A Taste of Arab Art and Culture in France
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
As summer kicks off and more people are getting comfortable with traveling abroad, there are always treasures you can discover off the beaten path. The dynamic city of Paris for example has a plethora of museums, magnificent architecture, and open-air markets selling everything from artisanal cheeses to chandeliers you might find in King Louis XIV’s palace. However as the most popular sites get crammed with hoards of tourists in the sweltering hot sun, there are cultural escapes offering a respite from the crowds. The Institute du Monde Arabe is one such place, tucked in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
This architectural modern marvel of glass and steel was built in 1987, after the French president Francois Mitterrand and 18 Arab countries entered an agreement together to exchange science and technology, to promote a cultural relationship between France and the Arab Nations. A design competition was launched for the design and architecture of the new cultural center.
The winner was Jean Nouvel and the AS Architecture-Studio, which created a design inspired by Islamic architecture. The facade is lined with 240 moving geometric photo-sensitive apertures that are remote-controlled. These apertures act as a shutter lens on a camera that can open and close to allow more or less light and therefore heat, into the building from the sun. Not only do these metallic panels offer this functionality of regulating light and temperature, but aesthetically, they resemble mosaic tiles.
Once you enter, the museum takes you on a journey through time from the pre-Islamic period, through the creation of Islam, to the Golden Age during the Byzantine era, and onward until today, where a more globalized world has reshaped Arab lifestyles. The exhibits encompass six main tenets of the Arab experience, including art and culture, languages and writing, the sciences, religions, history, and society. These themes are explored through photography, ancient artifacts, paintings, tapestries, jewelry, ceramics, and musical instruments.
The museum remains faithful to its mission of creating dialogue for a deeper understanding of the Arab world. Modern-day questions are examined through seminars, like “What is the reality of the status of women in Arab countries? Is there only one reality or diversity of situations? What struggles do Arab women lead on a daily basis? Do these struggles have points in common with those carried out in France? Can they inspire us?”
Activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and researchers regularly present these seminars on a rotating basis and encourage citizens involved in such causes to come and share with the public their journeys, initiatives, and aspirations. Thus this museum not only shares curated works, it aims to solve modern-day problems in a collaborative way with citizens and people from all backgrounds.
To round out your visit to the museum, you can drink Arabic coffee with baklava in the coffee lounge on the ground floor. Then you can take the elevator to the top floor to get a breathtaking panoramic view of Paris, which includes the nearby River Seine dotted with majestic floating boats. To remember your visit you can purchase souvenirs from the museum shop, which carries gifts like brightly colored ceramics from Palestine and Morocco as well as a vast library of rare Arabic books. Finally, there are many family-run Arab restaurants nearby, offering exceptional homemade dishes from Lebanon, Tunis, and Morocco to feed your appetite.
To see a mini virtual tour of this museum, as well as other off-the-beaten-path experiences in Paris, click on the video below:
Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/