i’m not on the guest list: yamina el atlassi

text & photos by anna weber

From hidden speakers in the ceiling of the dark hallway, disembodied voices loop in and out of each other, speaking Flemish, French, Walloon, and Brusselair. “J’ai une mère, bruxelloise, cent pourcent, et un père de Campine, province Anvers.” “Ah oui, mais ça c’est du wallon.” “J’habite à Bruxelles depuis 1950, depuis l’âge de cinq ans, c’était le quartier Flagey…” Neon-green arrows lead to the first room of La Bellone, an arts space in Brussels’s center. Agnès Fedak’s “Les métamorphoses d’Alice” is projected onto a wall opposite low bleachers covered with blankets and pillows — you’re supposed to sit back, relax and enjoy the trippy Day-Glo images unfolding before you on the small shape of Alice disappearing through a lock. It’s a narrative without a beginning and without an end, although the giant tag on the floor labeled “DRINK ME” may have something to do with it. The next room is the main gallery, a covered courtyard bordered by scrolled architecture and stone sculpture, filled with the other works of art in “La Bellone fait le mur,” an exhibition meant to highlight little-known artists from around the world. Margaret Withers’s paintings play with dreamscapes, while Sylvain Bureau surrounds the viewer with torn pages from homemade comics and elements of graffiti and street art. It’s all focused on the theme of “trésor caché,” or "hidden treasure".

The final element is in the main lobby, where the receptionist offers a handful of buttons and postcards (“they’re free”). A column is wrapped with paper, and visitors have scrawled names, drawings, and quotes across its surface. In prominence, at eye level, is the name of one of the curators, “Yamina.”

In the alternative culture scene of Brussels, there’s really only one Yamina.

Yamina El Atlassi was born in Brussels, raised in Brussels, still lives in Brussels, and doesn’t foresee ever leaving Brussels. Her native language is French, but she speaks fluid, spontaneous English, underlined with a soft Belgian accent and spotted with the occasional French-ism. Though she’s lived here all her life, she’ll be the first to say that there is always something new to discover within Brussels’s city limits. Art gallery openings, free concerts, new bars or restaurants, concept parties, street festivals, book readings, theater, soirées in squats or in other people’s bedrooms — Yamina has got her finger on Brussels’s pulse, and she takes it down in her weekly alternative agenda, “I’m Not on the Guest List.” She writes about each individual event as if it’s a friend, close to her her heart, whom she wants to introduce to other people. It’s easy, in reading INOTGL, to fall in love with adventure and exploration, getting lost, Brussels, and cities in general. “Sometimes when someone unsubscribes from the newsletter, they leave a message saying ‘yeah, I’m not in Brussels anymore, but thank you, because all the time that I was here I really, really discovered the town thanks to you.’ So it’s nice to receive that kind of feedback.”

In addition to her blog, she arranges housing for study abroad students in CIEE Brussels and Vesalius College; trains tour guides at Visit Brussels, the city’s official tourism board; contributes to Spotted by Locals; studies city planning Monday through Friday at the Institut Saint-Luc; and regularly picks up side projects like coordinating cinema festivals, curating art exhibits, translating books, and more. In between, she takes time off to travel. From the West Coast to Australia — been there, done that.

She’s the epitome of somebody who gets to do what she loves as her job, every day. “The less sense you see in your job, the worse it can be,” she laughs, impatiently flicking her loose, curly hair out of her face with one hand. “The world we’re living in, where people work in an office? An office is a terrible place, believe me — it’s hell on earth. Sartre said l’enfer c’est les autres, but I believe l’enfer is the office.” Yamina would know — she used to work in one. “I was miserable at work for years, actually — I was the victim of harassment at work.” As she puts it, you can either sit around, cry, be depressed, and be sorry for yourself, or you can take action. Her action: she quit. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew she didn’t want to work in an office. October came, then November. The sun disappeared, the air got chilly, and the gaiety of the summer dissipated from the air. She got sick; she got the blues. She turned to one thing she knew how to do: write. “I started to write, just for my blog. Like, at least do something, wake up in the morning and don’t waste your time. I start to write, and slowly but surely people say ‘hey, I love the way you write, and I need someone to write an article about that,’ and I say ‘okay. I have time. Let’s do that.’ And then somebody else asks, and that’s how it started, actually.” 

Yamina’s interests are wide and varied, but they all boil down to the same thing: people, and what people are capable of. “I’m amazed by what ideas people come up with. My interests are always about how human beings wake up in the morning, just like I do, and they start amazing projects[…] it’s about, ‘I have this idea and I’m going for it’— I love that.” Though she’s an avid reader and enjoys delving into technology, science, law, and other fields outside of the humanities, art remains a first love. “I believe that art is a very important thing in our world, art is the thing that makes life worth living it, otherwise… why? Why do anything? Why be here? It’s important to promote art and culture in general, so that’s what I give to the society if I have to say, what did I do.”

Speaking of art… she lights up at the mention of La Bellone and immediately whips out her phone to share her own pictures of the construction and the final vernissage. Though it’s a project dear to her, as she helped launch the first edition of “La Bellone fait le mur” in 2013-14, it’s not something she sought out. Thanks to a network across the city (and the globe), all her side projects come to her. Some come as surprises, albeit welcome ones. “... [someone has] a project, and they are thinking about who can do that for them, and then for some reason, that’s what they see in me. I find it interesting, they say, ‘okay, you would be very perfect for that,’ and I’m like, ‘oh, I would have never thought about that, but why not?’” However, she can’t pick every single project proposal. If her “curiosity is fulfilled,” the content will deepen her knowledge of a particular subject, she can meet people along the way, and the project is well-organized, she will usually make time for it in her life. 

For the past three years, Yamina hasn’t spent her summers in Brussels, but in Berlin. She’ll rent an apartment for a month or two, sublet her own, and set out to continue her exploration of Germany’s thriving urban art culture. It’s a pattern of traveling she’s settled into — rent an apartment for at least two weeks and go off to understand the nuances of the host culture. Her first trip was to California when she was eighteen, and she found the experience of planning her own trip and doing it by herself empowering. Right after her studies, she worked for an airline company, where she set up her schedules in order to take long vacations. But she tired of this kind of short-term travel. “I was bored of taking planes all the time, and then you realize that you don’t really have a life — it’s like switching channels on TV, and I was doing the same with my life, so that was not so nice, at the end. I wanted to settle down a bit, have less superficial relationships, less superficial knowledge of [things]. And then I changed a little bit my way of traveling, and it’s more about spending more time in a place.” Her long stays pay off — in an interview with Cafe Babel, she notes that her friends in Lisbon mentioned that even though she wasn’t a local, she knew where all of the good stuff was. “I compare that to a mechanic. You have here a mechanic, he specializes in Mercedes Benz, and then you got a BMW, he’s not really familiar with it, but still, it’s a car, and he’s a mechanic, so he will find a way to repair it for you. It’s pretty much the same with cities. At least Western European cities.” Despite her trained eye and natural magnetism for the good stuff, she doesn’t see a difference between the label of “tourist” and how she travels. “It’s tourism. I’m not a local. You’re a tourist, or you’re a local. Let’s face it: A traveler is a tourist. Traveling is doing a tour, so you’re a tourist! There is this tendency to say ‘oh, I’m not a tourist,’ and it’s snobby! It’s a snobby thing to say. We’re tourists, all of us, when you’re doing that, and it’s okay. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just what you do with it that makes it bad. I’m here to visit, to discover, to spend some time outside of my own city, outside my everyday life, so yeah, I’m a tourist.”

Yamina’s apartment is located in the roof of a building around the corner from Place Flagey, the bustling heart of Brussels’s commune of Ixelles. It’s just before noon, and already a long line is forming at the famous fritkot Frit Flagey. The smell of grease and potatoes drifts to her windows, cracked open in the mild winter weather. Her walls are painted deep, vivid colors, her floor is scattered with fat beanbags, and a hammock hangs across the center of the room. Her cat, Loona, sits on the radiator with her paws tucked into her chest. The first thing Yamina does every morning, even before showering, is write, and her desk is still covered in notebooks, pens, and her open laptop. She shows me her collection of maps, her favorites being those that are “subjective” — based on others’ experiences in the cities in question. Charleroi, Berlin, Brussels, London, Lisbon. Our personal coup de coeur is a typography map of Brussels — the major avenues, parks, and ponds are left blank, tracing the outline of the city, while the shapes are filled in with scripted names of the squares and streets. “There’s the Etangs d’Ixelles,” the ponds right around the corner from her apartment, “and Flagey.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined that it could have been so easy to find a way to not go back to an office job,” she confesses. “But in a way… when I want something, usually, I make it happen. Just like when I was eighteen and I dreamed to go to California. The same in the other projects, in other challenges, usually there is something I really want or I really don’t want anymore, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t put in so many thoughts about how it has to be, and I don’t really picture the thing, the motivation itself is sufficient to make the machine go on. And then I also like to leave some space for life itself. Life is full of surprises, and you never know who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to get, and I want to leave room for that too.”

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