I can be a terribly annoying traveling companion. Unless I’m in a hurry — and I’m almost never in a hurry — I prefer to travel along secondary highways and county roads. That means driving more slowly on roads that are often poorly maintained; it means getting caught behind tractors for miles; it usually means no fast food for lunch; it means driving through small towns with absurdly conservative speed limits.
But I like the small towns. Small towns can surprise you. There’s always a chance you’ll come across something odd and/or fascinating and/or emotionally moving. On my way toward the Mississippi River last week, I came across a water tower in the shape of a teapot. And a billboard commemorating a local boy who’d been killed in Iraq. And a diner owned and operated by a guy with a hook for a hand. And a town named after a 19th century Muslim religious and military leader.
Seriously. I am NOT making this up. I’m talking about Elkader, Iowa, located on the banks of the Turkey River in Pony Hollow. Yes, that’s right — there’s actually a real place called Pony Hollow, through which the Turkey River runs. Elkader’s current population is about 1275, which is only about 800 people more than when the town was founded in 1846. Back then, it was nothing but a gristmill, a sawmill, and a blacksmith shop.
When the local leaders decided to name their new town, they chose to name it after one of the most respected men of the era: Emir Abd-al-Qādir ibn Muhieddine al-Hasani el Djezairi. He was a Sufi scholar, the Commander of the Faithful, a jihadist, an Algerian resistance leader, a poet, and a military leader.
But you can’t name your town Abd-al-Qādir ibn Muhieddine al-Hasani el Djezairiville, no matter how much you respect the guy. Fortunately, he was usually just referred to as Abdelkader. So…Elkader. Which, let’s face it, is still a pretty odd name. So who was this guy? And why would Iowans name their town after him? I’m so glad you asked.
Abdelkader was born in Mascara, Algeria in 1808 (or somewhere around there — 19th century Algerian record-keeping left something to be desired). His father ran a religious school for Sufis, so it’s not surprising Abdelkader was a good student; he could read and write by age 5, and by 14 could recite the entire Qur’an by memory. When he was 17 he set out on the Hajj — the religious pilgrimage all Muslims are expected to make if possible. Afterwards he noodled around the Muslim religious and philosophical world for about five years. He was, it seems, something of a religious nerd.
In 1830, a few months after Abdelkader got home, France invaded Algeria. At that time, Algeria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. France wanted to boot the Ottoman tyrants out of Algeria and replace them with…well, French tyrants. The people of Algeria weren’t particularly happy with Ottoman rule, but neither did they want to be ruled by the French. So Abdelkader found himself forced to shed his religious nerd role and start waging a guerrilla war against the infidel French. He became an Algerian nationalist.
And hey, he won. Sort of. For a while. He spanked the French, and at one point Abdelkader controlled a hefty chunk of Algeria. He established a benevolent theocracy; Jews and Christians were not only made welcome, they were given high government positions. He even earned the respect of the French soldiers who fought against him — not just as a warrior, but also as a kind and generous opponent. His treatment of French prisoners of war earned Abdelkader international praise. Although the French soldiers respected him, French leaders didn’t. They initiated a scorched-earth policy against the territories controlled by Abdelkader. The French destroyed the houses and farms of civilians, they burned the crops and slaughtered the livestock.
So after 17 years of fighting, Abdelkader surrendered. He was imprisoned in France for half a decade, then released on the condition that he never return to Algeria.
He settled in Damascus, Syria and lived there in relative peace. Then in 1860 a conflict between Muslims and Christians broke out in other parts of Syria. The fighting spread rapidly; almost 400 Christian communities were destroyed, and maybe 20,000 Christians were killed.
When the conflict reached Damascus, Abdelkader intervened. He and his children and his followers went into the streets and rescued local Christians at great personal risk. He brought as many as possible into his home and his gardens and his courtyard — nuns, merchants, laborers, artisans, any Christian who was in danger. And he kept them safe.
News of this spread, and Christians all over the world rushed to embrace Abdelkader. Greece bestowed on him the Grand Cross of the Redeemer (a poor grasp of irony, the Greeks). The Ottoman Empire issued him the Order of the Medjidie, First Class. The Vatican gave him the Order of Pius IX. The parliament of Great Britain sent Abdelkader a gold-inlaid shotgun. Not to be outdone, President Abraham Lincoln sent him a pair of inlaid pistols. Even France, which had imprisoned him and condemned him to exile, gave him the Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur and offered him a pension (they didn’t let him return to Algeria, though — they’re French, not stupid).
And in Iowa, they named a town after him. It’s not what you’d call a great town. It’s a tad beat-up. A little worn with age. Not very well-maintained. But the river is nice, and the bluffs that surround the town are picturesque. And they have a very fine stone bridge. Elkader is very proud of its bridge, and they want visitors to know it’s the largest stone double-arch bridge west of the Mississippi. Being west of the Mississippi is pretty important to the good people of Elkader; they also want folks to know they have the oldest continuously operated grocery store west of the Mississippi (Wilke’s Grocery, if you’re really curious).
For the most part, Elkader is just another small Midwestern country town. But the guys who named it did a better job than they could have imagines. The town’s name draws a small but steady stream of Algerian visitors. Algerian immigrants, Algerians touring the U.S., second and third generation Algerian-Americans. They all come to see the Iowa town named for one of their national heroes. One Algerian-American came to visit, and decided to stay. He and his partner opened an Algerian restaurant — Schera’s. Did I mention this guy is not only Algerian by birth, but also a Sufi Muslim? And he’s gay.
Yes, there’s a gay-owned Algerian restaurant in a small Iowa town named after an Islamic insurgent. And the remarkable thing about that fact? It doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Oh, sure, there are some local folks who dislike the name of the town, and tried to change it after the 9/11 attacks (Elkader, they complained, sounds too much like al-Qaeda). And yeah, there are some folks who dislike gay people. And yes, there are even some people who object to the ‘foreignness’ of the food served at Schera’s. But basically nobody pays much attention to the people who make a fuss. The town has always been called Elkader, gay folks have been legally getting married in Iowa for half a decade, and you either like Algerian food or you don’t. No big deal.
That’s just the way things are. They really are proud of their bridge, though, and with good reason. It really is a very fine bridge, east or west of the Mississippi. If you ever happen to find yourself in Elkader, they accept donations to maintain the bridge. Drop a buck or two in the box. It’s what Emir Abd-al-Qādir ibn Muhieddine al-Hasani el Djezairi would do.
Oh Greg. What fun. I love how you see the world.
Jody, you’d have loved this little town. And all the other little towns, for that matter.
I come from a small Midwestern community (a heckuva lot smaller than this one), so I can relate to much of the description you’ve given of this one. Reading this editorial took my mind back to the simpler days of my youth when not much more than what I was going to do with the day mattered.
Thanks, Greg. You put a very firm smile on the face of an old, aging damned Yankee.
There’s a sense that small towns are closed-minded and resistant to change — and I suspect there’s a LOT of truth in that. But in the end, small towns are generally practical, and being practical necessarily means adjusting to change when it arrives and incorporating it into ‘normal.’
People noodled back in the 19th century?
In my world, people have always noodled. Always will. Noodling is timeless and universal. I’m a big believer in the noodling process.
Ahhh, Greg. This lovely piece makes me want to embark on my own pilgrimage although I admit spirit, not religion, would be the reason.
I’ve only done one pilgrimage in my life. While I was in Ireland, I went out of my way to visit Yeats’ grave. I stood by his gravestone and found myself thinking “Why the fuck am I standing beside this guy’s grave?” I mean, it’s just a grave. Really, who cares where Yeats is buried. But happily he’s buried near Ben Bulben, so the pilgrimage turned out okay in the end.
I have heard of Elkader, but never been there or knew the story behind it. Unfortunately, I live on the opposite side of the state and do not get to go east very often. your story should remind us that not everyone of a certain faith should be deemed a menace just because a minority have given them a bad name.
It’s really just another small town. I suspect almost any small town you visit anywhere in the world will have an interesting story or two to reveal.
This is fascinating, and how I’d love to see this little time myself – your kind of travel is my kind of travel!
It’s a slow way of travel, to be sure. Terribly inefficient. But my momma always said “Efficiency can go fuck itself in the neck.” Or something like that.
I like small towns. I like the accountability of small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It tends to keep you honest. I was going to say that I “grew-up” in the Midwest, but I can only say lived there for most of my elementary and high school years, I still have not grown up. A thoroughly enjoyable story of a interesting little town with a remarkable bridge. You always go the extra research mile on your back stories and thus bring these lovely bits of history to vibrant life. Thanks for sharing Elkader with us.
Thanks Brett. Mostly I just enjoy talking to people, and if you talk to people they’ll tell you their stories. And once you hear the story, it’s fun to do the research. Small towns are almost always worth stopping in.