Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 1, 2019

Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran, (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an), by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

Events like the recent London Bridge stabbing tend to test our tolerance—even when we know that these atrocities are perpetrated by extremists, and there’s ample evidence that extremists aren’t limited to any particular creed or culture, or even to our modern era.  When I sat down yesterday to write a review of a sentimental short story that’s a plea for understanding of the Islamic religion, the timing felt all wrong.  I’m not sure that the timing is any better today—I’m quite sure that if I went looking on Twitter or Facebook there would be all kinds of intemperate trolling going on, and that might be the least of it…

Anyway…

Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an) by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is a short story that I read in French for the bookclub organised by A French Journey where I have French classes once a week.  The book is one of a series called The Cycle of the Invisible, each of which tackles a different religion: one of the tasks we tackled at bookgroup was to translate a brief description to guess which religion the various titles explored.

This short story of only 75 pages in a tiny A6 edition was originally a play, based on the life of the author’s friend.  The sole character was Moïse, looking back over his life growing up in Paris.  It was rewritten as a short story in 2001 and adapted for the screen in 2003.

(This trailer is in French, if you need subtitles, try this, but the film quality is terrible).

Set in the 1960s in Paris, Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran tells a story of cross-cultural friendship.  Moïse a.k.a. Momo is a boy of eleven living in the Jewish quarter of Paris, and when the story opens he has raided his piggy-bank to pay for his first visit to a prostitute.   It has taken him four months to save up from the meagre amount his father gives him to do the shopping. He supplements the groceries by shoplifting from the local shopkeeper, Monsieur Ibrahim, with whom eventually he develops a friendship.

Momo is a very lonely boy.  His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, taking his older brother Popol with her, and his father constantly compares him unfavourably to this absent brother. He is a remote and troubled man, not revealed to have lost all his family in the Holocaust until part way through the story.  Momo’s need for a father figure becomes more than emotional after his father dies, and he devises an elaborate system of deception so that no one knows he is living alone.  With words of wisdom from the Qur’an, and advice about smiling more often, Monsieur Ibrahim guides Momo on a coming-of-age journey which takes them to the Golden Crescent where he was born.

It is a sentimental story, and consistent with the rest of the books in the series, it has religious overtones.  But it seems to me that — although written in the wake of 9/11 — it could only have been set in the 1960s, before hostility between Israel and Palestine became entrenched, i.e. before the PLO was founded in 1964 and the onset of militancy in 1965, before Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, and before  the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987. There is an innocence about this friendship that transcends differences in religion, but with half a century of violence and retaliation in the Middle East and the global phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, the barriers are probably harder to surmount now.

Bizarrely, The Book Depository delivered a German edition of this book: the text was in French, but all the footnotes explaining the slang and cultural references were in German.  So where the dictionary and Google Translate failed me, I remained none the wiser!

Author: Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Title: Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an)
Publisher: Reclam, 2012, first published in 2001
ISBN: 9783150091180
Source: Personal library, purchased from A French Journey

 


Responses

  1. I did enjoy that film. It seems insurmountable the middle east catastrophe. Our human understanding seems to be diminishing in some ways and yet to give in to the mayhem no choice. Thanks as always Lisa for your insightful review for it’s important that we continue our engagement in the midst of the horror.

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    • The only hope we can have is that once upon a time the Irish Troubles seemed intractable, and yet today there is peace…

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  2. Change is slow but there is always the opportunity to make what seems permanent and impossible become possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think at a personal level people still make friendships across cultures. Just look at how welcoming rural Australians are of individual refugees when as a whole they demonise boat people and vote one Pauline Hanson. I don’t know what can be done to help the Palestinians while the US and Israel feed on each others expansionism, but I’m sure individual Jews and Muslims still meet without blaming each other for that mess (which all the same they probably avoid mentioning)

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    • When I was a girl we had neighbours in a Jewish-Arab marriage, but I think it would take courage to make it work today…

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  4. I really enjoyed the movie and the book, and others by Schmitt. He’s also such a charming man, at least as seen in interviews for instance on La Grande Librairie, the weekly French TV program on books – lots of episodes on youtube

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    • I think of him as a sort of French Alexander McCall Smith…he’s a lovely man too, and he writes charming stories which my mother loved. That was great, because a new one came out every year and that was her Christmas present sorted:)

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  5. This one is often used in schools. It preaches tolerance and it’s short.

    If you want to read quirky and moving story between an Arab boy and a Jewish old lady, there’s Life Before Us by Romain Gary. (well, Emile Ajar)

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    • Thanks for the tip, Emma:)
      My next book (which is not for French book club because that doesn’t start again until next year) will be Petit Pays by Gael Faye, which won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens. I picked it up at the airport in New Caledonia. I thought that it would be what we call YA (Young Adult) literature, that is, about young people and their ‘issues’ (which nearly always include young love) and it wouldn’t be too complex. But no, it’s a coming-of-age story set in Burundi during the Rwandan Genocide, and I gather from another book that helps students analyse it, that they read it for Le Bac.

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      • There’s a billet about Petit Pays on my blog.
        Happy reading, it’s a great book.

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        • I should have remembered that, I went looking and found it, and I see that I commented on it! (https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/small-country-by-gael-faye-highly-recommended/#comments)
          And I also see that I didn’t buy this one at the New Caledonia airport, they must have been two others in my French TBR, I ordered it after I read your review.
          I wonder how I did that, I am trying to get a French edition of Perec’s La Disparition (The Void) so that I can read it alongside an English edition to compare the verbal gymnastics to avoid using the letter ‘e’, and none of my usual suppliers have it, I can’t get it for the Kindle, and French online booksellers charge an impossible amount for freight.
          (What triggered this interest was when I started reading The Void, and I came across the expression ‘non-goyim.’ In French the word for Jew is Juif, which has no ‘e’ but the translator had to find a way of saying this without using the ‘e’ in Jewish. So I thought it would be fun to read the two editions side-by-side as it were.)

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          • You can’t remember every review you read.
            About La disparition.
            I am sure it would be fun to compare the French and English version. There may be a bilingual edition. (maybe Richard from Cavana de recuerdos knows about it) Can’t you get it on the kindle?

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            • Alas, getting anything that’s not from the US, UK or Australia is really difficult now, because the range is really limited except for crass commercial titles and bestsellers. They’ve set up the site so that you can’t bypass it (which is what people try to do to avoid paying the GST).

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