Teju Cole’s Brussels
In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and as police turn their attention to Brussels – especially its Molenbeek neighborhood – I couldn’t help but recall a long and prescient section in Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Random House), which I wrote about when it was published in 2011. For more than fifty pages (one-fifth of the book), Julius, the half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, lingers in Brussels, ostensibly searching for more information about his oma, his grandmother, who had moved there many years earlier. But most of the time he loiters, walks the city, hangs around the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and visits an Internet cafe to keep up on emails and to make telephone calls. Julius is surprised at the extent to which “Islam, in its conservative form, was on constant view” in Brussels, even more so than back home in New York City. Julius enjoys Brussels’ vibrant, diverse population, but also is aware that there have been a number of ugly incidents, hate crimes against Africans and Muslims. During his repeated visits to the Internet cafe, he becomes friendly with Farouq, a Moroccan who seems to run the place. Over conversations that begin casually but quickly turn up in intensity, the two talk about their backgrounds, literature, and politics. They discuss Sharia law, Israel and the Palestine situation, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Belgian literary theorist Paul De Man, and the Moroccan writers Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun. Julius eventually learns that Farouq had nearly completed his M.A. in critical theory (he had once dreamt of being the next Edward Said), but his thesis committee accused him of plagiarism and Farouq quit school angrily. “I lost all my illusions about Europe.”
Farouq’s eyes shone. The wound ran deep. How many would-be radicals, just like him, had been formed on just such a slight? …There was something powerful about him, a seething intelligence, something that wanted to believe itself indomitable. But he was one of the thwarted ones.
The issue that Julius faces at every stage in the novel is that others try to co-opt or define his identity. Africans claim his heritage (even though he is half German), whites see him as black, African Americans call him brother, Islamists try to radicalize him. Julius’s answer is to stay neutral, aloof, above limiting definitions. But Farouq, a man “in the grip of rage and rhetoric,” simultaneously fascinates and repulses him.
A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something. Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch the attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged. It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties. But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?
After this final, revelatory conversation, Julius retreats from Farouq and soon departs Brussels, solitary once again.