Culture in France

Paris Ramadan festival bridges Islam and West

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Kheridine Mabrouk

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, Paris has been burning the midnight oil by way of a festival that hopes to tighten the gap between Islam and the West. This year marks the fifth edition of Les Veillées du Ramadan, or Ramadan Nights festival. The theme "Muslims in Europe" is heartily explored through art, music, workshops, debates and, not least of all, food.


The aim is to promote exchanges between Europe’s 32 million Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours. It’s about tolerance – and showing how Islam has continually fed European art, culture and philosophy throughout the ages.

It all kicked off 10 days ago at l'Institut des Cultures d'Islam (the ICI), an unassuming venue tucked away in the Goutte d'Or (drop of gold) neighbourhood in Paris's 18th arrondissement. Thanks to the area’s large numbers of African and Arab residents, it is also known as Little Africa.   

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Many had hoped to attend the free opening concert of Ramadan Nights, and a queue of disappointed residents and out-of-towners snaked down the street and around the corner.

Taking centre stage was French gipsy guitarist Titi Robin, whose delicate and instinctive Arabian sounds served to highlight the confluence of cultures marking this event. Titi was joined by French singer Jeanne Cherhal, chanting mystical Sufi poems.

ICI director Veronique Reiffel says concerts like these are a way of furthering the institute’s mandate of gathering people of all backgrounds and all faiths.

"We want people to share knowledge, so we present exhibitions, theatre, film festivals and debates as a way of explaining the diversity of Islam," Reiffel says. "We emphasise contemporary culture and not just the golden age, which is better known."

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is typically a period of cultural vitality, but it’s also devoted to fasting during daylight hours. Evenings are marked by an Iftar, a meal to break the fast, a tradition being honoured at the institute. There is an iftar each night – and everyone’s been invited.

It’s only through this mixing of different groups that societies can flourish, says Jim Hollington, deputy director of the British Council, which is participating in Ramadan Nights.

The council is the UK's international cultural relations body, and Hollington says this event falls exactly within its remit of comparing the experiences of how Muslim populations are celebrated in different European countries.

"One of things we do is encourage exchange of ideas between countries, issues we have in common," Hollington says, adding that France and Britain have very different, and sometimes misunderstood, approaches to Muslim integration.

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"We got involved in this event to bring speakers and artists from UK to contribute to this debate."

One such artist is Moroccan-born British photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj, known among other things for designing Paris’s trendy Andy Wahloo bar and restaurant.

At the ICI, Hajjaj has created a Bohemian-style tearoom with pouffe stools, African motifs and soft electronic music. It's a space designed to host visitors, and perhaps inspire debate about Muslim populations in Europe.

Hajjaj draws inspiration from the streets of both Marrakech and London. His work, at the juncture of two cultures, is ideal fodder for Ramadan Nights.

"When I was asked to create this salon in the style of my work, it was a really big pleasure,” he says. “A lot of the work is Moroccan based, but it is kind of contemporary, so in a sense I think it fits in nicely.”

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Each night of the festival has been capped off by a debate bringing together journalists, politicians, artists and scholars who exchange ideas, probe questions surrounding immigration, integration, spirituality and feminism, and bring new perspectives on the issues.

It all ends Saturday night, 11 September, in the form of a song-and-dance spectacular at Paris's Theatre du Chatelet. Headlining the event is London band Transglobal Underground, featuring singer Natacha Atlas.

But even though the curtain is closing on Ramadan for this year, the Institut des Culture d’Islam, will carry on its work in Paris, smoothing over misunderstandings in Europe’s most populous Muslim country, and celebrating Islam’s unique contributions on a rapidly evolving continent.

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