How Bazaar.The Corner of Paris That Is Forever Africa; Half a Day to Spare? Gerry Dryansky Reveals the Hidden Delights of the French Capital's Arab Quarter

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

How Bazaar.The Corner of Paris That Is Forever Africa; Half a Day to Spare? Gerry Dryansky Reveals the Hidden Delights of the French Capital's Arab Quarter


Byline: GERRY DRYANSKY

THERE'S a Paris few travellers experience-a presence of colours, odours and tastes that, particularly in winter, combine into something like vicarious sunshine. I have in mind North African Paris, the setting for Fatima's Good Fortune, the new novel I've written with my wife, Joanne, which reveals the world of the Arabs in the French capital.

A half-day of your Paris trip can give you a taste of this exotic world and an eye-appealing way to start is with a historical background.

You get a strong sense of its splendours at the neo-Modern edifice created by France's favourite architect, Jean Nouvel, to house the Institut du Monde Arabe's ancient treasures.

The Pharaohs exhibition, with its furnishings, sculpture and jewellery from various dynasties (until April 10), is a bevy of magnificence gathered from the Louvre, the Cairo Antiquities Museum and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

But, for the subsequent art of North Africa, make sure to go up to the three floors housing breathtaking ceramics from the 12th to 15th Centuries in Iraq and Iran, along with daily items of great elegance such as writing materials, vases and tiles, 9th Century Egyptian fabrics and carpets from all over the Islamic world.

Religion kept Islamic art from going beyond decoration into painting and sculpture, but this is decorative art at its finest.

In the same exhibition are scientific tools - such as delicate astrolabes - that remind you of the apogee of Arab civilisation when, in 832, the Caliph al-Mamoun founded The House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

Here, alongside astrologists and mathematicians, Christian, Jewish and Arab doctors collaborated to forward the science of medicine.

ACROSS the courtyard, the recently created medina has a big display of things to buy.

Wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl forms chairs and tables and there are handsome boxes you can take back on Eurostar, all affordable. Not to be overlooked: chunky bars of Aleppo soap which have an even better reputation for skin care than Savon de Marseille.

Two stops on the Metro from nearby Jussieu station takes you to Censier-Daubenton where, after a few minutes along the Rue Daubenton, you're at Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and La Grande Mosquee de Paris - an exceptional blend of oriental and Twenties architecture.

Some people come here to pray, others enjoy the steam baths and massages and still others eat here. I know of better North African food elsewhere but a glass of mint tea on the quiet tiled patio is a great way to refresh yourself after the Institute.

From here you are ready to take another step toward the present.

Take the No7 Metro line two stops to the Place d'Italie then the No5 line north eight stops to Oberkampf (in fair weather you can cross the Seine and walk instead - either way it takes about 25 minutes). Walk up the Rue Oberkampf and turn left into Rue Saint Maur for your next stop, La Bague de Kenza - a poetic name for a place that produces culinary poetry.

The shop is in the oldest of several North African enclaves in Paris, at the beginning of a neighbourhood called Belleville. Once the city's poorest quarter - Edith Piaf sang in the streets here - Belleville has seen some new construction but the bazaars and restaurants, overflowing greengrocers and fabric shops give an old-movie look to the streets whose architecture of 19th Century buildings hasn't changed.

La Bague de Kenza is the best oriental pastry shop in Paris and would be hard to beat anywhere. I say that with some authority, since a sweet tooth has taken me to bakeries in many parts of the world.

The owners are from Algiers but their shop contradicts the notion that Algerians are sombre. Its shelves are a bright cornucopia of little cakes made with semolina, honey, nuts and almond paste.

Bread aficionados will linger on the side displaying what the French call the 'salty' rather than the 'sweet' portion of their wares. …

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