Molenbeek is the “Islamist” section of Brussels which recently became well-known as a breeding ground for terror attacks; it is sometimes described as a kind of desperate hell hole. The Time Out guide for Brussels doesn’t mention it at all. Naturally I wanted to see it.
I visited yesterday morning and saw the fruit, vegetable, and clothing market, and then walked around for another two hours. It was charming, everyone was friendly to me, and I never felt threatened. I bought some excellent cherries at a very good price (“cheap cherries,” and the surrounding streets offer “cheap charcuterie” as well).
Most of the people seem to be either Moroccan or Turkish. The high ratio of Muslim women to Muslim men in the market was striking.
On the vegetable but not the clothing end of the stalls, I saw a fair number of blond Belgian women pushing their baby strollers and buying produce. On my way in from the airport, my (white) Belgian cab driver told me he lived in Molenbeek and loved it, including the low rent — my apologies to Thomas Friedman of course.
Inside the boundaries of the market is a well-known Art Deco church from the 1930s, which upon first glance appeared to be an old mosque tower. At that moment I was surrounded by hundreds of Muslims, and so was primed for the mosque look I suppose. I walked up the stairs of the church to the door, and found it was barred and showed no signs of life.
One plaintive-looking Belgian man was standing on the steps, and he asked me quietly (in French) “Are you here for Mass?” “Yes,” I said, not wanting to end the conversation. “You’ll have to wait, then,” was his dead pan response.