Sarah Arens, “Negotiating public space in diasporic Brussels: A brief case study”

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At the time of the workshop, Sarah Arens was a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. A full-length article version of this short text has been published in Textyles 47 (2015) and is openly accessible via http://textyles.revues.org/2639.

‘We must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life, how human geographies become filled with politics and ideologies’

Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies.

 

More than fifty years after the formal end of Belgian colonial rule in Sub-Saharan Africa was pronounced and after large-scale labour migration from Morocco began after World War II, the city of Brussels is today home to significant diasporic communities. However, as a location for ethnic minority literature, it has been largely overlooked in postcolonial and diaspora studies. Mina Oualdlhadj is one of the literary voices of Brussels’ large community of Moroccan origin. Her first and so far only novel, Ti t’appelles Aїcha, pas Jouzifine, published in 2008, illustrates how its characters experience the material geography of the city, while, at the same time, demonstrates how they appropriate and rewrite it: the narrator-protagonist is Tamimount, who calls herself Mimi, the daughter of a Moroccan labour migrant and his wife, and who was born and raised in Brussels. Following an argument with her parents, the 37-year-old visits her friend Aïcha, who had arrived with her family from Morocco in the 1970s, and over the period of an evening, the women look back on their lives growing up in the Belgian capital.

As already exemplified by its title, which imitates Mimi’s parents accent in French, language use plays a crucial role in the novel, however, mostly in rather negative contexts, such as for the intergenerational conflicts between Mimi and her parents. the novel also depicts how language functions as a powerful tool in the renegotiation and appropriation of public space:

[…] mon père, désespéré de ne pas avoir des ‘enfants-images’, dit à ma mère, en parlant de nous : ‘Prépare un thermos de the et du pain en suffisance, on va sortir les animaux.’ (…) Il nous (…) emmenait aux ‘boules’. C’est ainsi que mes parents appellent le parc de l’Atomium[1].

By renaming one of the city’s most famous monuments, which was constructed for the World Fair 1958 in Brussels, the first one after World War II, Mimi’s parents expand their sphere of influence within the public space of the city. Yet, Mimi’s mother uses this expression as well when talking to people outside her immediate environment, such as a Belgian nurse:

‘Madame, vous pouvez mettre vos enfants dans un parc avec des jouets. – Parc ? Mais j’amine miz enfants à parc di boules, Madame !’ Ma mère parlait du parc de l’Atomium, l’infirmière parlait d’une cage en bois d’un mètre carré, à ciel ouvert[2].

What becomes manifest here is how her status as a working-class migrant defines her experience of the city: her limited French language skills, which create the misunderstanding between her and the nurse, indicate also that she hasn’t got access to a specific knowledge of the city. For her, it’s rather the park’s free public accessibility that is important and not necessarily the gigantic Atomium monument and its historico-cultural significance. However, by renaming this place of exceptional cultural power, she inscribes her migrant status upon the geography of the city and affirms her presence towards Belgian society.

[1] Mina Oualdlhadj Ti t’appelles Aїcha, pas Jouzifine (Nivelles: Éditions Clepsydre, 2008), p. 38-39.

[2] Ibid., p. 54-55.