Photo : Bud Heckman, friend of the Abdelkader Education Project, shows off the Emir Abdelkader monument after delivering it to Elkader City Hall from New York.
The latest edition to Elkader City Hall is a life-sized statue of Emir Abdelkader. It arrived in town after surviving a trip from New York in the backseat of a car driven by Bud Heckman, who is a friend of Kathy Garms, co-founder and executive director of the Abdelkader Education Project (AEP).
But before it ever arrived in Iowa or allowed people to learn about the “revered military and Muslim leader who resisted the French conquest of Algeria,” and by extension, a small rural town in northeast Iowa, the statue started as an idea in 2019. It was developed through a partnership with the “I Am Your Protector” campaign, which started in 2015.
The Abdelkader sculpture is part of the “Protector” campaign’s recently launched protector monument series that, according to the organization’s website, “reclaims the public space for all of us—people of color, minorities, refugees, immigrants and women. They provide a new vision and an answer to: whom do we want to remember, celebrate, emulate and physically and symbolically put on a pedestal?”
“They aim to empower us to rise as each other’s protectors and create a culture that brings people together in creative ways to deconstruct polarization, hatred and build trust,” the Protector campaign continued.
Officially launched in 2021 in New York’s Union Square and Washington Square, the event featured several protector statues that honored the likes of Wesley Autrey, Isra Daraiseh, Chaim Hochhauser, Mohsen Alwais, Antonio Diaz Chacon and Abdelkader. The statues have made it to other locations, most notably being shown at the United Nations, which led Garms to jokingly declare that Elkader doesn’t know “how popular we are!”
How does Abdelkader fit into this narrative? What makes him belong among the other protector monuments, alongside Autrey, who jumped onto train tracks to cover a convulsing man with his body as the train rolled overhead? Or Chacon, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant who jumped into his car and chased down an alleged child abductor? Or Alwais, a young Syrian refugee who jumped into freezing water and rescued a drowning man even though he couldn’t swim?
According to Garms, Abdelkader is worthy for any number of reasons, not least of which is because he is a “hero for humanity.”
“He’s a unifier, he’s open to all faiths [and] he never did anything for money or power. He made his decisions based on the Koran for the betterment of people. Now, that’s what I think our leaders need to know,” Garms explained.
Throw in a history that includes a 15-year opposition and guerilla war campaign against occupying French forces in Algeria in the 1830s and 1840s while adhering to human rights, according John Kiser, author of “Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader and co-founder of AEP.” That “earned him global admiration from the likes of President Buchanan, Queen Victoria, Pope Pius IX and Tsar Alexander II,” Kiser said.
Not to be discounted, the stories of Abdelkader’s resistance spread throughout the world, including to the Midwest, where, according to history, New Yorker Timothy Davis along with two friends chose to name the new settlement Elkader in honor of the “chivalrous Arab chieftain.”
Beyond that, there is the cultural impact. Garms noted that comes not just from being involved with the protector campaign and the statue, but also from Elkader’s Sister City status with Mascara, Algeria, which began in 1983. It was put into motion after Donna Menken, then editor of the Clayton County Register, was commissioned by an official at the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C. to write the story about the naming of Elkader for “Al Majal,” the agency’s Arabic language magazine.
One of the impacts is Mascara Park, located between the opera house and city hall, which was named after the Sister City. A Peace Pole also stands in Mascara Park and, in a glass case at city hall, numerous gifts represent Mascara, the nation of Algeria and the life, times and history of Abdelkader.
Then there is the more human side of things, which, for Garms, is what this is all about. The interactions, sharing of experiences and cultures, getting to know each other and creating educational opportunities about not just the Emir, but also Mascara, and to some extent, Islam.
There should be a renewed focus on shared commonalities rather than differences, which would be in keeping with the legacy of Abdelkader. It’s a legacy of “humanitarianism and civility.”
It’s likely this legacy influenced then-Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2008 to send $150,000 along with a letter of compassion to citizens of Elkader, to help recover from the devastation of the flood.
Garms has been the beneficiary of visiting Algeria on several occasions, starting in 2008 when she went for a week, touring, speaking at functions and private events. She often returned with gifts and information to share about the culture, using it as a catalyst to further promote the AEP.
Specifically, it creates learning opportunities for students throughout Iowa, because this life—the story of Abdelkader—is something that should be shared with students. It’s been a core mission of the AEP since 2009, when it was founded, and has continued long after it became an official nonprofit in 2014.
It’s also why Garms believes the book, “Commander of the Faithful,” “needs to be in the hands of young people,” who are the future.
Through reading the lengthy history of Abdelkader, who has been referred to as the “George Washington of Algeria,” students will get an in-depth look at what AEP describes as “a 19th century warrior, scholar and statesman…[that]…embodies AEP’s belief that education overcomes fear and ignorance.”
It’s a history of someone who didn’t fight for glory, but for his people, and was inclusive. As a Muslim, Abdelkader saved the lives of Christians in 1860 Damascus, and according to AEP, “his treatment of French prisoners is credited as the forerunner of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.”
As a result, AEP has developed a core curriculum, educator workshops, scholarship contests, public programs and community engagements “designed to educate students of history and social studies from sixth grade to the university level about different cultures,” all of which can be downloaded for free from the AEP website.
One of those contests is the Abdelkader Student Prize, an essay contest for high school students across the United States. The other is the 2023 Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) Abdelkader Competition that comes with a prize of $500.