HOW WE VIEW EACH OTHER CONTINUED — THE ARAB INSTITUTE EXHIBIT ON THE HAJ
One of the hallmarks of Paris is its dense, multi-hued, poly-linguistic human diversity. This is true in any large city, of course. Because France had an empire comparable in size and global span to the British Empire, people from many far-flung places in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East were educated as citizens of France, and France has welcomed people from the countries of its former empire. The French people feel very strongly about the importance of their government keeping its promises to its former colonial residents to protect and welcome them. Yesterday, we were having a “glass” with Gilles, who was giving us a tour of the Marais area of Paris. As seems inevitable, the conversation turned to world politics (the French delight in political discussion). We were discussing the topic of when a country is obliged to intervene in another country’s disputes, and Gilles dogmatically and emphatically stated that of course, when a discord involved a former French colony or ally — in this case, Lebanon — the French people would be indignant if the French government did not send military units to assist their allies or former colonies.
Many of these allies and former colonies are part of the Arab world — across North Africa, for instance, or in the Arabian peninsula. Consequently, there is an enormous presence in Paris of French-speaking Muslims from many countries.
The Institute of the Arab World is one of the most beautiful modern buildings in Paris. It houses a stunning museum of Islamic artifacts and art works.
Following are three views of the ingenious and beautiful walls and panes of this amazing building. The wall is completely made of different size lenses, each with its own mechanism for opening and closing, similar to the lens of an eye or a camera. Each one responds differently to the light, and the effect is an infinitely varied display of lenses at various stages of response. If you look closely at the different apertures shown in each photo, you will see the wide variety of possible lens positions.
When we first arrived in Paris, we noticed ads on buses for a current exhibit on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca called the “Haj,” the practice enjoined on all Muslims who are physically and financially capable of fulfilling it. Every Muslim, if possible, is supposed to make this pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime. It is a mass experience, as there is one week in the year when it can be fulfilled. Of course, for many people before modern improvements of mass transportation, starting with the steamboat, it might have taken months or even years to walk or sail from wherever they lived to get to Mecca.
In the early days, important pilgrims rode in Palanquins, tent-like structures enclosing a saddle on camel-back. The exhibit contained a perfectly preserved brocaded palanquin used by Egyptian dignitaries in the 1800s. Beside it was a painting in which a similar palanquin is shown on a camel in a scene showing the departure of a huge group of Haj pilgrims ready to walk to Mecca across the desert.
Beautifully Korans illustrated and lettered by hand were produced for pilgrims to carry with them to Mecca as a part of this crucially important event in their lives — their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy places.
As transportation has gotten more and more efficient, the group of pilgrims completing the Haj in any given year has grown from several hundred as late as the early 1800s, to millions at a time now. The exhibit included modern films showing the pilgrims fulfilling the rituals for the different days of the pilgrimage sojourn in Mecca — throngs as far as the eye can see, elbow to elbow, all wearing the white garments and shaved heads of the purified Haj pilgrim. Watching these films gave us a deeply moving perspective on the globalization of human experience as we move into the era of instantaneous worldwide communication and commerce.
The pilgrimage is experienced through a series of deeply spiritual rituals, and important works of art attest to its importance in Islamic culture down through the centuries. The exhibit includes a wide range of amazing handmade books, documents, art works, banners and tapestries, artifacts, and photographs documenting the phenomenon of the Haj from the early days after Mohammed right up to the present. We found it fascinating and impressive. We were also surprised to learn a bit about the traditional basis for Islam, identical with the stories told in the Hebrew testament. Like the Jews, Muslims trace their history back to Adam and Eve. In fact, the sacred center of the Mosque in Mecca — the destination for the Haj Pilgrimage — is the Q’aba, a cubic structure that is said to represent the final habitation of Adam and Eve and their family.
One room of the exhibit was devoted to a beautifully interactive and dynamic contemporary work of art called “The Black Arch.” This piece beautifully represented the Hajj experience using stainless steel balls, a black cube, moving lights depicting water (washing and purification are a crucial part of the rituals), and projections of abstracted images based on the movements of throngs of people through the pilgrimage rituals, reflected in mirrors that were part of the art piece.
The story of Abraham being led by God to sacrifice his son, and his hand being held back at the last minute by an angel who allows Abraham to replace his son with a ram as sacrificial victim is a fundamental story in the origins of Islam. The curious thing for us about this story was its duplication in every detail of the story in the Hebrew scripture of Abraham and his son Isaac — only in the Islamic tradition, the son is Abraham’s other son by his wife’s slave, the son named Ishmael. In the Hebrew scripture, if I remember correctly, Ishmael is sent away to wander with his mother, and that’s the last we hear of either of them. Yet, Muslims trace their origins back to Ishmael, and the story of Abraham is told of Abraham and Ishmael, not Isaac.
This whole experience invited us to consider the spiritual resonance that binds Judaism and Christianity together with Islam as religious traditions stemming from the story of Abraham and his obeisance to the one God. The intercultural throng of visitors to the exhibit also emphasized our cultural and spiritual unity, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, side by side, moved from one artifact to the next, in a spirit of friendliness, respect for others, and shared interests.
The Museum has an incredibly huge bookstore focusing on Islamic history, culture, and art. As we moved among the books, it was amusing, amid all the volumes titled and printed in Arabic, to feel that the books in French were the reassuringly familiar ones. Usually, in a French museum bookstore, the English language publications play that role for us.
Finally, the café terrace on the 9th floor of the building provides wonderful panoramic views of the Ile de la Cite and the Right Bank areas of Paris. We were very happy to enjoy these beautiful perspectives on an exquisitely varied section of a memorable city.