When I picked up Belgium's leading French-language daily "Le Soir" last week in Brussels, with its pull-out section marking the 50th anniversary of the treaty which allowed large-scale immigration from Morocco, little did I know that by the end of the week in Tangier, the Legation would host a Belgian delegation of elected officials from that very immigrant community. Unlike Les Barons, the fictional heroes of a Moroccan-Belgian community who flaunt their status by chipping in to rent a luxury car to impress girls, these officials represent a growing electoral barony – in the heart of Belgium's political institutions.
Actually, Belgium celebrated not only the anniversary of Moroccan immigration, with its close to half a million first, second, and third generations, but also the story of Turkish immigration, which also started in 1964. Today both communities thrive in several Belgian cities, but especially in the capital Brussels.
The delegation of elected officials – they were on our flight back to Tangier, as it happened – was headed by Emir Kir, Bourgmestre or mayor of the Brussels commune of Saint-Josse. Emir Kir, one of the rising stars of the Belgian French community's Parti Socialiste, was seconded during the visit to the Legation by Mohamed Azzouzi and a number of the echevins or members of the Saint-Josse city council. Azzouzi (right), born in Tangier and an architect when he's not involved in electoral affairs, was particularly interested in the museum's painting of the former Belgian Legation, where US Marines deployed to protect during the 1904 Perdicaris affair.
This week's focus on a good news story – 50 years of largely positive impact, with Belgium's already rich linguistic mix (or is it a mess?) getting Anatolian and Maghrebi admixtures – this good news story contrasts with the often morbid media fixation with the recurrent "foreign fighter" story. That hasn't gone away, and it is an important story, when handled seriously. But to equate a minority of misguided Islamist jihadists going off to Syria or elsewhere from the 'hoods of Molenbeek or Anderlecht is to get it way wrong: most Moroccan (and Turkish) immigrants and their offspring are hard-working, striving-to-get-ahead model citizens. Just check the multicultural credentials of the Saint-Josse delegation, seen below at the Legation's Perdicaris exhibit.
There's much more that could be said about the half-century of Moroccan immigration to Belgium. Its roots in the Rif and Tangier, in the years after Moroccan independence, when unrest and unemployment made the safety valve of jobs in Belgian mines attractive to the Rabat authorities. About how people from the Moroccan community have "made it" in Belgium, and not just in politics: on radio and TV, there are a number of household names and recognizable faces hosting daily programs. About how a former Moroccan Ambassador in Brussels considered himself, after the Belgian Prime Minister, as the person with the greatest number of "constituents" (and there's no doubt about how important these Moroccans living abroad – "M.R.E.s" and their remittances – are to the country's economy).
Moroccan immigration in Belgium has remade the image of Europe's capital. When we return there from our four years in Tangier, we'll know where to go to reconnect with Morocco.
Image "C'est du Belge" from the 50th anniversary website.
Text Gerald Loftus; photos Mohammed Jadidi