Thursday, March 22, 2007
When Wouter Van Bellingen became the first black registrar in Belgium, he knew there would be negative reactions, but he admitted that he didn’t expect them to be “so direct, so soon.” In February, three couples refused to pledge their wedding vows in front of the first black alderman of the city of Sint-Niklaas, because of the colour of his skin. After the racist incident, Van Bellingen told himself: “If people don’t want to marry, then that’s not my problem, it’s the problem of those people.”
But then someone gave him the idea to react with a positive signal against racial discrimination. Together with local NGOs and the Center for Equal Opportunities and against Racial Discrimination, he decided to organise a multicultural group marriage happening to, as mayor of Sint-Niklaas Freddy Willockx describes it, “forge this stupid racist behaviour into an unparallelled positive signal against racism and for tolerance.”
Mayor Willockx told the press about when he first heard about the 3 couples: “I was angry and ashamed that there were such people.” He elaborated: “We are not a racist city. 400 meters from here is a center for immigrants, which was installed without contestation from the city council, in spite of fruitless attempts from an intolerant party to set people up against installation of the center.”
When asked about the role of the far-right political party Vlaams Belang, Van Bellingen told Wikinews: “It’s true that a climate of fear has been created, but to blame it on a single party would be too easy. It’s the responsibility of all parties.” Van Bellingen wants to be the councilor of civilian affairs for all citizens, “not just for those who voted for me.”
Although Van Bellingen too denies Sint-Niklaas is a racist city, he is often reminded of the colour of his skin. Mayor Willockx gave the example of an incident last Friday, when someone refused to serve him a plate of mussels, because the person mistook the deputy for a waiter.
A spokeswoman for the organising committee told the press that it all started with a “nice little idea” to have a mass wedding event on March 21, the U.N.-declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. However, they were “really surprised that the event became something huge.”
Couples who wanted to renew their vows or pledge them for the first time could register on the event website. Stijn De Maeyer, a volunteer working on the registrations, told Wikinews that they had to close the online registration when some 692 couples had registered, because of logistic limitations. On the evening itself, he estimated that 1 out of 3 couples who showed up hadn’t registered beforehand. There were couples from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and even a couple from Norway. Some of the Belgian couples were immigrants from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Kosovo, according to De Maeyer.
While singer Axl Peleman, who demonstrated his concern about racial discrimination in Flanders on the 0110 concerts last October, opened the podium, the couples began to register on the city’s Market Square.
The symbolic wedding pledge was open to anyone, from any culture, age, or sexual preference. For Van Bellingen, “Every person who lives in Flanders is Flemish, it doesn’t matter if you live here for a month or for generations.”
The couples were from all ages and all layers of society. Some came in their original wedding costume or dress, to relive the moment of their marriage. Even a group of children from a local primary school came to vow eternal fidelity to a classmate.
One duo queuing for the registration were two undercover reporters from the Dutch television, who wanted to become “the two first heterosexual men to be wed by a black registrar in Belgium”. At the end of the evening, they threw their wedding bouquet off the main stage, shouting: “Whoever catches this, is not a racist.”
Several organisations promoting diversity provided free soup and Arab mint tea to warm the attendees in the rain and cold. Ahmed Hanouch from the sociocultural youth organisation Hidâya told Wikinews: “As new Belgians, we all are looked at differently from time to time. Then we get the feeling we are second-class citizens. The solution is to be open-minded about cultures, like during this event.”
For Ahmed, an event like this one would be welcome each year. Van Bellingen however told the press: “At the end of the evening, I will drink a pint, and get on with my life.”
On the main stage, several performers from the collective “The African Stage” entertained the growing crowd. Speeches, songs and dancing strengthened the message of diversity that the organisation wanted to send.
Several comedy acts followed, such as “Joeri”, a Flemish television character. To warm up the crowd to say “I do”, he set the example for registrar Van Bellingen by wedding a special couple; who lived in Sint-Niklaas with their children and who are both deaf. Joeri was assisted by an interpreter for the deaf, who was present all day at the request of Van Bellingen, whose father became deaf some years before he died.
The culmination of the event came when Van Bellingen held a final speech on the stage, and then started with the symbolic wedding ceremony. He built up the excitement during his speech, explaining that “excitement is important in a relationship.”
The ceremony was planned for about 8 p.m., but was postponed to allow as many as possible of the couples that turned up to register. Van Bellingen then joined in holy matrimony well over 700 couples. He then demonstrated to the couples how to kiss the bride, by kissing his own wife, with whom he has 2 children. The next challenge, a big group hug on the Market Square, wasn’t a problem after the kisses.
At that moment, the Flemish radio station Radio 2 took over and started a live DJ set, playing the songs the couples had voted for. The number one wedding dance wasn’t Bryan Adams or Clouseau, but Ik hou van u (I love you) by Noordkaap, a song that already proved popular in 2005 when it was reworked for the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the state of Belgium.
For the final challenge, those who like international food could select from the wedding buffet, with desserts provided by local communities such as the Turkish, Syrian, Moroccon and Roma societies, by organisations such as the Red Cross immigration center. There were also desserts from Mexico, Chile and from the Hare Krishna. Together with a wedding cake for 750 people, the organisation hoped to provide for enough desserts for all present, and to end the wedding party in beauty.
As Axl Peleman kicks off on the main stage…
…the first couple registers for the wedding ceremony.
Some couples have brought their original wedding outfit.
All couples are photographed by professional photographers from the organisation, with the City Hall of Sint-Niklaas in the background.
The couples make the best of it, in spite of the occasional rainshower and the cold.
This stand on the Market Square serves hot Arab mint tea.
As the evening falls, the queue for the registration continually becomes longer instead of shorter.
On stage, these percussionists from Togo bring some multicultural atmosphere to the event.
Comedian Mungu explains how he spent his youth in Flanders as a black child; he liked to imitate Michael Jackson.
A reporters duo from the Dutch television comes to throw their wedding bouquet off stage.
The crowd eagerly awaits Van Bellingen.
A black gospel choir is the last act before…
…Wouter Van Bellingen finally comes on stage, accompanied by mayor Willockx and an African band.
Mayor Willockx addresses the crowd while Van Bellingen confers with host Dimitri Leue.
Security guard Joeri demonstrates his hand cuffs and pepper spray.
Van Bellingen demonstrates with the others on stage to the crowd how they should do the group hug -the gathered international press joins them.
The DJ set begins, and the couples start the wedding dance.
The five songs with the most votes are mixed by Radio 2.
Then the people can taste the international desserts, provided by volunteers…
…or end the evening like real Belgians… with French fries!