The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Mohamed El Oualkadi

Mohamed El Oualkadi

Union secretary for the employee department of the ACV union, chairman of the ROJM and board member for De Maan (1974)

Can you describe what you do?

I work as a union secretary for the employee department of the ACV union, primarily for non-profit health care. Apart from that, I’m heavily invested in the local community life of Mechelen: I’m a chairman for the ROJM youth centre, and a board member for the Mental Health Center, De Maan theatre and the local public schools. I am also a member of the diversity working group for AFS (the organisation for intercultural exchange). For the moment, these activities have taken a bit of a backseat since I’m spending two years abroad, but I still try to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in Mechelen.

You could say I’m driven by an urge to build bridges between communities. This is a very personal mission for me, as a Mechlinian with Moroccan roots and a Flemish wife. I try to pursue it in my personal as well as my professional life.

How do you perceive Mechelen? 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?

Mechelen is a middle-sized city that can function as a sociocultural proving grounds for the rest of Flanders. A quarter of our population is of foreign origin, so the potential is there.

I can tell our current mayor has the same idea. He has an open mentality towards innovation and as yet unproven concepts. He reaches out to the different communities and connects them through a positive narrative. You don’t see that happen in most other urban areas.

Of course he’s aware of the practical hurdles, but he’s a believer and he tries to make it work. Let’s hope he succeeds in building links between all the different cultures in Mechelen and improving the situation for the underpriviliged in our society.

Apart from that, Mechelen is of course a very beautiful town that is easy to traverse and rich in culture and catering. We have a great historical heritage that needs to be cherished. You can tell by the number of tourists that is always increasing.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Mechelen is an easygoing place. After a hectic day at work in Brussels, I find some peace of mind there. The amount of green space sure helps! It is great to be able to go to the ‘Kruid Tuin’, a park in the centre of town, sit on the grass and bring your mind at ease. I find everything I need in this city for my own personal development, as well as that of my children. That’s the perfect combination, in my book…

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

As a kid, I would wander freely around the Beguinage neighbourhood. I was shaped into the person I am today by the people I met on the street and the chances I got at school. I consider education and participation to be the key to empowerment and strength in life. This is why I engage myself in society, preferably by working with young people.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

I think more attention could be paid to assure diversity in the local cultural activities. The rock festival Maanrock for example could do with some more variation – why not include an Assyrian or Arabic band?

Mechelen is known for its Catholic heritage, and this is clearly visible when you walk around town. Unfortunately, the same does not go for other religions, but maybe that is just a matter of time?

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

I would definitely take my guests up the St. Rumbold’s tower and show them around the Beguinage. This is where I grew up and where I feel at home. Nowadays, my house is near the Vrijbroekpark, and it’s a spectacularly beautiful place to go for a morning run or an evening run, depending on your taste.

I also like to surprise my visitors with the view from the roof of the Indigo Center Parking, which shows off a breathtaking skyline. The Morrocan restaurant Ronda at the Vismarkt is the perfect spot to bring the day to a close, enjoying a fine meal on the banks of the Dijle river.

Can you talk to us about a local legend, a neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

The local residents like to spread the fact that the St. Rumbold’s tower is built on cowhides to stabilise it on the marsh soil, but that is not entirely correct. There are hides used for the foundation, but not only from cows. That would never keep our tower standing!