“Reading a book”―as said by my non-white friends―“is for white people.” In other words: “Tsss, act normal, reading is for Belgians.” As a teenager I did not understand this. But now, almost a quarter of a century old, it is one of the most painful remarks I have heard out of a child’s mouth. To me it signifies a big problem, which I do understand now.
I enter a tram. Since 2012, a common practice: I have a book in my bag. I open my bag and I start reading until my stop takes me out of my book again. Then the game starts. People who give me a funny look because I’m reading a book. Others smile friendly, but there are also youngsters, most of the time from African descent, who give me a very common glance. One with a bit of disbelief or disdain. Because reading is for white people, no?
Kicking or reading?
As I recently moved from Sierra Leone to Belgium, I ended up in an integration class for non-native speakers called OKAN. There I got the opportunity to start reading with elderly locals. With a lot of joy I went to those meetings, this for five weeks. But still, every time it was a bit of a dilemma: spending my Wednesday afternoon reading a book or playing soccer with the homies.
My Dutch teacher, Ms. Olieslagers, noticed I read a lot of books. Because I was still struggling with the language, she gave me book called Wretched Adventures. Two days later, I went up to her and said: “Such a cool book, Ms. Do you have any others?” After giving me a surprising look, she gave me list.
When I talked to grown-ups, I always asked if they could recommend me a good book. That’s how I ended up reading classics like Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Every week I sat in the library of Borgerhout, at that time across the street of my old school. It became my second home, away from home. Crusade in Jeans, The Letter for the King,… Soon I also read my first Flemish classic, Falling by Anne Provoost, one of the first books that made me cry.
As a teenager with a love for books, I ended up in BSO. Instead of looking at my grades, or my personality as a whole, the education system only wanted to know the answer to one question: Does he have a certification of primary school or not? I originated from a country that lived in war for over a decade, at such a young age I had a deficient school background equaling about five years of school in Belgium. But the only thing that mattered was that one question. If yes, I could stay in the A-level. But it was no. Hello, B-level!
Searching for intellectual adventure, I started reading books that were meant for ASO-students. I sincerely wondered what ASO-students could do that I couldn’t. For fun I read Iliad by Homerus. The result? My everlasting addiction to Greek mythology.
With my friends―classmates and boys from the court, almost all with different roots―I had to deal with some sort of bully behavior. They didn’t dare to do it physically, but verbally they found a weapon. I got a series of new nicknames. Some of the funniest: “Mohamed Google” and “Mohamepedia”.
Most of them had always experienced books as a form of punishment. The characters in the books didn’t look like them or didn’t live in their environment. But even worse: they got the impression that non-white people didn’t read books. “Belgians read books, we watch the movies.”
That little phrase keeps bugging me: “It’s for Belgians.” Are the children on the courts from then and now saying that they don’t/didn’t see themselves as Belgians? And why? These children have heard and learned that from somewhere, it has become a part of their being.
Because of this, there has been build a new wall―between them and a world full of adventure, inspiration and self-worth. Those are the things I found when reading books. They didn’t only give me language and visuals to nest in, but also knowledge to look to the world a certain way or to escape it.
Maybe it’s because I was already twelve years old when I moved to Belgium, that our society couldn’t trick me that books weren’t for non-white Belgians. Maybe that’s the reason my socialization in literary poverty failed. Maybe I was just too stubborn.
Maybe it’s because my parents wouldn’t let me watch television for more than three hours, and because they always asked what book I was reading. Maybe it’s because I had grown-ups in my circle that used my curiosity to give me list with books. Maybe this all happened so one day I would be able to write this piece.
Read it out loud
Meeting young people like Boubacar Barry puts a smile on my face now. Together with seven other youngsters, he regularly meets to read a book―the Read It Out Loud project. Besides the classics and must reads such as Leila Aboulela, Mernissi, Baldwin, Morrison, Garvey, Okri, Chimamanda there’s something else that gives me hope: seeing books in the shelves written by Belgians with divers backgrounds: Fikry El Azzouzi and Bleri Lleshi, soon also Dalilla Heremans and Aya Sabi. It gives me hope that there will be books for young people with a different background to recognize themselves and their struggles in.
My own ‘work’ hasn’t ended though. Therefore I deliberately enter trams, busses and metros with a book since 2012. This with one goal: making clear to young people that non-white people may, can, and will read books, as well as love them. Not as punishment, but as a form of self-discovery.
Who is going to read with me in trams, trains and buses? I challenge everyone who reads this, especially those with different roots, to proudly read their books in public spaces. And let’s make it a Facebook-, Instagram-, Snapchat-challenge. #READITOUTLOUD #RIOL!
 The secondary school system in Belgium consists of three layers: ASO, TSO, BSO. ASO stands for a general education, it is considered the most desirable as it prepares you for higher education. While BSO is an education preparing you for a profession right after you finish high school. TSO is seen as a mixture of both.
Mohamed Barrie is a column writer. His column WeaPen your mind, Open your world appears monthly on Bleri Lleshi’s blog
Translated from Dutch by Marnik Soetens