Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

In search of ‘le Paris arabe’

David Tresilian joins a walking tour of Arab Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ever since Mohammed Ali sent the first generations of Francophile Egyptian students to study in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century, the French capital has been a natural port of call for Arab intellectuals keen either to gather the fruits of French savoir faire or to escape disapproval, or worse, at home.
The Egyptian intellectual Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, sent to Paris as part of a group of students by Mohammed Ali in the 1820s, wrote up the experience in his takhlis al-ibriz ila talkhis bariz (The Extraction of Gold or an Overview of Paris) on his return to Cairo, which contains a first-hand report of the 1830 revolution in France, and in later life he was responsible for the translation of many of the French classics into Arabic. Later in the century, the reformers Mohammed Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani also spent time in Paris, in both cases in order to escape persecution at home, and in the city they joined what seems to have been a thriving expatriate community and produced the newspaper al-‘urwa al-wuthqa (The Indissoluble Link) from a base in the fifth arrondissement.
However, the history of Arab Paris goes back much further than the early decades of the 19th century, and the city has a much longer history of functioning as an important entry point for Arab ideas into Europe. The first professorship of Arabic at a French seat of learning, possibly the first in Europe as a whole, was founded in Paris at the Collège Royal, the future Collège de France, in 1539 by the French king Francois I as part of the opening to the east represented by France’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire.
Yet, Arabic learning in Paris must go back several centuries earlier even than that, since the work of the Arab philosophers Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was being studied in the 13th century at the newly founded Sorbonne, originally a theological college, where it provided new impetus for philosophical disquisition in mediaeval Europe.
Much of the Arab presence in Paris, from the study of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina in the Middle Ages to the arrival of Mohammed Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani at the end of the 19th century, was to be found in what has traditionally been the city’s student area, the so-called “Latin Quarter” covering an area of the city’s fifth and sixth arrondissements on the left bank of the River Seine and around educational institutions such as the Collège de France and the Sorbonne.
Despite the discouraging autumn weather, and below a haze of light rain, a sometimes rather bedraggled looking group gathered one weekend recently to find out more about the history of Arab Paris by visiting the places with which it has been most associated, courtesy of the Institut du monde arabe, the Arab World Institute, also located in the fifth arrondissement and not far from the institutions visited.
Suitably equipped with umbrellas and radio-headphones relaying the commentary of the excellent guide, this was a fine opportunity to find out more about the long association of the Arab world with the French capital.
Starting at the Sorbonne: The main buildings of today’s Sorbonne, more formally the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne, are on the rue des Ecoles in the heart of the fifth arrondissement a few blocks along from the Collège de France and around the corner from the University’s oldest buildings on the Place de la Sorbonne. While these date from the end of the 19th century, with those of the Collège de France being built a century earlier, they mark the location of the earlier buildings where Arabic study took place.
As the guide on the walking tour pointed out, while the formal study of Arabic at French institutions of higher education seems to have started in the 16th century with the appointment of the orientalist Guillaume Postel to the professorship of Arabic founded by Francois I, there must have been extensive study of Arabic texts taking place earlier at the mediaeval Sorbonne, since only in this way could the philosophical works of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina have been understood and translated into Latin for the use of scholars elsewhere in Europe.
What tied these two flowerings of Arabic learning together, the one in the Middle Ages and the other in the European Renaissance, was the need to travel eastwards in search of knowledge, the Arab world in the Middle Ages and the Ottoman domains in the Renaissance being more advanced than Europe in many areas of knowledge and study.
As part of this process of “catching up” with the Islamic world, Francois I sent embassies to the court of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul, also establishing a diplomatic alliance with the Ottomans designed to combat Spanish power in the Mediterranean, together with that of the Italian city-states, to the benefit of France. This Franco-Ottoman alliance continued and grew in scope later in the 17th century under Louis XIV, when France and the Ottoman Empire moved closer together in the face of their common enemies, the Hapsburg Empire and Russia.
During the 18th century and for many of the writers associated with the French enlightenment, the Islamic world was seen as a source of new ideas, Montesquieu using visitors from the Ottoman Empire to criticise French society in his satire Les Lettres persanes in 1721, for example.
Nevertheless, at the same time a slow reversal was taking place: while in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods Europeans travelled eastwards to the Arab world or Ottoman Empire in search of goods or new ideas, even seeking alliances with the Ottomans against other European powers, by the end of the 18th century France as a whole, and Paris in particular, had emerged as the source of the new ideas, particularly the political ideas, that the Arab intelligentsia needed to modernise their own societies.
Arab communities in Paris: According to the walking tour guide, at the time that Abduh and al-Afghani lived in Paris towards the end of the 19th century, the city had long established itself as a kind of magnet for the Arab intelligentsia, representing, because of its revolutionary tradition, an epitome of political modernity, as, indeed, it already had for al-Tahtawi earlier in the century.
Some two dozen Arabic-language newspapers were apparently produced in Paris at various times under the French Second Empire and Third Republic, among them al-‘urwa al-wuthqa, a mouthpiece for al-Afghani’s reformist ideas. In addition to the floating population of visiting Arab students and intellectuals that the city hosted, it also began to see the establishment of more permanent Arab populations.
One such population came from Lebanon, there having been a tradition since the 17th century of Arab Christians from what are now Lebanon and Syria coming to Paris in order to live and study. This population became permanent, and it needed a community focus and religious centre, provided in 1889 when the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the next stop on the walking tour, was given to Arab Christians from Lebanon, or Melkites (Byzantine Greek Orthodox), as a community church, the community’s patriarchal seat being in Damascus.
The present Church, built in the 13th century, occupies the site of an older chapel on the edges of the Latin Quarter, and it is a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the other side of the Seine. During its long history it has been altered and rebuilt many times, and it was confiscated and used as a warehouse during the French Revolution.
Turning back from here and retracing the rue des Ecoles before turning up the rue Monge, named after Gaspard Monge, one of the savants who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his 1799 expedition to Egypt, the walking tour took participants to another Arab religious site in the shape of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, or Paris Mosque, next to the Jardin des Plantes and the Muséum d’histoire naturelle.
According to the walking tour guide, various proposals had been put forward late in the 19th century to build a mosque in Paris to recognise the role played by Muslims in French society, notably as a result of the French colonisation of Algeria and that country’s subsequent incorporation into France. The decision was taken to build the Paris Mosque after the First World War, apparently at least in part to recognise the some 70,000 Algerian Muslims and others who had been killed fighting on the French side. It was opened in 1926 by the French president in the presence of dignitaries from the Arab countries, including the sultan of Morocco.
The Mosque was designed by French architects in the Moroccan style, being modeled after the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, and it has a 33-metre-high minaret inspired by the one attached to the Zitouna Mosque in Tunis. The stucco decoration around the interior courtyard and elsewhere was completed by artisans brought to Paris from North Africa, as was the traditional decorative tiling that runs around the walls of the interior courtyard. In addition to the prayer area itself, well-attended on the afternoon of the walking tour visit, the Paris Mosque also has a library, a school, a restaurant and a tearoom serving Moroccan-style pastries.
On the day of the visit, the Mosque seemed to be particularly popular with wedding parties, which arrived at intervals to have the bride and groom photographed in front of the geometric tiling that runs around the Mosque’s interior courtyard or in the traditional Moroccan gardens that surround the building. The Mosque’s North African-style minaret is clearly visible across the surrounding area, but it is apparently not used for the call to prayer.
Today’s Arab Paris: While the Institut du monde arabe’s walking tour of “Arab Paris” is strong on the earlier periods and the institutions associated with the longer history of the Arab presence in the French capital, because of its focus on the traditional Latin Quarter and the fifth arrondissement it is not able to reveal much about 20th or 21st-century Arab life in Paris.
Unlike earlier Arab visitors to Paris, political exiles like Abduh or al-Afghani, or students like the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who studied at the Sorbonne during the First World War, later Arab immigrant populations, most of them from North Africa and the Arab Maghreb, have tended to settle elsewhere in the city. Many have been attracted either to traditionally working class areas, such as the north-eastern 19th and 20th arrondissements where there has long been a thriving North African community, perhaps particularly in Belleville, or to beyond the surrounding “périphérique” ring-road and into the surrounding suburbs, the so-called banlieues.
Trapped because of its location in the fifth arrondissement and perhaps also because of the limited distances that tour participants can be expected to walk, the Institut du monde arabe’s walking tour is not able to take in other aspects of Arab Paris, such as the traditionally immigrant areas of La Chapelle and the Goutte d’Or in the 18th arrondissement, site of innumerable North African retail businesses as well as of the largest present-day mosques and religious and cultural centres.
As a result, those wanting to supplement the otherwise excellent historic survey the Institut provides are advised also to strike out on their own, perhaps starting by visiting the recently founded Institut des cultures de l’Islam in the city’s 18th arrondissement. This institute, funded by the Paris council, has a full programme of cultural and other initiatives relating to the lives and histories of today’s Paris residents of Arab origin, including, it has been announced for a future date, walking tours of the Goutte d’Or.

Information about the Institut du monde arabe’s Arab Paris walking tours can be found at the Institut’s Website at

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