A train story


The below happened under my eyes in the train which was taking me and my sister to Bruxelles to spend holidays with our family. It’s not a tragic story, it’s just slightly bitter as a day of winter when the sky turns grey and you know that it was supposed to snow by now but you slip under the dim light of your desk lamp and dive your nose into the computer and you let news of climate change be covered by some video with a dog eating a Christmas tree.

It was the day of the attack in Germany and the news were grim, nerves were stretching, a few dark thoughts passed through my mind.

I fell asleep around Namur and woke up near Ottignes where the whole scene started. A man walked into the train, a young man of presumably Moroccan origins. He put his luggage and sat like any normal passenger, with his girlfriend, a redhead young woman. A few seats in front a Muslim woman with her hair covered sat alone.

Just a minute later, another man entered the train. He had washed out jeans and a brown leather jacket, he was bold and had unsteady eyes, surrounded by large black circles. His moves were swift and irregular. He was holding an unlit cigarette between his fingers, using it to point towards imaginary people. His eyes seem to be running in all the directions. His lips were moving as if he was talking to himself. My first thought was “drugs”. He entered our car and went straight to the first man, mumbling and baiting at him in a mix of French and Arab.

Soon the tone started to raise and everyone in the train was terrified. The woman with the headscarf was obviously scared. She had her fingers on the phone, as if she was ready to call someone. What I could understand from the mix was: “you’re not a good Moroccan. What? You’re only speaking French? French? The language of these …? Of these … You’re Moroccan, you should be ashamed to speak to me in French! You think you’re a Belgium? You are Moroccan. French is the language of scoundrels!”
The insults were pouring in this strange language mix, in spite of the young man answering in Arab with an impressive calm. My sister told me later on that she could see his hands shaking while the deranged was shouting at him. It lasted for too long. Other people in the car were looking down, on the window. We continued talking soddly as if nothing was happening. I could smell the fear in the air, this fear that oppresses us lately, the fear of an attack, the fear that raises the tensions, fear of other humans, fear that there was a bomb under that brown leather jacket.

I could smell it and I was myself drowning in it, with every new stronger wave of the verbal violence. I could understand a word in 10 but I could feel the hate through the language barrier. The woman with the headscarf looked more and more worried and the young man was managing to keep calm.

After a while he stopped answering in Arab and any language. The violent guy left the car but he was watching him though the door, still moving his cigarette. A controller came and asked his ticket. For just the 2 minutes they spoke, his face changed at 180 degrees. He was smiling, showing his ticket as if he has been smiling for the entire journey. I was surprised that the employee of the railroad didn’t ask anything about his cigarette, which he was still turning and pointing in his hand. Maybe he didn’t want to know more.

Meanwhile the young man was talking to his girlfriend: “I am so ashamed and I feel guilty for his attitude. You can’t imagine the words of hate he said to me in Arab, all the insults…”

When the train entered the first station in Brussels, it stopped for another extremely long minutes. The deranged open the door and from there he asked the young man why he doesn’t want to get out of train. The young man said that he goes to another station.
That created a new tsunami of affronts and insults. The door kept automatically closing and he was hitting the handle to push it back like crazy, while he was yelling: “your a fagget, a homosexual! You’re not a real Moroccan! Fucking fagget! You only speak French!! You wanna fight? Let’s fight! Let’s see who’s stronger! I know box! You wanna fight, you PD?”

At this point the young man who was saying nothing in this second round, could not take it anymore. He raised his tone and shouted out: “ok! Let’s fight!”

Silence in the train. Nothing was moving for a few seconds. He was still sitting in his seat when the mad shut his mouth for once. The door closed for good and the mad man stepped out of the train.
I let out a sigh. The woman with headscarf let her phone on the table and breathed.
The last thing I heard the young man telling his girlfriend was:
“I can’t feel my hands! I was so scared! My heart is pumping.”
“Would you have gotten into a fight with him?” she asked.
“I don’t know”

There are so many questions I think about while putting in writing this events at 1 a.m. I wonder about fear, about war. Are we about to lose the paradise, the safety and freedom we were used to?
From outside it may look like “Arabs fighting between themselves” but from where I was it looked exactly like a consequence of raising hostility between “us” and “them”. As if this “us” and “them” should even exist.

Someone in a post on Facebook, wrote, referring to the Berlin attach: “Muslim immigrants don’t understand the principle of our democracy.”
When I was telling the story into family, I started with introducing the young man, but I called him, for the sake of simplification, “a young Arab”. I could see that from my first words, they were expecting him to be the negative character of the story. As the story unfolded, he became the hero.
And I was wondering what is our so called democracy that allowed so much hate between us as we are no longer recognising the courage, the kindness in a man, just because of a word that I wrongly chose to describe someone?
And do we really know better with our democratic, European values that hang by a hair? What do we know about this large culture? What do we know about being an immigrant and being raised in a family that does not belong and having to fight your way and feel guilty for someone that doesn’t share anything with you, except your language and maybe some obsolete religious rituals? We, the so called “western world” know nothing. This is not a war between the “Arabs” and the “Western world”. It’s a clash of cultures and educations. None of the sides understands the other and those in between, the generation of hard working people who tries to live here like us, well, they are just “immigrants”.
It’s a war of fear. Of course, somewhere in this fucked up world there is blood flowing in rivers and suffering and abuse, but here, in the safety warm, western world we can close our eyes and hide under the blanket. We are no longer used to violence so every outburst is an event.

But then, there was something positive about this story. There was a young man who didn’t answer violence with violence, one of the most forgotten Christian lessons. There was hate giving up in front of courage. There was also mistrust and fear. No one thought about calling any authorities, which shows how much trust we all have in them.

I learned something from the attitude of everyone else in the train.
You can not suppress fear! In front of violence, fear is something real, touchable, it throws you out of control. But, even in those moments, one can chose his or her attitude.
I regret not going and saying an appreciative word to that young man when I was leaving, a simple word of recognition. I was still under this fear that something might have happened.
In the airport there were men patrolling with guns. They didn’t make me feel safer or better. Hate from inside kills as much as the hate from outside.

I don’t have any solutions for the current state of the world. I find that the most difficult to bear is feeling tied, hopeless,  feeling useless. My only way of dealing with these feelings has always been and will always be writing. So, I write. I tell the story as it is, as insignificant as it may look and somewhere in this process I found a glimpse of hope.

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