I love my city. I love Brussels. This city has nurtured and supported me through the good times and the bad.
On March 22, as bombs devastated the national airport and a metro station that I use occasionally to get to work, killing many innocent people, I realised just how much Brussels means to me.
With Brussels bleeding, wounded and in mourning, I am struck by the extent to which my heart belongs here.
I love the haphazard beauty of Brussels, the ancient cobbled streets paired with sudden high-rise buildings; the beautiful squares, the leafy forests and parks in the middle of the city; the moody bars and cafes; the crazy mix of cultures, religions and people.
Visiting Zurich recently, I was struck by just how boringly white the city was. In contrast, Brussels is colourful and quixotic. And proud to be so.
Quite simply, this city is my world. I enjoy visiting other countries, other towns. But after wandering the globe, it’s Brussels that I call home. And it’s Brussels that welcomes me back with open arms and a warm embrace like no other city does.
This is where I grew up, studied, married and had children. This is where I work. This is where I want to stay and grow older. This is where I belong.
Truth be told, I am an accidental Belgian. It was a complicated and complex quirk of fate that brought me here with my father, mother and sister so many years ago.
My family moved on, went to Japan and then back to Pakistan. But I have never looked back. When I came here almost four decades ago, I had no idea what this little country was all about or that I would love and cherish it so very much.
Even now, who really knows Belgium? I have difficulty explaining where I am from to most people including taxi drivers in say, India, Singapore and Indonesia.
It’s the country between France, Germany and the Netherlands, I tell them. They look at me quizzically. Really? When I say Brussels, they hear “Brazil”. What language do you speak?
Of course it’s complicated. Belgium is divided linguistically, culturally and on ethnic grounds. My Flemish friends hardly know my Francophone ones. People live in parallel universes. Contacts between the Flemish and the Francophones are still too few and far between.
As illustrated recently, Belgium can go for months without a proper government. We have our regional and city authorities that keep working hard even as the national government presses the “pause” button.
We pay our taxes, bring out the trash, drive badly – but most of the time, we play by the rules.
As driven tragically home by the terror attacks, Brussels is also clearly home to many of Europe’s most disaffected and angry young Muslims.
They live in communes such as infamous Molenbeek, now referred to as the “jihadi capital of Europe”. They become foreign fighters who join the so-called Islamic State. They then come back to Belgium and other European countries and wreak devastation.
Certainly, too many Belgians of Moroccan extraction live on the margins of society, discriminated and angry, unhappy at school and unable to find jobs.
Salah Abdeslam, a French national who grew up in Molenbeek, was the sole survivor of the group sent to gun down and bomb revellers in Paris. He fled back to Belgium and was finally caught last week. The tragic attacks on the airport and the metro station are believed to be in response to Abdeslam’s arrest.
But that’s only part of the story. Moroccan Belgians are also successful entrepreneurs, politicians and artists. The city’s transport and health system is in their hands. They are in the police and in the army and in private firms which provide security for the EU and other organisations.
As the days of mourning began, according to Rudi Vervoort, the minister-president of the Brussels-Capital region, the city showed “its true nature … an exemplar of solidarity”, with a massive number of blood donations, taxis giving their services for free and people on social networks offering to open their homes to those in need.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel joined crowds gathered at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels to light a candle in memory of the victims of the terror attacks.
A makeshift memorial popped up in the heart of the city, with messages of condolence, outrage and love by people from around the world written in chalk on the pavement where the lit candles were placed.
Some among the crowd broke out into an impromptu rendition of Imagine by John Lennon. Others stood in sombre silence.
Brussels has been a shadow of itself since last November’s terror attacks in neighbouring France which revealed strong connections between the Paris killers and terrorist networks in Belgium.
Tourism is on the decline, cafes and restaurants stand empty. Businesses are shutting down.
Brussels and its citizens are strong and resilient. But this week as we join the global struggle against evil, we are in pain and in mourning for a more innocent and carefree past which, we know, will never really come back.