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Notes From Paris, Part Three: Arabic Culture and the Latin Quarter

This is Part Three of a series from when I was staying in Paris for two weeks.

Sights seen/Things done, and cost: 

1. Bought Arabic sweetmeats: 50 cents

2. Took the metro to a station near the mosque: 1.40

3. Bought two figs at the outdoor market: 40 cents

4. Visited 3 Islamic bookstores along the way to the mosque: free

5. Visited the mosque: 3 dollars

6. Walked thru the Latin Quarter: free

7. Visited the University. Art Exhibit. : free

8. Visited the Arabic Institute: went to exhibit; went to top of building to look at one of the best views of Paris: free

9. Spent time in bookstore in Arabic Institute, bought two postcards: 2.oo

10. Ate lunch in front of the Arabic Institute: free

11. Walked along the Seine, and looked at all the outdoor art along the river: free

12. Ended up in the Botanical Gardens: free

13. Walked home, bought a loaf of bread and some cheese and fruit: 4.00

Total cost for the day: $ 11.40 usd

Today I got up pretty early and decided to head to the Paris Mosque. It is near quite a few other things I wanted to see, including the Arabic World Institute and the Latin Quarter.

The idea of today was to make it a day where I experience a different side of Paris-not just the cookie cutter Eiffel Tower experience, but more multicultural. I decided to have my focus today be on Arabic and Islamic culture, as I know nothing about it whatsoever. It’s very easy to not know much about it, since I am American and we Americans are not exactly encouraged to learn more.

I stopped off at the falafel place near my apartment. Ahbib, the guy who runs the place spoke excellent English and I told him about my plans for the day. He was very kind and very happy that I was taking an interest in his traditions. He sold me some little sweetmeats, a kind of little roll soaked in honey and then covered in sesame seeds. I got a whole parcel for just 50 cents! And he told me that the same sweets would cost me at several dollars at the Arabic Institute or the Mosque.

I head to the metro station near my house. It’s a zoo, as everyone is going to work at this hour. Next time, I will avoid this rush and leave the house a little later. I’ve heard that people get pick pocketed on the metro when it’s crowded, and it’s definitely crowded enough for that to easily happen, but it doesn’t. I somehow manage to make all the right train changes and realize that the metro is fantastically well organized and much easier than I was previously making it out to be. (It’s a funny thing: when you are with other people, who know where they are going-as I was when I arrived and the following few days afterwaards in Paris-you don’t pay any attention to anything on the metro, so it seems overwhelming. Then after few tries on your own, it seems so simple!)

I get off at the stop by the mosque. It turns out there is a farmers market that day. I want to take pictures of all the cheese sellers, vegetable and fruit stands, and the other things but it seems like the people won’t like the idea. There are also some amazing pashimas and Indian goods there , sold very cheaply. I buy some figs from a man from Jordan and he gives me directions to the mosque. He also suggests an Islamic bookshop along the way.

I find the bookshop. It seems to be called, “Al. Bustane.”, and it’s run by this old, extremely tidy looking man, who is very friendly. There are loads of books on Islam, prayer beads, little caps, prayer rugs…there is also an adjoining room, with all titles in English and French. He speaks English so we talk for awhile and he knows all about the history of the Paris Mosque. I visit a few other bookshops along the way, and everyone is always very nice and friendly.

I keep walking, hit by new sights, smells, flavors. It smells of Indian food, incense, and another smell I can’t place-kind of like candy. It’s a sweet smell.

I discover the source of the smell just as the mosque comes into view-a shop is making honey candy.

The mosque itself, from my view at first, doesn’t look like much. Then I round the corner and see the tall tower. it’s beautiful.

I walk up to the front of the mosque, which is across the street from a small park. The park and the steps of the mosque are filled by beggars, all women. One woman passerby has given a beggarwoman a shawl, and the beggar woman doesn’t want it. She seems to know the woman who has given her the shawl and so she doesn’t want it. She spits on it and throws it into the street. Another beggar woman runs out across the street and takes the shawl, gently placing it back in the first beggar woman’s hands. The woman cradles it in her arms.

Along with this strange scene is another one stranger still-white women tourists wearing miniskirts and tank tops, being wrapped in gray cloth so that they can enter the mosque. They look tan, fit, healthy-out of place next to these beggar women, who look somehow lumpy and nondescript in their ample clothes. The tourists also look embarrassed, like they don’t like having to be all covered up by the gray sheets.

I walk up the steps and go in. No one stops me to cover up-I’m wearing a long black skirt that comes almost to my ankles and a tshirt. While I’m getting directions about where to go to pay the admission fee, the tourists have decided they can’t take walking around in sheets and have given up entering the mosque. They take off their sheets and carefully fold them, handing them back to the men at the doorway, who look off into the horizon or stare into the garden at some distant speck of dust. The girls leave red faced and in a huff.

The office is run by Mohamed the day I am there. He is a volunteer, as they all are. He speaks some English and has been to, of all places, Las Vegas. But he dreams of going to Montana. I learn this while chatting about the mosques history and looking at badly photographed pictures of the mosque they are selling as postcards. Mohamed also teaches me to say thankyou in Arabic.

I wander around the mosque for over an hour. It’s beautiful. There is something about the style of Arabic architecture, tile work, and even gardens that are perfectly pleasing to the eye. Every color, design, pattern and shape is all thought out ahead of time, to make it the most pleasing possible. It’s a joy of blues, greens and cool white.

I sit in the garden and imagine I am somewhere in the Middle East. This is probably the closest I will ever get.

They are going to close for prayer. People, in particular men, have begun to arrive and have entered the prayer hall. Outside the prayer hall are hundreds of pairs of shoes, all neatly lined up. I’m not allowed in the prayer hall, of course, but I glance in and it’s stunningly beautiful, with every available space being taken up by woodwork, tile work, and carpets.

I decide it’s time to go and start to head towards my next stop, the Arabic World Institute, which means wandering thru the Latin Quarter. When I first read the words “Latin Quarter”, I thought it meant Latin like Latino! But the name actually comes from the fact that students and their teachers all spoke in only Latin here until around the Revolution.

The Latin Quarter is fantastic-it’s full of used bookstores, cheap eateries, and loads of students. It’s very laid back and casual, and it’s fun to wander thru the streets. I finally end up in front of the Sorbonne, Paris’ most famous university.

It looks interesting, so I decided to take a look. It turns out there is a big exhibit of students art there today, as well as a famous painter. The students all speak English, and they smile and point the way to the exhibit. It turns out it’s free, too. Perfect. Not only that, there is free coffee!

I leave the Sorbonne and make my way to the Arabic World Institute. This is actually something I have been wanting to see since I read about it. Of course, I wanted to see the inside of the place , but I have to admit that I was equally interested in seeing the outside of it as well.

The building is hard to describe, but I will try: it’s like a huge silver box, made up of squares, each square being a bunch of metal bits that are mechanized and open and close. It gives the effect of a Borg ship from Star Trek or something like that,all in glass and aluminum. The squares are all slowly opening and closing at different times, so the building never looks quite the same.The building was designed by the famous architects Nouvel and Soria.

Once inside the building, things are a bit tricky. No doubt because it’s the Arabic World Institute, you have quite a screening process to get thru. The museum is quite pricey for what you get, so I skipped it and instead looked at a free temporary exhibit of Arabic scientific artifacts. Arabic culture was remarkably advanced and had much more scientific knowledge than anyone else did for much of history. Afterwards I went up to the 9th floor, which has a fancy place to spend alot of money for a cup of mint tea..but I skipped that and just looked at the fantastic view of the city.

The bookstore inside the Institute is amazing-it’s the biggest Arabic bookstore in Europe and it has loads of music, too. My favorite thing were all these postcards written in Arabic script of famous quotes. I bought I a few of these as I thought they would make nice gifts.

After a lunch of or figs and sweetmeats, I wandered down to the Seine. This river truly is romantic, filled with barges and tourists paying for somewhat overpriced ferry rides, with the banks of the river lined with people out walking their dogs and young couples holding hands.

This particular part of the Seine is also lined with a a really fabulous collection of outdoor sculpture-and it’s free, too. Some of it I really liked, and some of it I thought was  extremely ugly-but either way, I enjoyed looking at most of it and the walk led me to the entrance of the enormous Botanical Gardens.

Wow. These were insanely beautiful, and full of Parisians as well, who  were out enjoying the nice sunny weather.

I just walked around for hours!! I thought to myself, ” If everyday in Paris is like this, I will be in love with this city!”

The gardens have been described by some as Eden like, and I would have to agree. However, breaking up all this beautiful monotony are these annoying uniformed people who walk around and tell you to get off the grass. Apparently, it’s just for show. Odd.

There are also a fair share of scam artists, pickpockets and so on around, so that made photgraphing difficult when I had to grip my bag the whole time. And, in spite of looking like the perfect garden to stare off into space into while dreamily reading a novel, it’s not really possible due to the number of undesirables waiting for you to let your guard down so they can steal your camera and cheese sandwich.

But, nonetheless, the garden is spectacular. French people think so, too- they would much rather spend their days off in these beautiful gardens than their tiny apartments, and they walked around exclaiming over the size of the dinner plate dahlias as much as I was.

I realized I had to walk home still, although I could have taken the metro. I decided to walk and pick up a few things for a light dinner on the way back.

I actually found my apartment! Made it up the skinny flights of stairs! Made myself a cup of coffee and flopped on the couch!

A beautiful, full, and exciting day. What will tomorrow bring, I wonder?



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