Sunday, 27 May 2007

Middle East sans frontières

By Khaled Diab

The first days after my return home to Belgium were like a period of decompression following a deep-sea dive. Going from a situation in which even the air I breathed felt politicised and charged with conflicting passions to the more temperate and mild air of Belgium required some readjustment.

After all those days during which I tickled the curiosity of everyone I met, it was welcome to be back in the land of cultivated disinterest, in which privacy is so holy that people turn their eyes away rather than trespass on the sacred space that encircles each one of us. Riding the morning commuter train to Brussels was an opportunity to revel in obscurity, although, after all the intensely passionate issues I had been dealing with, it was a bit of a slog refocusing my mind on obscure EU issues.

It was great to see Katleen again and talk about all those things I had been dying to discuss with her during my trip. Next time I go, she hopes she has the time to join me. We were also careful to spend quality apolitical time together, i.e. make room for rest, relaxation and romance.

But the world insisted on intruding. While I was in Israel, Katleen had been in Geneva talking landmines and had spent the last three months or so working inhumane hours to shed light on the human cost of cluster bombs - on a personal level, I was concerned about the human cost it was exacting on her.

Weekend escape and unwelcome intrusions

The first weekend after my return, my father-in-law invited us on a weekend away to Doornik/Tournai to celebrate his 60th and Katleen's 30th birthday. Interestingly, my last birthday also made me, at 33, exactly half the age of my own father.

The setting was idyllic: gentle rolling hills (quite rare in flat Belgium); beautiful country houses; cows chewing lazily on grass (or human-imposed bovine gender segregation and forced mating programmes!).

My conflict sensors being on such high alert, I quickly spotted another possible reality hidden behind the picturesque scene. Doornik lies somewhere along Belgium's language faultline. It is a city with, historically, a strong Flemish influence but is today part of Wallonia. I recalled that when I mentioned that Belgium had quite a few parallels with Israel-Palestine, Tzachi had quipped: "What have Belgians got to fight over except for chocolate?"

But there is a lot to fight over, if the wrong dynamic ever took over and Belgians took the Flemish-Walloon struggle out of the political process and abandoned their famous ability to compromise. As we wondered around the town and its environs and admired its distinct Flemish architecture, spectacular cathedral and belfry (the oldest in Belgium), we speculated about how different it could be. We even imagined what if the quaint hilltop houses were actually to become 'settlements' taken over by aggressive Flemish nationalists wishing to reassert their ancient claim to their entire fatherland.

Doornik is the oldest city in Belgium and started life as a Frankish settlement and was actually the capital of the Frankish empire until that was moved to Paris in 486AD. Over the years, it has been ruled by the French, Spanish, and others - it was even the only Belgian city to have ever been ruled by the English and King Henry VIII built a castle there which we saw.

For hundreds of years, Doornik and much of northern France was part of the county of Flanders as can still be seen in the names of towns and cities: 'Lille Flandres' (Rijsel, in Dutch), Dunkirk, or Duinkerken, i.e. Dune Churches, etc.

We also ventured across the 'border' into France, to Lille Flandres. Of course, even for a practiced eye, it is very difficult to work out where Belgium ends and France begins. The same Flemish architectural heritage could be seen in Lille's town centre, mixed in amid the more recent French elements. We were there on the Sunday the French went to the polls to choose their new president.

Even though they choose the intolerant and divisive Sarkozy, our little escapade across the frontier drove home to me what I love about Europe: its head-spinning mix of cultures and languages and its absence of borders. If only the same could happen elsewhere. I look forward to a Middle East sans frontières.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

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