A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

small-town Iowa’s Algerian roots

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 31, 2008

On Mondays around noon I try to catch up on the weekend’s email, including ones from family and friends. My father sent what turned out to be an absolutely fascinating feature piece from last Sunday’s Des Moines Register, source of “the news Iowa depends on”.

The feature traces the path that two men, one an Iowa native and one an Algerian-American, took from Boston to Elkader, Iowa, where they have opened a restaurant serving Midwestern staples (steak and pasta) with Algerian twists.

I love stories that show Iowa as a place that welcomes cultural diversity of all kinds, from couscous to gay couples. But what struck me was this:

[T]he Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack triggered new ideas. They had both grown weary of city life. And Boudouani began researching Islam. He learned that the first mosque in the United States was in Cedar Rapids and that there was an Iowa town named after a famous Muslim, Emir Abd-el-Kader.Abd-el-Kader was also from Algeria and, although exiled, helped Christians and Jews avoid persecution in Syria during the 1800s.

He sure was – and he sure did. I know quite a bit about Abd al-Qadir, having studied him in graduate school. But how on earth did the freedom-seeking, Sufi order-leading emir give his name to a small town in Iowa (whose name is pronounced “el-KAY-dur”)?

Here’s what Elkader’s official website says about its founding:

Elkader’s first permanent residents arrived in 1836 when Elisha Boardman and Horace Bronson settled on the banks of the Turkey River in Pony Hollow. Boardman established the first farm and together with other early settlers built the first schoolhouse. Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage laid out a plan for their community which was officially platted on June 22, 1846. They named the new village Elkader after Abd el-Kader, a young Algerian hero who led his people in a resistance to French colonialism between 1830 and 1847.

And the town has continued highlighting its Algerian heritage, especially after September 11 – at least according to a November 2001 Pacific News Service feature that described the town as “Proud of its Arab Namesake”:

ELKADER, IOWA–Nestled among the blue herons in the Turkey River Valley in northeastern Iowa, this hamlet couldn’t be farther from the deserts of Islamic Algeria. Snow flurries darken the last days of autumn; the maple trees have lost their leaves. American flags adorn a vibrant main street.But with 1,500 souls, Elkader’s tidy burg of Victorian houses and brick churches holds the distinction of being the only town in the United States named after an Islamic revolutionary. And it takes seriously its role as a model town for world diplomacy.

“Abd-el-Kader was the George Washington of Algeria,” Betty Walch tells visitors at the Carter House Museum. Walch stood recently in front of a display case of El-Kader memorabilia and portraits. An Algerian wool rug, sheared from a shipment of Iowa sheep sent to Algeria by a cadre of Girl Scouts, hangs on the wall.

You can continue reading the article here. As for me, I’ll be the one walking around Beirut today with a head puffed full of Iowalgerian pride :).


6 Responses to “small-town Iowa’s Algerian roots”

  1. Oz Ozzie said

    Iowalgerian pride – lovely concept!

  2. kheireddine said

    Emir Abdel Kader was a great man, there is a street in his name in Beirut, in Raml El Zarif. And the Lycée school where I studied is in his name.

  3. intlxpatr said

    I LOVE this entry. And we need to schedule a visit to ElKader.

  4. Iowwegian in Amman said

    Fascinating. I went through Elkader on RAGBRAI once and had no idea.

  5. Oz Ozzie, thank you! I was typing “Iowan” when it hit me: why not capitalize on our hidden diversity :)?

    Kheireddine, I’ll have to look for that street, and the school. He has been a tremendous figure of inspiration for many people, I think, particularly in Syria/Lebanon since he spent so much of his life here. His tomb is at Ibn Arabi’s mosque near the Suq al-Jumaa in Damascus, but his body was repatriated to Algeria after the country gained its independence.

    Khalti, of course! My family has been laughing for decades at the khalo’s description of Iowa as “the gateway to Nebraska”. Elkader is on the eastern side, but hey – its not that big a state!

    Iowwegian, I love your name! And how cool that you rode on RAGBRAI!

  6. […] wait to see them. In the meantime, my father alerted me to another newspaper article on Elkader, the small Iowa town with big Algerian roots that I have blogged about before. I learned something from this article: that Algeria is as proud […]

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