Walking Through The Long History Of Franco-Arab Cultural Relations

Walking Through The Long History Of Franco-Arab Cultural Relations
With all the current talk about “Arab immigration”, “Muslim influence” and a potential “clash of civilizations” in Europe it’s important to remember that France – and Paris in particular – has been a center for mutual East-West fascination, curiosity and learning ever since the Middle Ages. To illustrate the long-standing friendship and cultural exchanges between French and Arab populations, L’Institut du Monde Arabe (The Arab World Institute) organizes an interesting “walking tour” through the area on the Left bank which has been the centuries-old point of attraction for an Arab elite.

Starting at College de France and the Sorbonne, the leisurely tour covers a great part of the 5th arrondissement with stops inside the Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre Church and the main Mosque of Paris. Over a well-functioning individual sound system, an excellent guide dispenses with a wealth of information, both erudite and mundane, during the 2 1/2 hour walk.

Defining “Arab” Paris

Before embarking on the tour, the guide reminds the participants that the term “Arab” is not, of course, synonymous with “Muslim.” Some twenty percent of Arabs do not embrace Islam and the world’s most populous Muslim nation (Indonesia) is not Arabic. The term “Arab World,” which is so often cast around indiscriminately, only correctly designates the 22 states that presently make up the Arab League.

The expression “Arab Paris” can mean many different things. After decolonization, most North-African immigrant workers settled in “La Goutte d’Or” in the northern part of the city, for example. The Left Bank of the Seine, on the other hand, with its old academic institutions became the center for Arab and Muslim intellectuals early on.

The Arab legacy in Paris includes churches as well as mosques and generations of Arabs of various faiths have contributed not only to the economy of France but also to its artistic and academic glory.

The Need to Learn Arabic

Since the Middle Ages, scholars and clergymen from the Middle East and North Africa have gathered in the 5th arrondissement to learn from each other and the Europeans and debate issues of science, philosophy and religion.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, France with its free press, illustrious centers of learning and general open-mindedness attracted future leaders of nationalist liberation movements. They flocked to Paris to hone their political skills in order to oppose French colonialism.

Arabic was the key to knowledge before the 13th c and French scholars needed to learn the language in order to access the important scientific and philosophical works of the time.

Diplomats and translators needed to be trained in Arabic and the Christian clergy had to speak it in order to proselytize and communicate with the many Christian communities in the Middle East. Hence, the first Arabic university chair was created by King Francois I (1515-47).

The first book in Arabic was printed in Rue Dante in the traditional print-shop area where we still find most of France’s Arabic bookstores. A French Ambassador ordered the first Arabic character settings from a typographer he met in Rome.

Worshipping in Syriac

The 5th arrondissement is home to several Christian churches celebrating oriental liturgies. One of the oldest and smallest churches in Paris, l’Eglise de Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, is strategically situated right across the river from the Notre Dame Cathedral and at the crossroads of two ancient Roman thoroughfares.

Diggings have uncovered traces of a 6th c chapel which was sacked by the Normans in 1214 but later rebuilt.

In disuse after the French revolution, it was rediscovered in the 19th c by a couple of visiting Oriental priests of the Melchite-Catholic faith. They asked the French authorities to allow their followers to worship there.

Like in many of the earliest Christian churches in the Middle East, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre has a wooden partition separating the profane from the sacred – i.e. the public from the clergy. The congregation is mainly of Lebanese descent and mass is celebrated in either Greek, Arabic or Syriac (a dialect similar to Aramean, the language of Christ).

The Melchites’ Easter Sunday celebration is a spectacular feast. A throng of faithful bang long and loudly on the closed church doors before the priest finally opens them.

The tiny church is also famous for its excellent accoustics and frequently hosts concerts and recitals. In the small garden next to the church, the oldest tree in Paris still survives after some 300 years – with a little help from a cleverly engineered cement crutch. Many erudite debates must have taken place in its shade.

Coming to Paris to Denounce France

Place Maubert became the meeting point for the North-African nationalist movements. The French had occupied Algiers in 1830 and Algerian intellectuals streamed to Paris to protest the colonial policy.

At the same time they raged and plotted against the French master, they were also seduced by the lights of the city and attracted by the cultural riches, intellectual climate and, especially, by freedom of speech in the French capital.

They came to study at its famed institutions and, thanks to the free French press, they were allowed to publicize their views and vindications. The very first uncensored newspaper in Arabic was published in Paris in 1859.

In this paradoxical relationship between a colonial power and its hostile colonial subjects, Arab intellectuals actually helped Europe lift the Ottoman yoke – thanks to the freedom of expression France granted them.

Paris in the Grips of Egyptomania

In 1798, Bonaparte landed in Egypt escorted by an army not only of soldiers but also scientists. He brought along two Arabic print-presses. Presses were already at work in Lebanon but for Egypt it was the first real contact with modern times and the impact was such that its rulers immediately decided to join the modern world.

At the same time, a trend in the reverse direction – a veritable “Egyptomania” – hit France and this fascination for “orientalism” was expressed in art and architecture.

In 1826, a group of Egyptian students arrived in Paris chaperoned by a cleric from Cairo’s Al Ahza University. The latter wrote what was probably the first Arabic-language tourist description of Paris. Among other things, he expressed disgust at the sight of the city’s public urinals.

A Moroccan emissary, Idriss Al’Amraoui, who visited Paris in 1860, marvelled at the telegraph and the railways but complained about the scandalous freedom of French women in a book with the explicit title “Paradise for Women and Hell for Horses.”

The Paris Mosque : A Controversial Tribute to Fallen Muslim Soldiers

The Alhambra-inspired Paris Mosque was inaugurated in 1926 following a somewhat forced political decision to honor the thousands of North Africans who had died fighting for France in the First World War.

A small mosque existed already in the Muslim section of the Père Lachaise cemetery and another in a building on Boulevard Haussmann on the Right Bank. The construction of the grandiose new Mosque opposite the Jardin des Plantes became a controversial issue in certain French circles and many Muslims boycotted it as an instrument of colonial power.

However, most Parisians were still enamoured of anything “oriental” and rushed to the new exotic compound with its minaret and indoor market. French socialites imagined themselves in “1001 Nights” while strolling in the lovely interior gardens and listening to the call to prayer.

They browsed for exotica in the small medina and sipped glasses of sweet mint tea after a vigorous rub-down in the hammam. The Mosque tea-room is still a popular meeting point.

Around the big table in the library of the Mosque (where, incidentally, the American movie star Rita Hayworth married Ali, a son of the then Aga Khan, head of the Ismaili branch of Shiism), the tour participants sit down for half an hour to listen to a surprisingly comprehensive lecture on the history of Islam, its various branches and sub-divisions.

A Vibrant Cultural Meeting Point

The walk winds up at the Institut du Monde Arabe on the quay of the Seine at the easternmost end of Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The heatedly opposed project to build a cultural Arab institution in the heart of Paris was initiated by French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and backed by 19 Arab nations hoping the project would favorably restore their image after the 1973 oil shock. President Francois Mitterrand inaugurated the elegant building.

The architect, Jean Nouvel, determined to avoid all Arab clichés, built a modern architectural symbol of the dialogue between the culture in the West and the Arab countries.

Designing an Orient-inspired south facade and a “Parisian” facade on the Seine side to the north, Nouvel created what many consider the most exciting and beautiful modern building in Paris. (The trashy medina in IMA’s courtyard is a later addition, much abhorred by Jean Nouvel.)

Today, IMA is a vibrant place, with a permanent museum collection and an important public library. Its varied cultural programs include an Arabic language school, public debates on cultural and political issues, temporary exhibitions of major importance, lectures and film-sessions as well as dance, music and theatre performances.

Students and intellectuals from all over the world meet and mingle with their French counterparts in the Institute’s hallways and auditoriums, cafés and restaurants. The polyglot interaction shows that IMA successfully carries on the old tradition of East-West encounters in the 5th arrondissement.

Mutual Arab-French fascination and curiosity are as strong as ever.

© Gunilla K.Knutsson © Photos : A. Airaksinen, The Paris Mosque

le 18 octobre 2006


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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