Why you should care
Because every big city has oases.
April in Paris is a nightmare. Every corner is lousy with people, all the restaurants are at max capacity and every five seconds someone wants directions to the Eiffel Tower. (Hey, tourist: Look up and around, and walk toward it.) And there’s always some teenager underfoot trying to make Instagram history.
So allow me to direct you to a place of respite. On the Rue Daubenton, across the street from the Jardin des Plantes, and where policemen stand with massive guns, is Paris’ oldest mosque. And inside La Grande Mosquée, the world slows down.
Wander through the corner doors and you’ll find a walled garden, shaded by a fig tree. For little more than the price of a Métro ticket, you can sit with a glass of sweetened mint tea, the kind that’s ubiquitous in North Africa, and watch the birds. Everyone is quiet; people read and talk at a murmur. The Wi-Fi is too slow to bother much with your phone. There will be an old man with a pipe. There will be two people kissing — because wherever you go in Paris, there are always two people kissing. This is a different side of Paris, not a café where waiters view being rude as a sport and people wait for hours to try a hot chocolate they rarely even enjoy. Even in the winter there are sparrows here, and on this April day, two little British girls with their mom sit, delighted and boisterous, as sparrows dive-bomb, just missing the kids every time. Pigeons patrol the green-shingled walls, and when one waddles into the garden, past the intricately mosaicked stairs, the British girls taunt it — not realizing that here, with their big shopping bags and loud voices, they are the pigeons.
Of course, the garden doesn’t stand on its own — the garden is really for tourists, too, as Slimane Nadour, the mosque’s head of communications, explains. Around the corner is the entrance to the mosque itself, which is so beautiful and so unexpected that even in the most beautiful city in the world, walking through its doors makes you gasp. In here, I’m the pigeon. The walls are lined with wisteria, the garden’s explosively in bloom, green and blue tiles line the floor and walls. Inside, it seems to go on forever, libraries and great halls that, come Friday, will all be covered in thick carpets so people can kneel and pray in the shadow of the minaret — which is the highest in France but doesn’t broadcast the traditional call to prayer, as France forbids it.
The mosque was built in the 1920s, in part out of gratitude to the thousands of French Muslims who fought in World War I. During World War II, the mosque sheltered Jewish refugees, providing scores of people with fake papers that let them escape the Nazis. Today, the mosque is an apolitical way for France’s Muslim community to reach out. “Political Islam isn’t at the mosque anymore, it’s on the Internet,” Nadour tells me. “That’s why the mosque has to be an example. Peace, tolerance, dialogue with other religions — that is the mosque’s tradition.” He shows me the huge, heavy wooden door separating the mosque’s open-air garden from the prayer hall and religious school that are part of the same complex, making manifest the separation of religion and culture. And as for the café, Nadour says, it’s just for passersby — “but people come, they see it, they learn a little about Islam.” Or maybe they, like me, just come to get away and watch the birds for a while.