e are standing in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris. Famous landmarks, such as Nôtre Dame Cathedral, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Cluny Museum, the Panthéon and the Sorbonne are within blocks. Yet hidden in full view around us is another Paris that is often forgotten in the bustle: historic Arab Paris.
For many, an Arab Paris may seem of more interest to journalists than historians. After all, it’s only relatively recently that hundreds of thousands of Parisians speak Arabic as their first or second language, and that couscous, mezze and shwarma have become as common as coq au vin. So it’s all too easy to overlook a history that began some 500 years ago, when France became the first Christian nation to establish a diplomatic alliance with the Ottoman Empire, initiating a flow of diplomats, intellectuals, tourists and students from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to the French capital.
“By the end of the 18th century, relationships with the Muslim world were so common as to have become banal. People walked about Paris not even blinking when they saw someone wearing a turban, because they were so used to it,” says Ian Coller, history professor and author of the 2011 book Arab France. Turbaned figures were simply part of the crowd in engravings, watercolors and oil paintings of the period—even in Jacques-Louis David’s early-19th-century “Coronation of Napoleon,” where the Ottoman ambassador can be spotted among the dignitaries.
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