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.

Zahia Belkhiri

Zahia Belkhiri

Chef at Zahia's Cuisine (1976)

Can you describe what you do?

Zahia’s Cuisine is a small-scale family restaurant. We specialise in the North-African cuisine. Besides cooking the tasty and authentic dishes that we serve, I try to pass on my culinary passion by organising Moroccan cooking workshops. Our team is very small: I run the kitchen on my own, and my daughter serves the customers. In the weekend, we get help from another chef and a hired waiter. The interior is very cosy and makes you feel as if you’ve landed right into a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights! This is combined with a beautiful and unique location: our large window offers a stunning view on the St. Rumbold’s Tower.

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 bustling yet beautiful city. During the weekend, there are always many activities where the city really comes to life and you can taste its unique ambiance. From all the cities I’ve visited, I think Mechelen best compares to Ghent, also a young and dynamic city with a great historical heritage that is still very much present. We have a lot of beautiful monuments and sights, and the architecture is stunning. Need proof? Just walk around the ‘Grote Markt’ or see the impressive row of facades at Zoutwerf.

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

Like I said, Mechelen is a vibrant city where lots of things are going on. This buzz is also stimulated by the city council that tries to be as inclusive as possible, which I think is crucial to the city’s unique vibe and accomplishments. But even with all the activities going on, it is still a place where you can chill out and enjoy a relaxing atmosphere.

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

I have been living in Mechelen since 1978, so I feel a great connection to this place. Before I started my restaurant, I had already built an extensive network. I have worked in the social sector for 12 years, and I organised a ton of projects on a voluntary basis. Doing this I got to know the city and it has truly given me the feeling that I am of great value here.

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

The citizens of Mechelen have to find ways to get in closer contact with each other. Black or white, we are all humans.This is already an important policy line which still needs more work, but we the people have to make an effort as well. We must organise more activities and initiatives during which the different communities can come together.

Another working point is mobility. Parking space in the centre is problematic, and too expensive.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be? To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

One of my favourite spots in Mechelen is the mystic Beguinage (Begijnhof), or Martin’s Patershof Hotel. But there are plenty of other places in the inner city that are lively and picturesque while still retaining a sense of calm.

For a perfect Sunday outing, we wake up with a good breakfast at home, then go for a walk in one of the protected nature areas in and around the city: Mechels Broek, the adjacent Baarbeek valley, or the meadows in Robbroek. We end up in Zennegat 13, a very authentic pub where we can enjoy their specialty dish, the traditional ‘ballekes in tomatensaus’ (meatballs with tomato sauce) washed down with a beer. Finally, a movie at Filmhuis Mechelen will provide the perfect ending to a perfect weekend!