the risk/anticipation of a terrorist assault. “Rock & Roll Forever” has suddenly become a call of resistance. There was a lot of this quasi-mobilization going on (“long live our lifestyle,” beer and Veuve Clicquot (!) were in abundance), and an impressive diversity of people — all ages, from rockers with tattooed bare arms to super elegant stiffs in white silk. Rock & Roll Forever it is. The only public things one can attend are big commercial performances, the small theaters are shut down as security cannot be provided (too costly) — probably for a long time. Shopping malls remain open. Just picture it — shopping under “imminent attack” — the most vulgar form of jolly hedonism. Suddenly, I am back to my childhood, in “communist” Bulgaria — possibility of a deadly attack permanently at the back of your mind, and “Rock & Roll Forever” as a cry of resistance. Well, now we have the treacherous safety of the shopping malls. Back then: weekly trainings in the basement of the school in case of a shooting. First as tragedy, then as farce.
And another bit: Two days ago, on the Sunday just after the Friday night attacks in Paris, I went shopping at the little grocer’s nearby; it is run by a Turkish family. Together with my purchase, the daughter handed me a bowl of warm sweet soup — a traditional Ramadan treat, to be given away, shared. I felt honored (that they trusted me to understand and value its significance), and at the same time uncertain whether I would actually eat it. I did not allow my kids to taste it, but I gulped it down with an acute sense of my mortality. I hated myself for that suspicion. But I ate it, and loved myself for it. Damned encounter with death — tells us so much more about ourselves than we would care to know.
An illuminating piece of the puzzle: after the government’s midnight announcement that the security status has been extended again, an interview was aired with the brother of the terrorist they are now hunting down, who said that his brother “was not much of a Muslim, he was drinking, having a good time, he was not radicalized, he was manipulated.” Hopefully, people are hearing this. As I switch off the radio and get up to go to bed, I realize I am sitting on a metal chair plastered with witty clippings from Charlie Hebdo — got it in a design shop last week. I decide not to go into the psycho-political self-flagellation that I am prone to. This is now my son’s treat.
At school my kids have been instructed that in case of a terrorist attack, they should run to the corners of the schoolroom. I hear other kids have been instructed to make a circle and hold hands together, tight. Damn.