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Brass’Art in Molenbeek: an urban experiment in community relations

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Nadia Fadil and Maryam Kolly, published on November 25, 2019. Read the article.

Exactly one year after the attacks on Zaventem airport and the Malbeek metro in Brussels, the Brass'art café opened its doors in the heart of Molenbeek. The initiators – an artists' collective formed by a Belgian-Moroccan actor from Brussels – saw this project as an opportunity to transcend social and religious divisions. A major component of the café's success and the enormous enthusiasm generated in the local press at its opening, was the initiator's decision to sell beer (and therefore alcohol) in a space which was open explicitly to all, including the Muslim population.

The 141st issue of Brussels Studies takes the case of the Brass'Art café – which has just announced that it has closed permanently – as a starting point for a study of the ethical tensions and aspirations which emerged during the construction of a common space with a pluralistic purpose. Based on an ethnographic observation carried out between May 2017 and January 2018 by Nadia Fadil (KU Leuven) and Maryam Kolly (Université Saint-Louis - Brussels), this analysis aims to show how the issue of alcohol in particular mobilises and crystallises tensions, and at the same time leads to compromises.

According to the authors, the fact that beer and NosNos coffee (Moroccan coffee with milk) are on offer at Brass'Art is all but insignificant: these drinks actually play an important role in defining the identity of the café. They function as symbols and vehicles for recognition among those whose needs Brass'Art seeks to meet. But the symbolic weight of these two drinks is not equivalent. Beer – more than NosNos coffee – attracts a lot of attention from the outside world and is one of the reasons for the praise or – on the contrary – the criticism received by the cultural café.

The researchers show that the creation of an inclusive space is a balancing act, which involves a feeling of discomfort, with an ongoing risk of falling and failure. The status of alcohol as a prohibited drink (haram) in the Muslim world and among the Muslim population in Brussels, makes it a delicate issue for Brass'art. Alcohol plays an active role in carefully separating social spaces according to ethnic and religious affinities. The introduction and sale of alcohol in a café such as Brass'art is for many an act of transgression against Islamic norms, as well as an intrusion.

The various parties are subject to tacit compromises, which allow (alcohol) consumption to take place discreetly so that it does not disturb the morally acceptable nature of the space. These types of negotiation happen on a daily basis at Brass'art, and are associated with other concrete safeguards such as not serving alcohol before midday or to people in a state of intoxication, and ending evening activities at 11 pm.

But above all, this careful observation of the daily functioning of Brass'Art demonstrates that the fine tuning of the balance of power between the majority and the minority takes place not so much through conscious negotiations as through pragmatic, practical daily adjustments, rarely thematised as such.

Fadil, Nadia, Kolly, Maryam, “Brass’Art in Molenbeek: an urban experiment in community relations”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 141, 25 november 2019. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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