Tales of the Alhambra
The revelation that a number of Muslims living in Belgium have been linked to the September 11 attacks and the uncovering of numerous extremist cells across Europe over the past few months, has caused tremendous anxiety among Belgium’s huge Muslim community, who fear the spectre of suspicion emerging to haunt them.
Like many European Muslims, they are finding themselves caught uncomfortably in the middle as the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ once again struggle to determine where they stand in relation to each other –friends, reluctant allies, or bloody enemies– while a shaken and angry superpower gropes around for frightened new targets for its ‘war on terror’.
The youth of Alhambra, in this case not the legendary Moorish fortress city in Granada, but a modest local club used by youngsters of Moroccan descent in the working-class district of Anderlecht in Brussels decided to focus a video workshop on how September 11 and its aftermath have impacted on their lives.
I joined the small invited audience for this unique film show, which turned out to be an illuminating glimpse into the mindset of young people trying to overcome negative stereotypes of their religious and cultural heritage.
For almost two hours, we were to be transported into the minds and lives of the assembled Belgo-Moroccan youngsters who had captured their own modern-day tales of straddling two worlds that were threatening to spin apart on the tail-end of a chain reaction that started on September 11.
The lively and easy-going youngsters I encountered in the large converted warehouse, with black and white pointed walls, were talking in hushed whispers and throwing flitful glances at we strangers who had come to witness their soul-baring.
It was obvious the dozen or so assembled youngsters, in their teens and early twenties, were led by some impressive individuals. One group huddled around Touriya Aziz, a co-founder and board member of Alhambra, who also holds down a day job as a social worker. Her title was a little misleading and implied a certain aloofness.
Although a good 10-15 years older than her
charges, her youthful manner, petite frame and hands-on approach make
her a popular member of the gang, who seems to enjoy hanging out with them as
much as they do with her. She has helped them put on theatre performances,
organise outings and go on a field trip to Andalusia in Spain, where they
explored for themselves the ancient cross-fertilisation and cultural exchange
between the Arabs and Europeans.
Others hung around Mohamed Chouitari, Alhambra’s supervisor who manages the centre on a permanent basis and facilitates the activities of the youngsters. Unassuming in his loose jeans and comfortable sweater, his dishevelled greying hair and warm smile give him a brotherly, rather than paternalistic, air. He helps put the youngsters, who were reluctant at first to have their work viewed by any kind of audience, more at ease.
His gentle demeanour and modest manner pay scant testimony to his student activist days in Morocco in the turbulent 1980s, where he and fellow secularists risked detention during their call for educational and political reforms. He finally bid farewell to campus life to join Alhambra after doing post-graduate studies at ULB in the 1990s, where he also became a student union representative in Belgium’s milder political environment.
Then there was Alhambra board member Erik Gijssen, a video arts specialist who does integration work for the Flemish government, who stood chatting with the group’s celebrity guest, Lucas Catharine, one of Belgium¹s foremost commentators on Islam. The sometimes controversial Catharine, author of such titles as Islam for the non-believer, says he was so impressed by the films he had been asked to look at by Gijssen that he wanted to meet the makers in person.
The first of the films entitled We know nothing if we don’t know everything questioned whether governments and the media are presenting us with the "images of war" or "a war of images".
Political science students Souad Chourouhou, 25, and Chaimaa Buzyarsest, 19, suggest in their film, through a montage of press clippings and the symbolism of young children playing soldiers in a playground, that truth, even in this liberal age, can still be a casualty of war.
Arabs have long held a healthy suspicion of their own semi-official media and the film invites a similar scrutiny of the Western media in these strained times of conflict.
The film went on to quote speeches delivered by US President George W Bush and his number one terrorist suspect, Osama Bin Laden. The close proximity of the two men’s words highlights the eerily similar rhetoric employed by them: each describing the other as evil and beating the drums for a Jihad/Crusade.
Set off against the Titanic theme music, the film asked whether the world is plunging towards the murky depths of a monumental clash of civilisations, as some pundits have argued. The film would appear to suggest that far from being an epic battle of the Titans, the current stand off can be attributed, more simply, to conflicting political interests with a measure of culture shock thrown in.
The next film Without justice, there can be no peace was directed by Khadija Aziz, 20, a first year psychology student, who explored the isolation that the Moroccan community experiences when it is made to feel, by some, that it is on trial for the crimes committed by others who share, at least in name, the same religion as them.
The young men and women that speak in the film have their features distorted to protect their identities. "After an injustice people tend to react emotionally," says the anonymous girl in a hijab (Islamic headscarf), commenting on developments following September 11. She sits in a darkened room silhouetted against a bright light in the background.
"I support the Afghani people," says a young man simply, determined not to be intimidated into taking sides in the war in Afghanistan. A black rectangle hovers over his eyes to blur his identity.
The film also delves into how the youngsters view the anti-police riots that erupted in Cureghem district of Brussels in 1997, which opened up the public’s eyes to the challenges facing the Moroccan community in inner-city Brussels, and how efforts to improve conditions have worked out.
The film, while posing the question of how to make the world a better place, ends with the participants revealing, with beaming smiles, their full identities – a call for others to see them as individuals and not just as an unknown quantity.
Under a Cureghem sky was the last film which aimed to show that, contrary to certain Western perceptions, the Koran and the Kalashnikov are not comfortable bedfellows, at least to the mind of the average Muslim. A magazine photo of a militant holding up a copy of the holy book in one hand and a weapon in the other was to become the opening shot and inspiration behind this film made by Mohamed Mouhdad.
Mouhdad, 20, who dropped out of school to work, was dismayed by the profusion of images equating the Koran with violence and terror, and the dearth of more positive depictions. Mouhdad’s film tries to dispel the notion of Islam being the religion of violent Jihad: a religious concept that most Muslims associate with the spiritual ‘struggle’ to overcome the frailties of self.
In reality TV documentary style, the camera arrives at different people’s doorsteps and asks them, somewhat accusatively, if they have a copy of the Koran and a knife in the house. The documentary asks each of the interviewees why they have the two in the house and what they use them for. We see one guy in his kitchen peeling an apple and another sitting in his living room reading, in a beautifully rhythmic voice, a passage from the Koran.
A thirst for knowledge, the respect of religious minorities, an injunction to refrain from violence and harm to others. Not just the mandates of a modern liberal secularism, but passages selected from the Koran by the interviewees to highlight what Islam meant to them.
The lights went on and the youngsters were hushed as if awaiting our verdict. Lucas Catharine launched into his critique of their films, which the youngsters followed eagerly at first, but got lost as he took lateral leaps down an academic path through history. He, nevertheless, suggested that there should be more messages like theirs to promote understanding and tolerance.
It is ironic that in this age of globalisation and mass communications, we still appear to have not fully learnt to de-demonise the ‘other’. We are indeed confronting a faceless enemy that hides just as much in the murky labyrinths of our collective nightmares as in the caves of Tora Bora. But the West is no more likely to be overcome by a tidal wave of Islamic fanaticism as the Muslim World is likely to be overpowered and subjugated by Western neo-imperialism. It’s time, as these modern-day tales of the Alhambra suggest, to lift the veil off our misconceptions.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the 7 March 2002 issue of the Bulletin.
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