In the Metro, massive posters advertise an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Against a colorful backdrop, French words are superimposed over Arabic ones. Modernité. حداثة. Orient. الشرق. Géométrie. علم الهندسة. The poster is striking not only for its size—it is at least 20x20ft—but also for its subject. The Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) is an institution built around the idea of an ethnic and political body known as Arabs. And in a nation that has great difficulty discussing ethnicity under the vanguard of liberté-égalité-fraternité, the sight of such a poster is a paradox.
As I travel from Metro station to Metro station, even sighting the advertisements on the street, I realize that public discourse in France on ethnicity, Islam, and diversity is even more nuanced than I first understood. I wrote first about moments in daily life in Paris when individuals are forced to recognize the diversity around them. I then wrote about how neighborhoods like my own are demarcated in space and reputation as ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous,’ owing much to their status as immigrant communities. But there also places where diversity—Islam, ‘Arabness,’ and ‘blackness’—are publicly discussed, even celebrated.
I. The Institut du Monde Arabe
The Institut du Monde Arabe is one of these places. Its building stands proudly as one of the tallest in the 5th Arrondissement and tourists and locals—Arab and otherwise—fill its exhibition halls. A large chunk of the IMA’s funding is public money and its financial management is overseen by a division of the French senate. The IMA is an institution recognized and legitimized by the State.
But with public recognition comes a public message. The IMA was founded in 1980 by the governments of France and 18 Arab states. Soon, three more Arab states joined, making 21: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. All of these governments fund the museum cooperatively, in varying amounts.
Unsurprisingly, this ownership structure has meant that the museum itself is extremely political. The IMA exists in the neutral zone between the government of a former colonial oppressor and the governments of lands that were once colonized, many by France. And so the IMA must promote a vision of Arab civilization that is agreeable to all 21 Arab member states while eliding the worst of the French conquests the Near East and the Maghreb. The result of this political equation is an elegy of a golden age lost, of the wonders of Arab invention and science from the 8th Century to the 13th Century that became eclipsed by the rise of Europe.
Permanent exhibits display compasses and telescopes, geometric mosaics and Arabic translations of classical Greek philosophy. Temporary collections tend to focus on comparative art history and culture: “Historical Heritage of Algeria,” “The Orient of Saladin at the Time of the Ayyubids,” “The Morocco of Matisse,” and “European Painters in Algeria.” But besides past exhibitions called “Napoleon in Egypt” and “Orientalism Inverted: Art,” the IMA evades the larger questions of colonialism, religion, and race.
For a visitor who has more direct questions than the symbolic ones addressed in exhibits on Algerian fashion, culture, literature, and art, the IMA is disappointing. I want to ask about decolonization. I want to know about the Algerian Revolution (not War—but Revolution), I want to talk about the identity of the pieds-noirs, and I want to discuss ethnic and religious minorities in Algeria and beyond. But none of this discussion is supported in the IMA.
A friend told me that the IMA used to focus more on minorities within Arab-majority states and that it hasn’t always been so shy of political controversy. But in my sporadic visits to the museum over the past two years, I’ve witnessed little examination of minorities in the Arab world, save Maghrebi Berbers. Yet, even while the IMA presents a mostly monolithic Arab world, the institution seems to try to de-emphasize Islam. Arab and Muslim are not the same thing, placards repeat throughout the museum. The ‘Golden Age of Islam’ often morphs to a ‘Golden Age of the Arabs,’ although the museum still uses pre- and post-hijra eras to structure its collections. When Islam must be addressed, it is addressed as a historical fact and the source of inspiration for many artistic and cultural traditions. It’s not addressed as a religion itself, let alone a living one.
The Institut du Monde Arabe attracts tourists, regular ‘museum-goers,’ and Pharaonic Egypt enthusiasts. Visitors flock to see the majesty of the IMA’s architecture. Made of steel and glass, one side of the building is a grid of aperture, like the aperture of a camera, which form a new arabesque. With a spectacular view of Paris, the IMA’s rooftop terrace plays host to corporate and cultural events alike. In fact, the NGO I work with organized a conference in the hall adjoining the terrace. Located in the 5th Arrondissement, the mood is always classy and conservative at the museum.
II. The Institut des Cultures d’Islam
The same is not true at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam. Located in the 18th Arrondissement, the Institut des Cultures d’Islam (ICI) is situated in an immigrant neighborhood called the Goutte d’Or that few Parisians would ever call classy. I have heard the it described by many as ‘dangerous,’ like my own neighborhood, Barbès. But past the fish markets on Rue Poulet and the mobs of produce sellers, the ICI is a sanctuary of cultural exchange and learning.
In every way that the IMA is traditional and conservative, the ICI is not. It is a cultural center focused heavily the community surrounding it and its programs rely heavily on artistic expression and production from within the Muslim community in Paris. In a strange way, the ICI is about institutions being religious not about religion itself. Called #Libertés!, the current exhibition is inspirited by the Arab spring and is about freedom and the freedom to express oneself artistically and culturally. More of a program series than a formal exhibition, #Libertés! features hip-hop performances, revolutionaries from Egypt, and discussions on both graffiti and democracy.
In terms of physical space, the ICI is nondescript with flat façade on the street (Rue Leon), but once inside it opens up into a collection of rooms surrounding a courtyard on three sides. Visitors drink coffees and eat Maghrebi pastries in the courtyard between shows or lectures in the nearby galleries of the ICI. Performances—dramatic, musical, or just spiritual—take place in the courtyard on a large stage fitted for outdoor rock concerts. The atmosphere is thoughtful but it is laid-back and trendy above all.
III. The Grande Mosquée de Paris
The third space where diversity and religion are publicly discussed, and even celebrated, is the Grande Mosquée of Paris. First opened in 1926, the Grande Mosquée is the oldest mosque in the city and the most visible sign of Islam in the Paris’s built environment. Built in Moorish style, the Grande Mosquée resembles the mosques of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.
Fortified with a high wall, the Mosquée houses a central prayer room, gardens, a theological school (madrassa), a library, a bathhouse (hamam), and a cafe. The commercial ventures of the Mosquée balance awkwardly with the religious ones. The cafe and hamam, which charges at least 45€ for a spa-like session, are accessible from one corner of the buidling and the prayer room and madrassa are accessible from the opposite corner. (The Mosquée occupies almost an entire block.)
My friends all know the cafe and think of it as a very ‘cool’ place to go. And they’re right. The cafe is gorgeous, open, and welcoming. Little chairs and tables and squeezed under fruit trees in a triangular courtyard. There are mosaics everywhere and the archways to the interior cafe are immaculately carved in Moorish style.
“Everyone goes there,” a friend tells me. “They want to say ‘I had coffee at the Mosquée.’” She’s right; the demographics at the cafe are nothing like those in the atrium gardens near the prayer rooms. In the cafe, nearly everyone is white and everyone seems quite wealthy. “It’s very bobo,” she says, referring to bourgeois-bohemians as we sip mint tea.
While I watch young people my age smoke shisha and eat baklawa, I realize that this one cafe at the Mosquée is not actually promoting diversity or cultural understanding. Students come to the cafe for the afternoon, professionals meet here for lunch, and friends go to the hamam together on the weekend. But at these events, cultural exchange is perceived not experienced. Islam might be publicly recognized through the shisha at the cafe, but this might be at the expense of rendering Islam as exotic. “They think they’re discovering Islam through the tea,” my friend remarks. “But it’s just so superficial.”
I’m not sure how to interpret the other places—the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Institut des Cultures d’Islam—as centers where diversity in ethnicity and religion is recognized by the public and the State. There are bobos at the ICI, just like at the Mosquée, but in some ways they seem different. Maybe they seem different because it is so much harder to get to the ICI, which is in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, than the Mosquée, which is in the 5th, a ‘good’ neighborhood. To me, visitors to the ICI’s courtyard cafe seem more likely to learn something about Islam and Muslim minorities simply because the institute runs programs and events constantly.
Out of the three establishments, the Institut du Monde Arabe attracts the most tourists and likely the most visitors overall. (It would be a very rare sight to see a tourist at the ICI.) But, the IMA’s institutional motivations remain political and about promoting a certain politically-correct historical narrative. And the exhibits and programs remain bland. Through the IMA, the State might recognize Arab history and culture, but it still will not speak on contested colonial history and contemporary diversity.
The IMA and the cafe at the Grande Mosquée were designed for outsiders, whether French or foreign, and their messages reflect this. The IMA offers fragmented but true narratives of Arab and Islamic history and the Grande Mosquée serves couscous in a cafe that could have been transplanted from Marrakech to Paris. These things are ‘real’ and ‘authentic,’ and they are valuable for the outsider and visitor to experience, but they are also incomplete.
Away from the ‘safe’ neighborhoods and the grand boulevards, the ICI is able to address and raise some of the questions that the other two establishments have shied away from. What does it mean to be young and Muslim in France today? What are women’s rights in Islam? Is colonial history related to discrimination and racism in France today? How can communities project their own voices over the voice of the state? What does it mean to be different?
Taken together, these three cultural centers begin to shed light on Islam and ‘Arabness’ within the French context. Through hip-hop performances, art exhibitions, and mint tea, they begin to engage visitors in dialogues rarely heard beyond their walls. And for that, they’re a good start.