Celebrating a Muslim hero, in Iowa
irector Oliver Stone announced in 2013 the coproduction of a biopic designed to “share with the world a laudable Muslim leader who preached religious tolerance.” Now in production in Algeria, under the direction of acclaimed director Charles Burnett, the film will tell the story of a 19th century Muslim hero, the Emir Abd el-Kader, often called “the George Washington of Algeria.”
Understandably, Stone’s interest in this remarkable man comes in response to the post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment. Yet, more than a century and a half ago, in 1846, a frontier settlement in Iowa first laid claim to the then-living hero. Named “Elkader” by co-founder Timothy Davis, the town honored the Muslim leader of Algerian resistance against French colonization.
The emir was anointed “Commander of the Faithful” in 1832. His “deeds of heroism filled all Europe with wonder” as he led tribes into David-and-Goliath battles against ruthless French forces bent on colonizing the coveted land of Algeria. Beyond success on the battlefield, the devout emir also commanded “the admiration of his adversaries,” upholding the Muslim values of humane warfare well in advance of the Geneva Conventions.
Whether in combat, defeat or forced exile, Abd el-Kader maintained the ethical values of Islam, intervening to save 12,000 Christians in Damascus in 1860. This noble act earned him recognition from the world’s major leaders, such as Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX, Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria. In 1869, his presence at the inauguration of the Suez Canal signaled his pivotal role in bridging East and West.
With the emir’s passing in 1883, the New York Times hailed him as “one of the few great men of the century.”
Well before the fear of Islam invaded the American consciousness, the Iowa town of Elkader began building bridges in the spirit of Abd el-Kader. Elkader’s double-arched Keystone Bridge, the longest of its kind, built just a few years after the death of Abd el-Kader (1883), stands as a symbol of twin crossings between the Midwestern prairie and Iowa’s Turkey River, and the ocean crossing to the Western edge of the Muslim-Arab world.
While Muslims comprise a small part of Iowa’s population, the state is home to the oldest mosque in the United States, built in 1934. And in 1992, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad instituted Muslim Recognition Day.
What can such a relatively homogeneous state with a tiny town linked to Algeria and a 19th century Muslim, Abd el-Kader, teach us about reaching out to another culture, religion and language?
Even if Abd el-Kader’s international reputation faded from view after 1883, except in the hero’s native Algeria, the small northeastern Iowa town of Elkader remained true to his legacy. In 1915, the Elkader High School yearbook paid homage to “the Sheik” as a “lover of liberty, a champion of his religion.”
But the real jump-start came in 1979, when a U.S. State Department employee asked for more information about the town’s Muslim namesake.
Reading the story in an Arabic language publication, an Algerian, Benaoumer Zerquaoui, decided to visit Elkader. From there, a Sister City relationship was born. Championed by Elkader’s late mayor, Ed Olson, American and Algerian visitors traveled to each other’s lands under the umbrella of a one-of-a-kind twinning of Elkader, Ia., with Mascara, Algeria, birthplace of Abd el-Kader.
An extraordinary mission of citizen diplomacy was launched in 1984, renewed in 2008 and again in 2014.
The Sister-City Friendship Club inspired visible markers of international friendship with matching trilingual Peace Poles designed by the Elkader lighting design company, Fire Farm.
Other fundraising projects developed: Girl Scouts supporting agricultural relief in Algeria, and a generous gift of $150,000 sent from Algeria to Elkader during the devastating floods of 2008.
Recalling the auspicious beginning of the U.S.-Algeria relationship born in 1984, Ed Olson’s widow, Ruth, seeks to renew contact with the early participants for a 30-year reunion.
When Ed Olson, cleverly titled his history of the town “Look What You Started, Mr. Davis,” (published posthumously in 2010), he referenced a surprising unfolding that founder Timothy Davis could never have anticipated in 1846.
As events of the 21st century evolve, the significance of an exemplary Muslim hero honored on American soil signaled the start of something big for a tiny Clayton County town of 1,500 residents.
In 2008, the 200th anniversary of Abd el-Kader’s birth heralded a new era for Elkader in the post 9/11 atmosphere of Islamophobia. Chosen by author John Kiser as the site for his launch of “Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader,” Elkader and its history were cast into the limelight. The first biography published for English readers, Kiser’s book formed the cornerstone of the Abdelkader Education Project, directed by Elkaderite, Kathy Garms.
The Abdelkader Education Project’s essay competition invited high school students in Iowa, nationally, and now college students, to reflect upon the emir’s influential life. An annual forum showcases the winners of the Global Leadership Prizes and features prominent guest speakers, often from Algeria. Over the years, many Algerian ambassadors have visited Elkader.
Joining culture to cuisine, the town’s namesake also inspired an Algerian-Iowan couple (Frederique Boudouani and Brian Bruening) to leave the East Coast, and Islamophobia, to settle in Elkader, where they introduced Iowa to its first (and arguably, only) Algerian restaurant. Schera’s opened in 2006 and introduced customers to a striking portrait of the emir, a map of Algeria and a proud display of the unique U.S.-Algerian Sister City banner flanked by flags from each country.
However impressive the life of Abd el-Kader, from resistance fighter in Algeria to savior of Christians in Syria, from pivotal figure at the Suez Canal inauguration to scholar, Sufi theologian and poet, the most enduring legacy of his reach may well be located in the citizen diplomacy initiatives rooted in Elkader, Ia.
Undoubtedly, an epic film joining American and Algerian creators to an award-winning director will enlighten moviegoers worldwide about the inspiring life of Emir Abd el-Kader, an exemplary Muslim hero and saint. But will a biopic, however breathtaking and moving on the large screen, be enough to change hearts and minds in today’s world?
Perhaps, if we are to move beyond consciousness-raising and legendary stories from the past, we might better look to the grassroots efforts of a small town like Elkader, where the hard work of building bridges began from the ground up in 1846 and continues to this day.
THE AUTHOR: JAN GROSS is a professor in modern languages at Grinnell College. Her current research focus explores the connection between Elkader, Ia., and Algerian military and spiritual leader Emir Abd el-Kader. Contact: GrossJ@Grinnell.edu.
JAN GROSS is a professor in modern languages at Grinnell College. Her current research focus explores the connection between Elkader, Ia., and Algerian military and spiritual leader Emir Abd el-Kader. Contact: GrossJ@