Post 9/11 America is so scared of the Muslim world. Many of us have no idea about the rich and diverse history, food and culture of the vast and varied swathe of Muslim nations. France is a great place to introduce yourself. The French have their own long and complicated relationship with Arab cultures. It is a relationship influenced by Colonialism, Racism and their own fears, but the French also take a keen interest in the fascinating world that includes countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In my experience, the French are also great at tooting their own ‘inclusive‘ horn and criticizing America as an insular, ignorant group of unsophisticated, often obese, materialist workaholics. All that said, and having witnessed numerous acts of racist behavior when I lived in France, the World Arab Institute is a formidable structure, institution and statement. Set on a bend in the Seine in the shadows of Notre Dame, this modern edifice houses many floors of libraries, conference rooms and exhibition spaces. The building is amazing—with small windows that open and shut depending on light. On the top floor there is an observation area, which it should be noted is free and offers a lovely view. I counted three eating establishments, a fancy Lebanese establishment, which ironically reminded me of Windows on the World. We noshed at “Le Canteen,” a cafeteria style eatery with the yummiest lamb and chickpea stew as well as seemingly home made small spinach treats.
We came to see the Oum Khalsoum retrospective; a giant in the Arab world, this Egyptian singer/actress is on a par with perhaps Elvis in the U.S. It was a fabulous exhibit chronicling her life. Sound, video, historical context made this well curated multi-media exhibition a treat. Khalsoum was a deeply religious woman, but one who wore fabulous designer ensembles, sang in a traditional style and fostered many Warhol-esque treatments. She had this amazing bouffant hair and memorable glasses. I particularly loved her personal affects and the stunning dresses as well as the art and fashion her life inspired.The exhibit continues till November 2, entrance is 7 Euros.