A Small World in Paris: A Journey in the AWI

Author ········· Reda Keddaji
Photos ········· Reda Keddaji
Published ······ Online, Nov 2012
Section ·······  Culture

There is a place in Paris where one feels dropped directly between Casablanca and Sa’naa, a place that allows you to choose the era when you want to touch down. This place is the Arab World Institute (AWI). Located in the heart of historical Paris in the fifth district, on Mohammed V place between Saint-Bernard quay and the Jussieu Campus, the museum was founded in the 1980s and designed by Jean Nouvel.

For its 25th anniversary, the AWI has been completely transformed: new rooms, exhibits and an amazing new itinerary. Previously, the AWI museum was dedicated solely to Islamic art, but due to the opening of the Louvre's department of Islamic Art, they created a space that is a “reflection on the Arab identity and not only [focused] on Islam,” Marie Foissy, the project leader, states. Unveiled on 22 February 2012, the new museum consists of 560 pieces, exploring various facets of the Arab states: linguistic, social, religious and anthropological. The €5 million renovation was made possible by generous donations from AWI sponsors.

On a Saturday afternoon, I set out to discover this new place. Paris is generally quiet but the AWI is full of tourists. The facade of the institute is stupendous; resonating the talent of Jean Nouvel. The south facade shows the historical themes of Arab geometry as it is composed of 240 mashrabiyas (type of oriel window enclosed with carved wooden latticework). In Mohamed V Square near the AWI sits a capsule created for Chanel by Zaha Hadid, a renowned Iraqi architect.

The new museum is spread over four floors with a different topic covered on each floor. The course is chronological – which is a great update from the old museum – and starts on the seventh floor and ends on the fourth. Upon arrival on the seventh floor, you enter a corridor covered with mirrors and videos being broadcasted on the walls. In front of me, I recognise the Cedars of God forest in Bcharre, Lebanon, a beautiful and soothing landscape. Beyond being a symbol of Lebanon, it is also known internationally as the birthplace of writer Khalil Gibran. To my right is a video of Berber women weaving, covered from head to toe in colourful clothing, speaking in chleuh, a Berber dialect. To my left, camels are slowly walking in a horizon of desert, I am pretty sure that this is the desert of Merzouga in Morocco but it could very well be in Algeria or Mauritania. Always to my left, a counter in a quaint shop where you notice people stopping to buy one thousand and one odd and ends. The moment you enter, you are wholly involved to a place with various dialects and peoples that emphasises the diversity and wealth of Arab culture.

After this hall, the visit can officially start. The first theme is called “The Arabias, cradle of a common heritage.” Here, there is a focus on the region of Arabia as the cradle of a common heritage and it is introduced like an encounter between the city and the desert. Several historical pieces of information decorate the wall, while you still faintly hear the call to prayer from the entrance of the corridor. Throughout the journey, I learn about the Arabia Felix of Greek Historians and the Arab people within the Roman Empire through the kingdoms of Palmyra and Nabataea. A little further, I discover several fragments of steles with an impressive number of languages and their written forms: Tifinagh, Palmyrene, Syriac, Nabataean, and so on. Various pieces explain the move from the ‘Arabian alphabet’ to the Arabic alphabet towards the end of the 6th century AD. Always highlighting the diversity of the Arab people, the nomads of the Arabian desert are introduced through the exposition of certain bags, saddles and other necessities.

The journey goes on with the second theme on the lower floor entitled “The sacred and the divine.” The goal of this is to show the representation of the divine within the whole Arab region, dealing equally with the Monotheist faiths such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as the Polytheist faiths. Several pages of sacred books are thus exposed side by side.  I notice some excerpts from the Torah in North Africa, a colourful gospel harvested in Cairo dating from 1250, and still excerpts from the Qu’ran in Egypt dating from 1390. As far as I am concerned, this theme is one of the most striking, recognising the wealth of the Arab world, one that has marked a history of many religions, not only that of Islam.

Before arriving on the fifth floor, you find a great interactive map where you can visit the Arab world through dates and anecdotal experiences. The menu is extensive and informative: anyone coming in with no prior knowledge leaves with a good understanding of Arab civilisation. Finally, a small patio leads us to the next floor. “Arabic, one language” is written on the wall. A fun video tutorial explains to visitors the richness of the Arabic language and informs us of the several dialects throughout the region.

After passing a small corridor, the AWI now takes us to the cities, hence the title of the third theme: “The city” (al madinah). Set in the middle ages, it clearly illustrates social organisation, centred on the mosque-cathedral, stating for which the different zones are laid out: religious communities co-exist (Jews, Christians and Muslims) and the assorted craftsmen’s guilds, which contribute to the running of the town and its physical integrity of stability. It becomes apparent that the city is an important part in the Arab world. By walking, I hear sounds and calls to prayer from a distance. I explore places of worship, and when I stand in front of them liturgical songs resound, amazing work done by Anna Kathaiena Scheidegger. A little further on, I find door panels, there is even a door from 19th century Marrakech, Morocco.

The fourth theme is the expression of beauty in the Arab world. First, regarding written expression, a wide range of calligraphy is exposed, but also tools that helped writing during those times. That is when I see very old quills and incredible ink spoons. The expression of beauty is also in ceramic art, which has played a leading role in Arab art. Major turquoise basins dating from the 14th and 15th centuries are displayed. Observing the objects, I tell myself these could very well be bowls from the present and I realise how this art has remained intact in the Arab world. There are also pottery and glass pieces, showing off the innovative lustre techniques in Arabic ceramics.

Various zoomorphic pieces from the Islamic period are scattered throughout the exhibits. One piece that left me stupefied was a cast-bronze rooster from the 8th century. The small boxes, called kursi, that use to keep the Qu’ran in the madrassas (schools) and mosques are also on display alongside beautiful costumes: draped dress (h'rem) of Tunisia, waistcoats (farmla), bracelets (hadida), tunic (qmejja), and Moroccan caftans.

Finally, my visit ends with the last theme, “A time to live.” An informative section for anyone who was unaware of the important role Arabs played in science, especially within the field of astronomy. Several compasses of Rajasthan, celestial globes and astrolabes are presented. Contemporary videos also explain the contributions Arabs made in the advancement of astronomy, such as enabling the calculation of latitude and longitude by using the discs.

This theme also focuses briefly on caravansaries and souks with the display of several beautiful dinars (money) dating from 1237. The visit concludes with music: this finale accentuates the importance of music in the Arab region. Lutes are displayed, and the music is deliberately played very lightly.

Before leaving, a gold book gathers all the feedback from visitors. Feedback is almost unanimous: a job well done by the AWI – they’ve highlighted central and important themes and carefully kept visitors on a historical course by keeping the chronology in order. Although some visitors did not appreciate the scattered locations of certain pieces, evoking a somewhat neglected disorder, feedback was mainly positive. After my visit, I recommend future visitors to the AWI do the following: go to the top floor and eat at the Lebanese restaurant while enjoying the fantastic and endless view over Paris and visit the magnificent library featuring a wide range of Arabic books.

Of Moroccan descent, Reda Keddaji is passionate about Arabic literature, politics and arts. After two years of intensive training for French Grandes Écoles, Reda is now completing his Masters in Management at one of the top business schools in Paris and works as a menswear sales manager at LeNewBlack, an online fashion tradeshow..