Can you describe what you do? Where you are based, the neighbourhood you live in, your daily routine, the people you work with, the scene you feel the closest to.
I’m a comedian working for Flemish broadcaster VRT. I live in Antwerp’s Borgerhout district with my parents, but I’m moving out soon. I’m staying in the area, but in a more quiet part. Everything you need is right here. Want to eat Thai? You go and eat Thai. Want to eat Moroccan? Go to a Moroccan store and cook it yourself. Everything is close by, and the streets are always busy. Antwerp is vibrant, like an aspirine. I’m someone who’s part of all the scenes. In the morning I’m my parents’ son. With my friends I’m a drairie. At work, I’m a colleague. And I love all of them equally. Well, maybe my family a little more.
How do you perceive Antwerp? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?
I love Antwerp, it’s as simple as that. I’d never move. Ever. Antwerp’s identity exists because the city has no identity. Antwerp is a broad range of things. Like a patchwork. That’s what I love about it. Also the cultural scene: the high culture (the great Flemish masters like Rubens), the fashion industry, a booming hip hop scene and established musicians. Antwerp is a pioneer when it comes to… everything. And that’s all because Antwerp grew out of multiple perceptions. We don’t follow the mainstream. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t
What would you say is Antwerp’s main appeal for creatives? What gives the city its edge?
Look at Brussels, which is also a big city that’s very attractive to creatives. But in Brussels you’re someone in Brussels. Like in Sting’s “Englishman in New York.” But that’s not the case in Antwerp. Antwerp exists to serve you. And in a bunch of other cities, you exist to serve the city.
Antwerp’s identity exists because the city has no identity.
How would you say Antwerp contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Antwerp is so much at the same time. That’s what makes me who I am. You can look at coffee the way everyone looks at coffee. Like: it’s coffee and maybe there’s some cream in it. And that’s most certainly an acceptable way to look at coffee. But because I grew up in Antwerp with Ethiopian friends, I know that coffee beans are very important in Ethiopia. That Moroccans just like to drink coffee. That Arabica coffee has nearly no link at all to the Arab world. Thanks to my hipster friends, I know of the existence of flat whites, cappuccinos and double shot lattes. And that’s how Antwerp taught me that nothing is what it is. Through that broad range of perspectives, you find new ones. Coffee, to me, isn’t a drink. It’s much more than that.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city?
I just want Antwerp to become an identity of people. Which it already is for a lot of us. But people of a certain community or conviction should be able to make Antwerp their own too. There should be, for example, a religious library. We need more stuff like that. There are no institutions you can go to. If you want to learn about Moroccan culture, you need to meet someone who knows Moroccan culture and actively ask them about it. It’d be better if the Moroccan community had like, a museum. And that’s an idea the city should consider with an open mind. We need to ensure people coming together on an institutional level.
To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Antwerp? If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
I would go to the Vlaeykensgang, for sure. A little medieval street, it shows the Antwerp of so many years ago. You can tell tons of stories by just showing that little alcove to people.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth?
There’s a well at the Handschoenmarkt, right in front of the Cathedral, made by ironsmith Quinten Matsijs. He was in love with a painter’s daughter. And since painters were part of the elite in the 16th century, so was the girl. Matsijs went to her father to ask for his blessing, but unfortunately he didn’t think too much of ironsmiths. Which pushed Matsijs to ask “what if I proved I could have the same status as a painter?” To which the father replied “yeah, try to prove it.” So Matsijs started working on the well and used all his ironwork skills to forge a little statue of Brabo, right on top of the well. After his work was finished, he showed the well and the little statue to the painter, who came around, and gave his blessing. And even now, 500 years later, the inscription on the well reads, “this well was forged by Quinten Matsijs. Love made the ironsmith a painter.”www.kamalcomedian.be Interview Redouan Tijani Photography Thomas Ost