Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Arab-Paris intersections

In addition to working, tutoring and being a rather pathetic blogger, I have spent the last year taking Arabic courses in Paris. They're a win-win situation, really. They're paid for by my job, they entitle me to the student visa that has kept me in the country, and they have helped me retain/cement the snatches of Arabic that I learned during the summer in Tunisia that originally started me blogging. They've also provided me with enough Arabic to slowly sound-out graffiti or to strike up conversations with the many North Africans working in cafés or markets around the city--to their obvious surprise and delight. You can just see them thinking 'aww, look at that cute little white American girl speaking Ghetto Shakespeare. (The main problem with learning Arabic is that the language is completely different in each country that speaks it, so as a student you have the option of either learning an extremely geographically-specific dialect, which makes you sound like you're speaking 'hood slang, or the archaic, never-spoken but widely-understood literary Arabic, which makes you sound like you've time traveled from the Shakespearean age. I have very limited bits of both, which must make it all the more bizarre.)

I take my classes at the beautiful Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), right beside the Seine in the fifth arrondissement. The facade of the building, which was designed by Jean Nouvel in the 80s, is essentially one huge window. They recently opened an adjacent gallery with equally (if not quite coordinating) intriguing architecture, with its shiny white curves making it either look like a new Mac product or a spacey, 3D interpretation of a Möbius strip.

To enter, you have to pass through a walkway traversing giant granite slabs. You can sort of see them in the picture above, but this photo gives a better sense of the experience:
Back when the construction on the new gallery was still in progress, there was this really cool fence around it to separate it from the walkway. Although it was, underneath it all, just your typical corrugated metal construction fence, they decorated it with Islamic artifacts of various colors, taking advantage of the corrugated curves to paint in such a way that the fractured images you see from straight on became solid pictures when viewed at an angle.
Voilà! Cool, huh?
The glass of the facade is covered by a series of metal plates in octagonal patterns traditional to Islamic art, which you can see more clearly from the inside......and each plate actually functions as a small aperture, to let in more or less light based on the weather, time and season.
The café at the top of the building is a great place to catch a view of the river, the two islands and even the Notre Dame cathedral in the distance. All in all, an architectural beauty and a great cultural resource (not to mention a necessary one, in a city where race riots are very recent history, and 7-11-esque corner stores are referred to unabashedly as "l'Arab du coin", or "the Arab of the neighborhood").
Moving on, here are a few shots of the Grande Mosquée, or Paris Mosque, which is further south in the 5th arrondissement, closer to the border of the 13th and the student haunts on Rue Mouffetard. Here's a view from the inner courtyard.
And now of the garden, with a clearer shot of the minaret:
As with most Mosques, the beauty is all in the detail: the carvings, the tiles, the religious calligraphy threaded throughout--all as intricate as possible to best represent the complexity of life and of the Infinite (the closest Muslims come to depicting God).
The same styles of designs are used to decorate the mosque's two adjoining facilities, which unlike the mosque are open to the general, non-Muslim public: a hammam (or Turkish bathhouse) and a Moroccan-style tea house with a verdant terrace outside and room upon labyrinthine room of low tables, tiled walls and tapestries. I highly recommend stopping in for a tea and pastry (2 euros each) if you ever find yourself in the area.
And finally, to make this post a little more politically relevant, a few posters I've seen in the metro recently. The first, from the Tunisian tourism board, trying desperately to tempt rude and nude (but wealthy!) French sunbathers back to their post-revolution beaches with an ironic juxtaposition of said sunbather and the text "it seem as though in Tunisia, the tension has reached its peak":
And a different reference to North Africa, this time as inspiration for a Leftist party: (Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria...It's the same there as it is here, act now for a citizen's revolution!)

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