Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Required Reading. The tenth anniversary of September 11th was a few days ago, and though I'd initially thought to mark it in some way on the 12th here on my blog, I picked up this wonderful, brilliant book on Monday morning and knew I had to postpone my entry. Islam Explained by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated from the French by Franklin Philip, The New Press, 2002) is a book you need to read, right now. Jelloun, a French writer of Moroccan descent, also wrote a previous book you may remember, Racism Explained to My Daughter (New Press, 1999, hardcover; 2006, paperback), originally published in France and translated into twenty languages, which is also a must-read.

Jelloun was moved to write this volume when he heard his own children repeat some inane remarks about Islam, and he thought that if Islam was misunderstood within his own family, how distorted was it in other families? He then read (or reread in some cases) books written by specialists, of which there is no shortage in France as Islam is the country’s second religion after Christianity. And then he started writing, with the goal of extracting the essentials and presenting them simply, clearly, and objectively for young readers in particular but also for adults (and I'd like to stress that this really is also a book for adults). It's “the book of a father who, talking to his children, would like to talk to all children everywhere,” and what Jelloun is seeking to do is “tell the story of Islam as it is recounted in serious books, to present it as something belonging to the universal heritage of humanity.”

In his Preface, Jelloun writes what is certainly among the best sentiments I’ve ever read about tolerance. He says that beyond the knowledge Americans may have of Islam and beyond a desire to know “the other” or “the foreign,” there is also a need to keep the doors of one’s own culture open. “We can enrich ourselves only by exchange, in cultural and economic intermixing, in the dialogue between different peoples. For this, we must not indulge in racism or impose our cultural and religious values on others. It must not be said that “Western civilization is superior to other civilizations,” nor claimed that the world is experiencing “civilization and culture shock.” Cultures travel: they move around and get into homes without even being invited. The only dominant culture is that of intelligence, knowledge, and sharing. In this way culture does not dominate, but opens doors to those seeking to learn and to know what is going on outside their own tribe.”

Written in a straightforward question-and-answer format, this little book is only 113 pages long, and you can, uninterrupted, read it in about an hour. It is utterly clear and simple, yet packed with key words (hegira, chachada, sura, Sunnis, Shiites, mullah, hijah, chador, hashashins, hadits, shari'a, fatwa, etc.) and key concepts, such as "Tolerance has meaning only if it is mutual. Intolerance is not accepting and even rejecting those who are different from oneself. It fosters racism." I was also fascinated by a list of words Jelloun provides that originated in Arabic. These are now used in languages derived from Latin, and in other languages as well, but most people don't know their origin. They include admiral, alcohol, algebra, artichoke, carafe, caravel, carousel, chess, divan, emerald, giraffe, lemonade, magazine, monsoon, rice, saccarine, safari, spinach, taffeta, tarragon, and zenith.

This is one of the most powerful and unsentimental books I've ever read, and I urge you to go out and find it and read it and share it with everyone you know. Maybe, just maybe, Jelloun's words will resonate widely.

Other related reads I particularly admire are:

*The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (Bernard Lewis, W. W. Norton, 1992).
*Islam: A Short History (Karen Armstrong, Modern Library Chronicles, 2000). In this slender but fine work Armstrong wisely warns that "Western people must become aware that it is in their interests too that Islam remains healthy and strong. The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion. But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium."
*A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
*Oriental Treasures in the Mediterranean: From Damascus to Granada (Henri Stierlin, White Star, 2005) which features Islamic architectural, artistic, and scientific masterpieces in the Near East, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain.

And, see a terrific article I was unable to include in my Paris book: "In the Heart of Paris, an African Beat" by Seth Sherwood, The New York Times travel section, 18 December, 2005.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Do you subscribe to Bonjour Paris? If you -- like me -- do, then you already know it's the best site around for All Things Paris. If you don't, and you -- like me -- are a Francophile or someone who is only un petit peu interested in Paris and France, you should start your subscription immediatement! BP is a terrific resource for anyone planning on visiting Paris for the first or fiftieth time, and it's also a great time-waster. What I mean when I say that is that once you're browsing around the site you can really get sucked in and it's hard to leave, and an hour can go by really quickly. BP is practical, but it's also a great place for daydreaming about Paris!

Run by American expat Karen Fawcett, the site is a real community of people interested in a wide variety of topics pertaining to Paris and to France. I've not yet met Karen, but I interviewed her by telephone for my book (pages 632-635), and after only a few minutes I knew we were kindred spirits. She is very sympa and savvy, and as she noted in a posting on May 1, 2010 (her twenty-second anniversary in Paris), "after all these years, more of me is French than American...Paris has captured my heart and part of my soul."

In her post this week, 'Meandering in the Paris 7th,' I was reminded of my own year in the 7th arrondissement, where I lived as a student in 1979 with a French family dans la rue de Grenelle. One of Karen's neighborhood favorites is the Rodin Museum (the photos above were taken from the museum's website), which was and is one of my favorites, too. As Karen notes, if you have a young visitor with you (under the age of 8) you can stroll the museum's really pretty gardens for free, something I did about twice a week as I was also working as an au pair for three children, the youngest of whom was 3. The museum is located on rue de Varenne, only one parallel street away from rue de Grenelle, so from my family's house I could be at the Museum's gates in about seven minutes. Laurent and I were most definitely regulars.

The gardens are truly a special place in Paris, but the museum is, too. In addition to all the works by Rodin, there are some paintings that were in his personal collection, like the one above by Van Gogh. When I first saw 'Arles: View From the Wheat Fields' (1888) I immediately loved it, and even this many years later I still feel the same way about it. It was a natural for inclusion in an exhibit entitled 'Vincent Van Gogh: Timeless Country - Modern City' held at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome that ran from 7 October, 2010 to 6 February, 2011. I didn't see the exhibit, but the accompanying book is of very good quality and is quite interesting (edited by Cornelia Homburg, Skira, 2011).

When I read how fond Karen was of the Rodin Museum in her post, it reminded me that I hadn't enthused about the museum in my book; that of course is the limitation of a book -- I can't, after all, include everything I love about Paris in a book because it would be as big as a house -- but is the opportunity of a blog. However, in my book I feature an entry on the Jeu de Paume museum in the 'Paris Miscellany,' which I included as a way to remind readers not to overlook Paris's wealth of small museums. (When I was a student, the Jeu de Paume housed the works of the French Impressionists -- it's now reserved for temporary exhibitions -- and for many years I was still able to remember the exact placement of each painting in every room.)

I am an enormous fan of the 7th arrondissement -- and another museum gem in the neighborhood is the Musee Maillol, at 61 rue de Grenelle -- as well as of the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay; but as I note in my book, "I will never forget how standing and looking in the Jeu de Paume made me feel about art, about my life, about the extraordinary place that is Paris." In any of Paris's small museums, you may very well have your own illuminating thoughts.