Half and Half

The Lebanese is unused to the local mentality, the Egyptian dislikes his community, and the Palestinian resents the Morrocans. A look at Belgium's Arab immigrants.

BRUSSELS - "Watch me carefully and do as I do," Mike Nasser told his brother. "You place four paper plates in a cardboard box, on them place the square sfihas (the Lebanese equivalent of burekas), above them another layer of paper plates with the round cookies, and on the top layer you put spicy pizzas. One round and one square."

Two days ago, Mike Nasser's brother came from Beirut straight to the small Lebanese pizzeria Nasser owns, near Brussels' Midi train station. Nasser is already a veteran. He has lived in the city for four years, after immigrating to Sweden and even trying to live in Paris.

"Brussels is my last stop. I'm staying here. This is a good country for immigrants. Nobody touches you if you don't touch anyone," he says.

The pizzeria is bustling. Nasser's brother pulls out small pizzas from the hot oven, which make their way to the cardboard boxes and from there to events held by Belgian citizens. "Yes, they've learned from me what it means to eat Lebanese food. No, they're not absorbing me in their country, I'm absorbing them in mine," laughs Nasser.

Does he have Belgian friends, he is asked. "I have all kinds - Belgians, Moroccans, Egyptians. I even had a Belgian girlfriend, but I broke up with her. Their mentality doesn't suit me. We, for example, don't count how many cups of coffee our guests drink. The Belgians, on the other hand, check who ate what and who drank what, and argue about who has to pay how much. That's not for me. It's also not for me to have my girlfriend go sit with her friends in a cafe without me. It's a cultural matter, not racism. The fact that I'm a Christian doesn't mean that I have to accept European culture immediately." But Nasser says he left Lebanese politics in the homeland. "In Beirut I wouldn't be able to employ Syrians. Here, all my workers are Syrians."

Yasser, who immigrated 10 years ago from the village of Al-Sheikh in the Egyptian Delta, had a Belgian wife. He divorced her after his son was born and left the child with his mother in Egypt. Once or twice a year he travels to visit his family and "to see how right I was to immigrate to Belgium."

"Anyone who has money can get along in Egypt. I have a master's degree in English literature from Tanta University, but mainly I had a talent for soccer," says Yasser. "I dreamt of playing on the Al-Ahli team in Egypt, but I couldn't bribe those with connections to get me onto it. Only ministers and businessmen can ensure that their children play on the elite teams. I waited and waited, and in the end I got up and left."

'Horrid community'

But Yasser is not really satisfied in Belgium either. Although he makes a good living from the Egyptian restaurant he opened, he doesn't have many friends, and he lacks a real connection to his homeland. He reads Egyptian newspapers online when there's time, and the small Egyptian community of some 500 immigrants does not particularly interest him. "There's a profound difference between the Moroccan and the Egyptian immigrants. The former get along well with each other but not with the government, and the latter get along well with the government but not among themselves."

The Moroccans, who constitute an absolute majority among Belgium's non-European immigrant community, help newcomers, employ them, guide them through the bureaucratic red tape and immediately form a warm community, explains Yasser. With the Egyptians, however, "each one is willing to put out his own eye if he can blind his brother that way. If you succeed at something, you can be certain that someone from your community will want to harm you or your business. We're a pretty horrid community."

A young Palestinian woman, Inas (not her real name), explains the complicated immigrant communities in Belgium. "We have a clear hierarchy. The Moroccans are the ones who give all the Arabs a bad name: They opened the bars, the brothels and other dubious businesses. After them come the Algerians. The Tunisians, who are already considered ?Europeans,' are better, and at the top are the Egyptians."

This division angers Yasser. "Palestinians don't understand the sociology of immigrating here. They immediately think that they are the emissaries of Palestine, ambassadors. To me it's more important to be a strong community that protects its members than to look good in public. I envy the Moroccans and the Tunisians. They come to Belgium with at least two languages, French a nd Arabic, and most of them know English as well. We know only one language, and anyone who succeeds in learning French quickly becomes an object of envy."

Buthaina is not particularly disturbed by this division. She arrived from Rabat, Morocco four years ago as a student, and this year will complete her certification in translation. She received a great deal of help from her uncle, who lives with his children in Brussels and also watches over her. The uncle married a Tunisian woman, with whom he had two children, but then he divorced her "when he didn't get along with the culture she brought with her" and decided to marry a Moroccan woman. "Now they speak Moroccan Arabic at home, outside they speak French, and the children speak Tunisian Arabic with their mother."

Buthaina has a fiance who is a "real Belgian," as she makes sure to emphasize, in other words, a non-Arab. They plan to marry this summer, and they are already arguing about the children 's names. The wedding will grant Buthaina resident status, and enable her to work toward citizenship.

Inas also has a "real Belgian" fiance, but she has already made it clear that their first son will be named Quais, "after a friend from Nablus who was killed in the intifada. He was a childhood friend whom I loved, and my husband has no chance of convincing me to give our son another name," she says.

Inas is the daughter of one of the leading families in Nablus. She has crossed half the world in her travels, and now, in addition to her university studies, she volunteers with an organization that works to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "I wish I could take all the young people from the territories on one trip abroad. Their minds would open, they would absorb this good atmosphere that made it clear to me that the Palestinian problem is not the center of the world. That there's another life, that there's something to strive for and s omething to achieve. That our street and alley in Nablus or Ramallah is not all there is.

"There's Chechnya and Lebanon, there's poverty in South America and persecution in China. We have to understand that we are very fortunate that our enemy is Israel. Because the world is not interested in us but rather in Israel, and because Israel is preoccupied with the Palestinian problem, it has become a subject of international focus as well. On whom can the Chechnyans or the Africans hitch a ride?" Inas admits that she could not have taken this viewpoint in Nablus. "You have to be an immigrant in order to understand that even nationality is a relative thing."

Waiting to be Belgian

It's Friday afternoon on Rue du Brabant, which is populated mainly by Moroccan immigrants and a few Turks. Adelah and Maryam, wearing headscarves, are in charge of the textiles shop. From a distance, one can hear a recording of a Moroccan singer; meanwhile, sever al housewares shops, where one can find large family-size pots, embroidered tablecloths, and sewing and cleaning materials, have closed so their owners can go pray. This street looks like every immigrant street in every large city in the world: restaurants selling home-cooked food, furniture reminiscent of home, signs offering meat slaughtered according to Islamic law. There are no stores with brand names or new books. There are no fashion designers. This street is waiting its turn to become "Belgian" some day.

The muezzin cannot be heard here, and no signs direct people to mosques. "There's Islam here and there's no Islam here," says Adelah. "It's not like at home. I'll raise my children half-and-half so that they can live without frustration. Half Muslims and half Belgians, half Arabic and half French." And a headscarf? "Maybe."

Would people here go out to torch cars and garbage cans? Will the results of the French elections affect them? "This is not France," declares Nasser, the Lebanese. "Here the country does not consider us an enemy. They don't force us to rent houses in the city in order to watch over us. We can receive a driver's license and a work permit. We can receive resident status within half a year. We can go out with or without a headscarf, we can fulfill the dream of immigration. We ourselves will harm anyone among us who endangers our dream."