With the recent riots in Arab-French suburbs and heated debates over the hijab (head scarf), France may not seem like the place to find Middle Eastern cultural activities. Not true. And my recent trip to Paris proves it.
Whether you’re interested in studying the history of intellectual and cultural connections between Europe and the Arab world, or relaxing in Moroccan baths and restaurants, Paris is full of Middle Eastern delights.
Since I was in Paris for vacation, I opted for the most indulgent option, and spent an afternoon at the hamams (baths) of the Paris mosque.
Located behind the Jardin des Plantes, the Paris mosque is not your traditional place of worship with a restaurant, shisha café and the hamams.
The entrance to the baths is through an inconspicuous door behind one of the restaurant’s pastry counters. As I walked in, I wondered whether this place might be sketchier than the spotless white stucco and green tiling the building suggested.
But appearances can be deceptive, and this small entrance certainly was. Behind the door is a huge, vaulted, wooden room, with intricately carved pillars supporting a ceiling painted in gold, blue, red and green geometric designs. As grand a room as I’ve ever seen.
Customers sign up at the front desk for various spa packages, which include time in the sauna, exfoliation and a massage. There are separate hours for women and men. All are expected to bring their own bathing suits, towels and sandals.
After changing in the locker room, I spent an hour or so lounging on the stone benches of the sauna. It was a welcome break from the chilling winter winds blowing outside. Then I went to an outer room to sip sweet, mint tea while waiting for a massage.
There are four tables in each of the corners of the massage room, and French women sit around chatting on benches as they wait their turn. The 20-minute back massage itself was perhaps a bit too weak. But after being lulled into relaxation by the steam room and the tea, I didn’t mind how overly-gentle it was.
I rounded off the quiet afternoon nicely with a Moroccan meal in the mosque restaurant. The lamb and vegetables in the couscous were perfectly tender. One of the best meals I had in a week in Paris, which is saying something, as I found most French food lived up to its reputation. The restaurant setting is as lush as the baths, with red velvet banquettes and intricate mashrabia covering the walls.
If the hamams don’t sound appealing, those who would like a more intellectual vacation might try the Institut du Monde Arabe, (Institute of the Arab World), the Musee D’Orsay, or the Grand Palais.
The Institute houses an extensive collection of scholarly and cultural resources, with art exhibitions and weekly movie showings. The main attraction at the Institute now is “Venice and the Orient, on until February 18. This exhibit shows how Venetians, through their extensive trade routes, came into contact with Mamluk and Ottoman cultures. But if you’re a disciple of Edward Said and his theory on Orientalism you might take issue with some Venetian artists’ portrayal of Middle Easterners in the Institute’s paintings.
More European views of the Middle East are on display in the paintings of the Orientalist room on the second floor of the Musee D’Orsay.
For an especially Egyptian afternoon, try the Grand Palais. It currently houses “Sunken Treasures of Egypt, an exhibition of ancient ruins taken from under Lake Nasser and the areas flooded by the Aswan Dam. When the exhibit opened, there were lines down the museum steps and for almost a block beyond, so this show is very popular. It will be around until March 16.
Mosquee de Paris, Rue Geoffroy St. Hilaire and Rue Daubenton, 5th Arrondissement.
L’Institut du Monde Arabe, 1 Rue de Fosses-St. Bernard, Place Mohammed V, 5th Arrondissement, www.imarabe.org
Musee D’Orsay, 62 Rue de Lille, 7th Arrondissement www.musee-orsay.fr
Grand Palais, main Entrance off of Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th Arrondissement, www.grandpalais.fr