France Profonde?

NYT columnist Maureen Dowd seems to be enjoying writing from Paris on the ways of the Parisians and extrapolating from  that to make generalizations about the French. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic is also in Paris, grappling with French language immersion and the American way of “justice.” I would like to recommend a recently translated work by one of the earliest recorders of the Muslim encounter with the ways of post-Enlightenment Europe. Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi’s Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826-1831) was translated by Daniel L. Newman and published in paper in 2011 as An Imam in Paris. Al-Tahtawi writes: “You should know that the Parisians distinguish themselves from many Christians by their keen intelligence, profound perceptiveness and depth of mind when treating recondite issues….they are in no way prisoners of tradition. Rather, they always wish to know the origin of things, while seeking proof to support it, to the extent that the common people among them can also read and write and, like others penetrate deep matters….So, the masses in this country are not like some herd of animals as in most barbarous countries….The character traits of the French include curiosity, the passion for all things new…especially when it comes to clothing….To this day, not a single fashion has stuck with them….The men are slaves to the women here, and under their command….the French are among those whose decision about whether something is good or bad is based solely on reason. I should like to add here that they reject anything that transcends the rational….Despite the fact that they drink…alcoholic beverages, they do not often eulogize (them) in their poetry and, unlike the Arabs, they do not have many words to refer to wine. They take pleasure in its essence and features without imagining any hidden meaning, similes, or hyperbole….The French have the utmost respect for matters related to correspondence. Nobody can open a letter that is addressed to someone else, even if the person is suspected of something….you should know that this people is divided in terms of their opinion into two major parts: the Royalists and the Liberals.” Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas?

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