Ashbah Broxel (Ghosts of Brussels), by: Mohamed Baraka (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation), 2019.
The great Al Tayeb Saleh, Sudanese novelist — considered by many critics and readers one of the best ever Arabic — wrote in 1967 his masterpiece “Season of Migration to the North.” Since then it became the reference point for all writers who dealt with the issue of a single man travelling to Europe; the one novel that all others will be compared to when dealing with that subject.
Mohamed Baraka, in his fifth novel, “Brussel’s Ghosts,” followed the footsteps of the great writer with a more contemporary view on modern Europe, taking into account the kind of people who take on the adventure of moving north, looking for a better life, or simply a living. The voyagers are now different from those who travelled for work or study in the past century. A lot of water passed under the bridge since the 1960s. European culture towards immigrants changed and travelers to the north are mostly refugees since the beginning of the second millennium.
The voyage for the novel’s main character ends in Brussels, Belgium — unfamiliar territory for Egyptian literature. The reason is for a job as a correspondent for an Egyptian newspaper in capital of the European Union. The timing is the years 2005 and 2006, during the height of refugees pouring into Belgium due to political instability in the Middle East. The novel contains a detailed account of the refugees’ path from Iraq to Europe, ending up in Brussel; the smugglers networks, on-the-take border guards in Serbia, and the agonising journey from Iraq to Syria as a first stop. The novel details the tricks some immigrants play on authorities to manipulate the system, keep and double the amount of aid they get as refugees. The philosophy is summed up with concision: “To have a system that can be manipulated is better than having no system at all.”
The details uncovered in the novel come from firsthand interviews, shedding light on the lucrative refugee business that brings millions of euros and dollars to mafias that came to life due to the sudden creation of a market. The rules of supply and demand apply to human misery just like any commodity.
The novel has many attractive aspects to be explored. The intimate scenes of Mekkawi and his Italian girlfriend Karla were written in a classy, non-graphic way that is normally appealing to the conservative reader, yet stimulating the imagination in the adolescent mind of men and women alike. The relationship between a Middle Eastern man and a European woman is always a theme that interests potential readers of this type of novel. Baraka was capable of capturing the essence of Karla’s personality; a fiery female that knows that she is an equal to men, yet has all the insecurities of a woman who is worried about being abandoned for any reason. Karla is a jealous, caring, insatiable female. The part that the writer did not tell us was how the affair got started in the first place. He gives the impression that she picked him up, without stating it directly. Another issue that the Egyptian reader may be inquisitive about is what would make a European woman pick an Egyptian lover, taking into consideration the language barrier, among other obstacles.
Europe and life in it is not the only aspect the novel discusses. The way a divorced man is looked at in Egyptian society — especially his male friends — is explored thoroughly. The invasive questions. Many unnamed characters reveal they have sad marriages, staying in it for the children. They praise the courage of those that divorce, looking with a sense of envy. This envy continues when the main protagonist travels to Europe, and the curiosity continues towards his relations with women in the West. The writer condemns indirectly the adolescent mindset of middle-aged men in Egypt; that a single man from Egypt in Europe should be some sort of Don Juan. Do all men think that way, or is it just in the Middle East?
Without unraveling the novel’s plot, many secondary topics are brushed upon in an informative and creative way. Showing the dangers of being a journalist in today’s world, with 2,300 journalists killed between 1990 and 2005 for doing their jobs; the fact that Turkey has more than 50 percent of all journalists imprisoned across the world; uncovering that the largest levels of harassment suffered by journalists occur in Europe; between legislation that limits access to information, to harsh punishments if convicted for violations, journalism continues to be a dangerous profession.
The novel observes the changes that occurred in Brussels. All of a sudden the quiet city was under attack by suicide bombers, lone wolves and immigrants who wanted Belgium to be an “Islamic” country. The writer courageously exposes the vicious ideas of the militants of terrorist movements — “the head cutters,” as he describes them accurately. He eventually blames the accommodating system accepting refugees in Belgium for the attacks that led to headlines like “Brussels under Siege”, while at the same time insisting that he is not against freedoms or measures that allow those in need to be cared for. It is a thin line that the novelist had to walk, and unfortunately European culture is not understanding to both arguments when combined.
The novel’s narration style is attractive to the reader. Following the details of Mekkawi’s life in Belgium is easy; Baraka's ability to describe the various characters is innovative, without going into a lot of depth. Flashbacks and references to movies gave away the writer's political views. The journalist was able to conquer the writer in the novel. It is basically a novel that was written by a journalist.
Mohamed Baraka is a journalist at Al-Ahram newspaper and was Al-Ahram's correspondent in Belgium for two years.