Cités millénaires @ L’Institut du monde arabe

The other day we took the metro down to the Institut du monde arabe (IMA), which is located in a beautiful silve building in the 5e arrondissement, right along the Seine behind the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and not too far from the Jardins des Plantes and its fun Ménagerie (yes, we said hello to the red pandas and wallabies on the way).

The IMA is currently hosting an exhibit called Cités millénaires (Age-Old Cities), a collaboration with the French startup Iconem, whose representatives we met a few weeks ago at Unesco during the European Heritage Days. Iconem specializes in digitizing and creating 3D models of heritage sites and monuments that are either at risk of being destroyed, or else hard to access.

The exhibit at the IMA is in fact an immersive experience with gigantic projections and contextualizing videos, focused around four sites: Mosul, Aleppo, Leptis Magna (a Roman site in Lybia), and Palmyra. Although I found that the exhibition lacked a little bit of context and explanations  (I don’t mind going to the museum to read some panels) or even voiceovers, overall the giant projections with smoothly panning 3D models and atmospheric music were absolutely breathtaking. I even had some shivers, especially seeing the famous theatre and temples of Palmyra, which were the stage of so many horrors during its takeover by the so-called Islamic State. It was also amazing to witness the scale of the destruction in Aleppo and Mosul.

The exhibit ends with a short VR experience, created by video game studio Ubisoft, that allows you to experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of six specific monuments as if you were really there. We were told that the exhibit gets busy and the lineup for the VR can go up to an hour, but we went first thing in the morning (and bought our tickets in advance)–we were sometimes alone in the exhibition rooms, and we didn’t wait at all for the VR experience, which felt a little short but was really immersive. I especially enjoyed being inside the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, which soldiers of ISIL blew up in 2015.

Overall, we had a great time and really appreciated the work of Iconem has been doing to document these sites and monuments. Is it enough? No, of course not. But at least it’s something, and it allows researchers to study and record sites that might otherwise be lost before they were documented. The exhibit also does a pretty good job of addressing not only the loss of buildings and monuments, but also the human lives that have ended or been shattered. A text accompanying images of the Souk of Aleppo, for example, reminds us that beyond the material loss, what made the souk itself was the relationships between the stall owners and the shoppers who went there ever day.

I also enjoyed the very well stocked bookstore at the IMA, which has an impressive selection of books related to the Middle East–contemporary novels, books in translation and in Arabic, academic works, cookbooks… We walked away with a small phrasebook to refresh our Egyptian Arabic, and plans to come back very soon.

The Cités millénaires exhibit runs at the IMA in Paris until February 10, 2019.

 

 

Canal Life

Our neighbourhood in Paris runs along the Canal Saint-Martin, a stretch of water that runs off the Seine at Place de la Bastille and runs along a north-easterly path, joining the Canal Saint-Denis north of the Basin de la Villette to become the Canal de l’Ourcq. The canal’s greenish waters, flagstone quays, families of ducks, iron pedestrian bridges, and bubbling locks, provide an atmospheric backdrop to the life of neighbourhood, and is a sight many tourists never set eyes on.

The canal was originally built in the 19th century to supply water to parts of the city and for transport of grain and other goods to Paris. There are amazing old pictures of women washing clothes at purpose-built laundry stations along the canal at the turn of the century.  One of the canal’s most interesting features is that a large section of it runs underground along vaulted tunnels pierced by large skylights. Up above, on the ground level, there is a long stretch of park where people play pétanque or walk their dogs, one section of which, along Avenue Richard-Lenoir, is home to our favourite Sunday market.

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Women washing clothes along the canal.

Some tour companies offer boat rides up and down the canal, so you can glide along under the atmospheric vaults yourself, see the charming 10e arrondissement from a different point of view, and get splashed by the locks as they fill up rather dramatically (if you make your way up the canal from Port de l’Arsenal to the Bassin de la Villette–some of the tours go down the canal instead up). You’ll have to be patient, however, as the locks and swinging bridges make for a long and very slow cruise along the canal.

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Under the vault.

For most inhabitants, however, the canal is mostly a perfect place to relax with a picnic and some wine or beer. During the week, people who work nearby love to sit along the quay and enjoy some sunshine during their break for déjeuner, while far into the night the area is alive with groups of young people enjoying themselves in the open air.

Every few years, authorities drain the canal in order to clean out the rubbish that inevitably falls (or is thrown) into it and remains at the bottom: bicycles, cameras, bottles… Even cars, and–yes–guns. There’s a great article about it over at The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, in which Amélie takes part in one of her favourite activities: standing on one of the lock gates and skipping stones on the canal.

 

 

Aux Puces

There is a place, just outside the périphérique ring road, not far from where Line 4 of the Métro ends at Porte de Clignancourt. It’s an uncanny place where you can find treasures and trash in equal measure. It’s a place so large you need more than one day to explore it all. It’s a place that will tire you out and leave you besotted and a little confused, but also charmed and delighted.

It’s called Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and it’s a must-go experience for anyone who’s seen the basic sights of Paris and is seeking an experience that’s a little different. To help give you a mental image, it’s there, in the Saint-Ouen Flea Market, that Owen Wilson’s character does some antique shopping in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

G. and I went there a few weeks ago for the first time, and we were immediately struck by the sheer size of the place. This is, after all, the world’s largest and busiest antiques market in the world. The market is organized around Rue de Rosiers, with a number of stalls and smaller shops along passages off this street, plus larger covered markets such as Marché Dauphine and Marché Biron. There are small, messy brocante-style shops, niche stores specializing in everything from buttons to naval lamps, traditional antique dealers offering art, furniture, and smaller items from every epoch imaginable, as well as art merchants selling works that look like they should probably go in museum collections.

One thing we quickly realized while ambling along the rows and rows and rows of stalls is that you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for–simply going around at random will soon drive you mad. On our first visit, we were able to find a nice copper bougeoir, a cheap, sleek, not-at-all-antique cocktail shaker, and a dressing mirror for G. However, our real goal had been crystal glasses. On our second round aux puces, were focused on these and, by chatting with different dealers, were able to come away with a pair of vintage champagne glasses as well as a pair of beautiful cut-crystal long drink glasses, all for a reasonable price which I’d rather not reveal.

The only regrettable thing with the market is that the surrounding area has attracted cheap clothes vendors as well as a number of “vendeurs à la sauvette” offering stolen or counterfeit brands.

European Heritage Days: Visiting the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris

Last weekend marked the 35th annual European Heritage Days, or Journées européennes du patrimoine, which consists of a whole weekend of culture-related events. In France, many public institutions open their doors to visitors during those two days, and this includes places that are almost never open, like say the Palais de l’Élysée, the official residence of the French President. In fact, we had initially thought of going there ourselves, until we realized that we would have to wait for five to eight hours.

In the end, we decided to make our way to the World Heritage Centre, which is UNESCO’s headquarters, located in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, just behind the École militaire and so not too far from the Eiffel Tower. The building is usually closed to visits from the public, although they do host a series of events like film screenings and art exhibits during the year.

I found the building itself, as well as its gardens, quite beautiful in that 50s public architecture style, with lots of glass and concrete. In fact, G. commented that one of the interior spaces reminded her of a Québec public school cafeteria, which is a little unfortunate. Still, there were some cool details, such as that spiralling staircase going up the exterior of the building. I fell in love with the exquisitely peaceful Japanese garden and it was interesting to see some of the  artworks created specially for the building by the likes of Picasso, Miro, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Vassilakis Takis.

In the end, what surprised both of us was that instead of showcasing specific UNESCO heritage projects, the organizers of the event chose to hand the floor over to startups and tech companies that operate in the fields of education, the arts, and heritage. We met the Québecois creators of an app that allows you to see virtual models of ancient buildings with your phone in real time, a company that specializes in creating 3D models of endangered sites and buildings, a virtual art museum, a company that creates VR tours of ancient world sites, and many others. The day’s highlight was speaking to these enthusiastic presenters and learning about their projects.

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Maybe next year we’ll have the courage to prepare a picnic and queue up to tour the Palais de l’Élysée

Al Sorat Farm

When I was doing research online on Adam Henein, the Egyptian sculptor who has a workshop and museum in Giza, I came across the blog of a Canadian woman who owns a farm south of Cairo, near the village of Abu Sir. I emailed her asking if we could visit the farm, and the next weekend we spent a Saturday at her place out in the country.

Maryanne Gabanni moved to Egypt with her Canadian/Egyptian husband and their two children in the 1980s. After her husband passed away, Gabanni bought the farm where she now lives. She employs local men to help her manage the farm, which has goats, horses, donkeys, a friendly water buffalo, and lots of fresh produce. It’s an amazing place, and it really feels like you’re out in the middle of nowhere even though it’s less than an hour’s drive south of downtown Cairo—we even took an Uber to get there.

One of the awesome things that Maryanne Gabbani does is organize weekly veterinary clinics in the surrounding villages. She brings in her team and some of her friends to offer treatment to animals, diagnose medical problems, give donkeys mosquito nets, provide shots and worming medicine, conduct some basic farrying, and more. I encourage you to check out her work on the Facebook page of her Rural Wellness Initiative. To my mind she’s a local hero.

We had a wonderful time on the farm, petting animals, playing with her numerous dogs, riding horses, and talking to Maryanne and her friends, who are passionate about animals and about Egypt. We even had a late, Egyptian-style lunch there, and it was definitely one of the best meals we’ve ever had in Egypt: fresh, tasty, local produce, beautifully prepared.

Maryanne Gabbani has it all figured out: she is living her best life out on that farm in the Egyptian countryside. Long may she enjoy it!

Adam Henein

It was a Zamalek gallery and carpet shop owner who first put us on the track of an Egyptian sculptor called Adam Henein. We stopped by the gallery shop in question and the owner invited us to sit down with him and have some tea and chocolates. He was a sweet, cultured man; he talked to us about a bunch of contemporary Egyptian artists.

“But Henein is incredible,” he said. “You have to visit his museum in Giza. It’s where his house and his workshop is, and now there’s a museum with his work. He sold a large boat sculpture in Qatar a few years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars and he used the money to build this museum. He’s very old, in his 90s, now he just sits in his garden, contemplating his life and his work. You have to visit this museum.”

And so we went to the Adam Henein Museum, which in fact is just down the road from the Wissa Wassef Centre, a place we’d been to before. This stretch of road, next to a trash-filled canal and behind a fresh slab of concrete and red-brick apartment blocks, is apparently turning into Giza’s artistic hub!

We fell in love with Henein’s work from our first moments inside his museum. The first thing we realized is that he’s an artist in the true sense, comfortable in almost every medium. Although his sculptures (in bronze, wood, stone, and clay) dominate the museum, also shown are his paintings, charcoal drawings, drawings on papyrus, and even weaving.

But it’s Henein’s sculptures that I find especially moving, because they almost always reinterpret motifs from ancient Egyptian statuary—birds, standing or seated figures, crowns, obelisks—although Henein gives them contemporary twist with pure forms and neat lines. His human figures, with their straight backs, blank faces, softened features, and long robes unfurling like sails, are extremely moving.

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Outside there’s also a beautiful, grassy courtyard, dominated by a large granite boat, which recalls the gigantic wooden solar barge found buried near the pyramid of Khufu. Many of Henein’s works, especially animals such as donkeys and cats, huddle around it.

We came to this museum a few times, but the first time we visited we got to see the artist himself, who was being interviewed in the garden for a documentary. G. introduced herself and was lucky enough to shake his hand. He’s a monument of Egyptian art, and he deserves to be better known.

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Wissa Wassef

A short drive away from the pyramids in Giza, behind a block of informal apartment buildings on the canal road that leads south to Abu Sir, Saqqarah, and Dahshur, there is a humble enclave of peace called the Wissa Wassef Art Centre.

Ramses Wissa Wassef was a 20th century Egyptian architect. In 1951, he founded an art centre here in order to teach children from the surrounding villages how to develop their intrinsic artistic skills in crafts such as pottery and weaving. The skills they learned would also give them a means to make some additional money by selling their creations at the centre.

Today, the second generation of these children, now middle-aged men and women, still weave beautiful artworks out of cotton or wool, entirely by hand. These tapestries, which can be very large, are veritable paintings made of fabric—usually done without any preliminary plans or drawings.

The centre has a large gallery space, where visitors can also purchase the works on display. If you’re lucky, as we were a few times, you can also visit the workshops and see the men and women at work. It’s a humbling experience that will inevitably make you want to purchase one of their pieces.

It’s worth visiting the Wissa Wassef Centre even if it’s just to marvel at the beautiful architecture, which is made of traditional adobe bricks and rammed earth: lightly ascending staircases, soft angles, rounded archways, and delicate domes. But it’s hard to leave without buying a woven work of art once you’ve seen the artists at work.

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