There are almost 20,000 cities incorporated in the United States. Elkader, Iowa, may be the only city in America named after an Arab Muslim hero.
Emir Abdelkader was a young Algerian hero who fought French intruders for almost 20 years in the mid-19th century. How did a small town in the northeast corner of Iowa get a name like Elkader, a name that in the post-9/11, post-Trump era could get you kicked off a flight? I have a friend who after 9/11 changed his last name from el-Kader to Randy to avoid trouble at the airport and the hassle of spelling it out every time he orders coffee at Starbucks.
The story of Elkader the farm town started in 1845 when a British settler, Timothy Davis, was looking for a site for a new settlement along the Turkey River. Davis had learned the story of Emir Abdelkader in an American newspaper, which was sympathetic to the Algerian revolt against colonial rule. So Davis named his new town Elkader.
More than 170 years later (last month), Art in the Park, an annual art festival in Elkader, revealed for the first time Emir Abdelkader's sculpture. While some Americans tear down old historical statues for their dark, racist histories, here in Elkader, Iowa, they've just erected a statue of a Muslim hero for his humanity and tolerance.
The festival was held in the Founder's Park, alongside the Turkey River in historic downtown Elkader. I went to do a story about the Muslim hero who brought Islamic exotica to the American heartland. I drove for hours through the cornfields only to find the town almost empty — not a single stoplight or a police car to be seen. I went to the City Hall to meet Josh Pope, Elkader's mayor, in his second four-year term.
"Our town's character represents what Emir Abdelkader stood for: tolerance, kindness and humanity," he explained. I asked Pope about any recriminations or reactions since 9/11 and all that has followed to the town's Arab/Muslim name. "We are a small town of simple people," he answered. "We like our land and our freedom; we don't have the clash of ethnicities that you may find in big cities like New York and Chicago."
The mayor has visited Elkader's sister city — Mascara in Algeria — several times, welcomed by dignitaries, parades, posters everywhere. They even post his picture in the streets with images of the Algerian president.
I asked him if the people of Elkader know the story behind their town name. "Of course, they do," he said. "You don't have a namesake like Elkader and not know the emir." Then I asked the mayor if any Muslims live in Elkader. He looked around, hesitated a bit, "Yes, but, a nonpracticing Muslim." Maybe that's because there's no mosque in Elkader. But Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has the oldest mosque in the U.S., the Mother Mosque of America, completed in 1934.
I met Kathy Garms, founder of the Elkader Education Project, who has lived all her life in Elkader. Full of energy and personality, she loves to talk about her trips to Mascara, where the Muslim hero was born. She explained that she was treated like a royal, meeting the Algerian ambassador. "They put out the red carpet for me and I stayed in a mansion, with lavish meals and private visits."
"You don't learn much about Algerians at the mansion," I ventured.
She laughed. "Yes, it's very different over there. Everything I do here is public; over there, it was all private."
Garms talks about her passion for telling Elkader stories and keeping them alive, specifically in the new generation. At Elkader's Carter House Museum, she showed us a collection of Algerian dresses, costumes and artifacts she brought from Algeria and donated to the museum. Asked how she got so interested in all this, she explained: "I read John Kiser's book, 'Commander of the Faithful.'"
She learned about Abdelkader, an Islamic scholar from Algeria who fought French colonialism in the mid-19th century. The emir was known not just as a freedom fighter but for his Islamic scholarly works and humanity in dealing with his enemies and saving thousands of Christians during a civil war in Damascus. The emir's courage earned him global acclaim. President Abraham Lincoln eulogized him. "As long as I live, I will tell the Elkader story," Garms said.
We talked to artists and locals at the Art in the Park festival. They all were excited about the unveiling of the Abdelkader sculpture. I met Tamar Miller, a lovely Jewish woman from the I Am Your Protector organization, a community of people who stand up for one another across dimensions of religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. She helped in bringing Abdelkader's sculpture to Elkader.
Standing next to Abdelkader's sculpture with posters of ordinary people she brought Miller said, "These people should also be on pedestals." The posters showed refugees rescuing Italians after an earthquake; two sanitation workers saving a kidnapped 10-year-old girl; a news story headlined "Dreamer saves lives during Houston floods"; Syrian refugees distributing water to residents in Flint, Mich.; a Jewish patrol protecting London mosques.
Miller shared lots of ideas and hopes — and we both starved in Elkader, where they mostly serve pork. We ended up at Gear Coffee House, a place with great vibes and the best espresso I ever had. The owner, Mike McShane, learned the secret from an Italian friend.
I asked McShane what he thinks of his town being named after a Muslim hero. "My distant family is Irish, and we know British oppression, so naming my town after a freedom fighter is great," he explained.
There were a few Algerian visitors at the Art in the Park festival. They came to see their Algerian hero being honored thousands of miles from home.
Finally, I talked to a man in a wheelchair, a Native American who had been Elkader's postmaster for many years before he retired. I asked him, as a Native American, what he thought of an American settler naming Elkader after a Muslim who fought French colonizers. "I do not have any issues with that," he said as he looked away, seemingly surprised by my question.
Ahmed Tharwat, host and producer of the Arab American TV show BelAhdan, is working on a film documentary, "The Coptic Grave." He lives in Minnetonka.