In Brussels, which somehow manages to combine the grayness of bureaucracy with the gaudiness of modern popular culture’s worst aspects, I stayed in a hotel among whose amenities was 24-hour access to pornography. Thus were freedom of expression and my human rights protected at the same time.
In my hotel room was also a copy of The Golden Book of Belgium 2001. Perhaps the intervening years had not been so golden. The Golden Book of that year, however, was dedicated to the place of women in Belgium, as if they were an endangered species which might, with careful nurturing, yet survive, like the rhinoceros in Sumatra or the sea eagle in Scotland.
There was, for example, an article dedicated to the place of women in the Belgian armed forces. Its illustration—young female mechanics in overalls clambering over a jet fighter plane—brought to mind the era of Soviet propaganda, and I recalled a cartoon published in the now-defunct humorous magazine, Punch, just before the Moscow Olympics. A female athlete of masculine aspect undergoes a sex test: if she is able to change a tractor tire in less than five minutes, she really is a woman.
Oddly enough, The Golden Book of Belgium did not mention one important aspect of the place of women in Belgian society.
Walking through the city center, littered and crumbling, I was invited into several sex shows by men who did not easily take no for an answer. Drunks were sleeping in doorways, and very large numbers of male youths loitered with goodness knows what intent. It remains true that Belgian beer is the best (and most varied) in the world, but not even this fact could lend charm to the scene. One had the impression of walking through an updated print by George Grosz.
A very large proportion of the loiterers were Moroccan in origin, dressed in the international uniform of the modern slum. They seemed drawn to this seedy environment as flies to a carcass. It took me a few moments to realize that not a single woman of Moroccan origin was to be seen there. Where were they, the women of Moroccan origin? What was their place in Belgian society?
This was the question that The Golden Book of Belgium 2001 did not answer, because it did not ask it.
The answer was evident in the morning, after the sun came up. Large numbers of women of Moroccan origin, dressed in a non-European way, were in the streets, as if a nocturnal curse had lifted. Fewer men of Moroccan origin were now in evidence.
One of the reasons The Golden Book did not ask the question was that the authors might have been prosecuted had they done so. The first duty of the intellectual in Belgium is not to state the obvious but to avoid it. Perhaps Belgium is in the European vanguard, which is why it is such a suitable choice for the capital of Europe.