Recently, I had lunch under a thunder-grey sky in Paris. It was a Sunday and the cafés and bars were spilling onto the streets with Parisians enjoying the pleasures of their weekend. I had just flown up from the warm south. Michel, my husband, collected me from the airport before he disappeared for an afternoon screening of one his films at Le Grand Action, a small independent cinema close to where we were eating on the Left Bank. My afternoon was my own to do with as I fancied. A stroll along the banks of the Seine or a museum?
I had noticed as we drove by that the l’Institut du Monde Arabe, the Arab World Institute, known to all Parisians as IMA, was advertising an exhibition dedicated to Palestine and all that it offers to the world.
It reminded me that this year of 2023 is the 75th anniversary of the 'Nakba', which means "catastrophe" in Arabic. For Palestinians, 1948, was the year when thousands were expelled from or fled their country, when they were obliged to give up their land for the creation of the new State of Israel.
I have spent a fair amount of time in both Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) and Israel during my travels while writing my books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, and later again for the filming of our five-part documentary series inspired by these books, keeping the title for television The Olive Route. Much that I witnessed there saddened me deeply and left me with a sense of impotency.
Images takes from the internet of Palestinians fleeing their homelands in 1948.
As we all know, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict continues to be a very contentious subject and not one that I wish to address in this article. I only want to share with you a few of my memories of that part of the world and some details about my visits to IMA.
My late father was in Palestine during WWII. He loved the country and its people and talked to me about those experiences on many occasions during my childhood years. His descriptions, reminisces, were vivid, very evocative and moving. Looking back, I feel sure that those stories, those adventures of a nineteen-year-old serviceman (Daddy was with Ralph Reader's RAF Entertainment Corps) seeded my longing to discover the Middle East. Even as a girl I had dreams of running away from school and volunteering for work in an Israeli kibbutz. My parents soon put a stop to all those ideas! It took me many more years before I eventually visited all those Middle Eastern countries. As I said, for my books and films.
I was stepping foot into cities and temples and markets I had first heard about when I was little more than six or seven years old. They were utterly magical for me, those first impressions.
I definitely feel a special 'homeland' attachment to that part of the world and often joke - fanciful, I know - that perhaps in my very first incarnation I was a Phoenician. The Phoenicians who originally hailed from the Levant.
Maps of Phoenicia
Phoenicia was made up of individual city-states along and inland of the coast of what today is Lebanon. They were a rich and magnificently-gifted civilisation known mostly as shipbuilders, maritime navigators, traders and agriculturalists. (They created terraced farming). One of the aspects of their civilisation that has always appealed to me is that they were not conquerors or warriors, although their descendants after they founded Carthage were more aggressive.
The Phoenicians from Phoenicia travelled across the Mediterranean sea from their city-states in vessels know as gauloi (a trading boat with one main sail), transporting, amongst many other types of cargo, olive trees along with the knowledge of the tree's cultivation. They taught the foreigners where they traded how to produce and use olive oil!
Images of Phoenician sailing ships, taken from the internet.
Sarcophagus of Eshmunazar. 5th century BC Phoenician King of Sidon
Here is a YouTube clip of an exhibition about Phoenician culture and art. This exhibition was held at IMA and I was fortunate enough to see it.
It was an exhibition rich in statuary and artworks. The geographical displays highlighted clearly the impact the Phoenicians, who are known to have been a major seafaring people, made on other civilisations during their Mediterranean excursions. They founded trading posts around the entire Mediterranean and were the dominant traders of these seas between 1550 BCE and 300 BCE when it was the Greeks who took control of these waterways.
It is important to remember that the Mediterranean was a superhighway. It was used for transport, trade and cultural exchanges between many diverse peoples. It encompassed three continents: Western Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe.
In fact, the Phoenicians travelled beyond the Med founding trading posts wherever they dropped oar. On they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, out beyond the ancient Pillars of Hercules, south to Essaouira in Morocco or north to the coast of Spain. It is believed they founded the cities of Cádiz and Málaga and were possibly the first settlers to that southern stretch of the Iberian Peninsula coast.
By the way, the extraordinarily evocative trumpet-playing on this Youtube clip above is by Ibrahim Malhouf who is a French-Lebanese jazz musician. If you ever have the opportunity to see him live on stage, I highly recommend you race to get seats.
Back to IMA and a little about the building itself:
The Arab World Institute is constructed on the left bank of the Seine in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. The idea for an Arab Institute in Paris was first seeded in the early nineteen-seventies when Valéry Giscard D’Estaing was President of France. The purpose was to offer opportunities for research and to disseminate Arab cultural and spiritual values. It was felt that they were not fully understood in France at that time. This was a very important initiative back in the seventies because just a decade earlier the French were extricating themselves, not with all honours, from a long and very messy war, the Algerian War of Independence: 1954 - 1962. It led to Algeria winning its independence from France. It also left a great deal of bad feeling between many Arabs and French citizens, which has not been entirely resolved even today.
The Arab World Institute is an organisation within a building founded between France and eighteen Arab countries. It is a "secular location for the promotion of Arab civilisation, art, knowledge and aesthetics." Within the building can be found its museum, a vast library, auditorium/cinema, restaurant with impressive views over the city and meeting rooms and offices.
Construction only got underway in 1981 as D’Estaing was handing over the Presidency to François Mitterand.
Jean Nouvel, one of France’s most esteemed living architects, won the design competition and was put at the helm of the building’s construction. It took until 1987 to complete. It was funded by France and the League of Arab States. It later won the Agha Khan Award for Architectural excellence. (An award established in 1977 and given once every three years.)
Jean Nouvel, French architect. b.1945
In 2008, Nouvel also won the prestigious Pritzker Award for his contribution to architecture. It included a special mention for his outstanding vision for the "exotically louvred” building that is the Arab World Institute. It is hailed as innovative in modern architecture.
It is a fascinating and unusual building, much influenced by the decorative artwork the French originally described as Arabesque. Walk the corridors of IMA and you will be blown away by its beauty, the intricacy of the building's designs.
The Palestinian exhibition, which runs until 19 November 2023, concentrates on four Palestinian artists reflecting Life and the Occupation of their homeland. Territory and Identity. Over the course of this summer, there will be special events, evenings of discussion, film and music.
The works of the poet/writer, Mahmoud Darwish, who is still considered by many to be the national poet, the voice, of Palestine are readily available in the very comprehensive bookshop. Do take a look before you leave.
Mahmoud Darwish (1941 - 2008)
"And I tell myself, a moon will rise from my darkness."
"Nothing is harder on the soul than the smell of dreams when they are evaporating."
What surprised me more than any other discovery during my Sunday afternoon at the Palestinian exhibition was the section entitled 'Jean Genet, Two suitcases'. For me, it was a revelation. Genet was, of course, always a vagabond, an alternative voice, a political combatant, a petty thief, (his greatest passion during his filching years was to steal rare books!), but I had had not known of his travels in Palestine nor his commitment to the Palestinian fight for independence. The exhibition showcases through Genet's hand-written notes, diaries, observations, even hotel bills, the time and energy he gave to the Palestinian people.
He wrote an essay, Four Hours in Shatila. The essay was inspired by his visit in 1982 to Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where he witnessed much suffering and death.
A book followed, titled Prisoner of Love, a memoir of the Palestinian fedayeen*. Held back, it was only published in 1986, one month after Genet's death.
*The fedayeen are Arab militants or guerrillas. Many, especially the Palestinian fedayeen, are fighting against Israel. The word fedayeen actually refers to those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause through armed resistance.
Jean Genet was born in Paris in 1910, the illegitimate son of an unmarried prostitute who abandoned him. He was fostered by farming people, spent time in reform school, ran away repeatedly from that penitentiary at Mettray. Eventually, he enlisted with the French Army and was sent to Syria in 1929. This was his first contact with the Middle East but it gave birth to a love of the Arab world that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He deserted from the army in 1936, ended up back in prison and then found himself, under Nazi-occupied France, in an internment camp destined for a concentration camp. Over forty influential French writers and artists, including Jean Cocteau, convinced of Genet's genius, pleaded his case, lobbied for his liberty. He was released in March 1944 and pardoned. He never returned to prison again. In 1949, he was also pardoned by President Charles de Gaulle for his desertion from the army. In 1983, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Literature by the French Ministry of Culture.
Genet was an isolated boy who left school at twelve and went on to achieve literary greatness.
The 'Bad Boy of French letters' died in Paris in 1986, an internationally acclaimed poet, playwright, and novelist. He is buried in Morocco.
I don't necessarily agree with Genet's politics - many of his statements are, in my opinion, misplaced, extreme - nor do I condone the way he glorified violence and called for it as a means to ending human brutality. For example, he set himself against almost everybody in Europe when in the 1970s he wrote in support of the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany.
In spite of all this, he is a fascinating study of a troubled genius and his writings sometimes shed light on the Arab world during his lifetime even if he was not really interested in a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Reading some of his notes in the glass museum cases, hand-written in the tiniest almost illegible scrawl, it seemed to me that he romanticised the fedayeen. His observations of his visits over eleven months to guerrilla bases in Jordan in 1970, romanticised conflict. And in the end, apart from putting the Palestinian problem back in the debating arena in the Western world, principally France, little he said or did made a difference to the conflict, to the resistance.
Much of the above I discovered during my Sunday afternoon at IMA. Impressions, images, food for thought on a conflict, a war, that has endured for far too long.
If you haven’t visited the Arab World Institute, when you are next in Paris, I do recommend a trip. Aside from anything else, it has the best library of Arab-French books in the world. Please bear in mind that it is closed on Mondays. Many museums in France close on Tuesdays but IMA is one of the exceptions.
By the way, if you are living in Paris or staying in the capital for a while, IMA offers Arabic language courses. I am very tempted. I tried once before when I was setting off on my Olive Route travels but I did not get very far. My teacher was a Lebanese cook living in Cannes. One evening when I drove down to his little restaurant for my lesson, the place was locked up. He had gone away without a word. I owed him, still owe him, for six lessons!
The Olive Route films and the two Olive travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree are available to buy through the email address on my website.
PS: I have taken most of the above photos from the internet and acknowledge that the copyright is not mine.