Arabia on the Turkey

The making and marketing of Elkader, Iowa

Photography by Boru O'Brien O'Connell

Sometime in 1979, the United States discovered the Muslim world. It was a tumultuous year for that sociologically suspect entity — between the fall of the shah in January and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, there was the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, the taking of the American hostages in Tehran, and the siege of Mecca by radical Islamists. Even as “Hey Iran” bumper stickers, featuring an obscene Mickey Mouse, were appearing on station wagons across the country, a cultural diplomat at the United States Information Agency in Washington, DC rang up the editor of the Clayton County Register, the weekly newspaper in the town of Elkader, Iowa (population 1500), inquiring how the town got its name.

As it turned out, Elkader had been named after Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, a celebrated leader of the Algerian resistance to France in the nineteenth century, and the paper’s editor, Donna Menken, wrote a story about it for Al Majal, the USIA’s Arabic-language magazine. Al Majal was an organ of American soft power, and Elkader was great copy, a perfect talking point for American diplomats confronting a surge in anti-American sentiment: a small town in the heartland of America, in love with an Islamic revolutionary. “The Muslim world” and Main Street, USA, weren’t so far apart, after all.

Of course, the story in Al Majal mostly provided fodder for teatime conversations among diplomats and clerics. But a copy of the issue also sat quietly in the library of the US Embassy in Algiers, where one Algerian staffer, a native of Mascara — al-Qadir’s hometown — read the story with interest. In 1983 he made a journey to the little town, and the following year Elkader and Mascara officially became sister cities. Although it was unclear just what this quasi-political relationship entailed, it certainly provided an exciting vacation for Elkader mayor Ed Olson, who led a ten-person delegation to Mascara for the signing ceremony. It also provided his political rival in the next mayoral election with a ready-made rallying cry: “Get rid of Ed Olson and all his Algerian friends!” Olson lost, and the Iowa–Algeria sorority languished.

And yet despite the xenophobic tendencies of Iowans, Elkader was becoming a destination for Algerians in the United States. In 1990, Idriss Jazairi, Abd al-Qadir’s great-great-grandson, made a pilgrimage of sorts, and in 1996, no fewer than four hundred Algerian-Americans descended on the town for its annual Sweet Corn Parade in July. By the late 1990s, certain members of the Elkader Chamber of Commerce had begun to realize that the town’s almost whimsical identification with Algeria could lend it a certain brand identity, whether the townies were onboard or not.

Which is how, for the second time in 150 years, a small Midwestern town hitched its economic wagon to the legacy of a self-confessed jihadist — on the eve of America’s “war on terror,” no less.

Elkader, Iowa, was founded in 1846 during a golden age of real estate speculation, part of an ambitious scheme cooked up by a cabal of New York lawyers. It’s more than likely that the name was chosen, even then, for its market appeal. John O’Sullivan, a politician and journalist, had just provided North American land speculators with what would become their most effective sales pitch, linking the expansion of the United States across the continent to the battle against “the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs.” As promotional copy, the theory of Manifest Destiny was genius. O’Sullivan promised that Americans could live out their highest ideals by the most mundane means: purchasing a piece of land west of the Mississippi. (Elkader is about twenty miles over the line; the Turkey River, a tributary of the Mississippi, runs through it.) The town fathers of Elkader played on this theme — Abd al-Qadir was even then leading a guerilla war against the forces of the restored French monarchy, which had captured Algiers in 1830. By the same token, the name Elkader — with its vague Arabesque exoticism — distinguished the town from a field crowded with biblical allusions, Indian rebels, and wartime heroes.

More has come to hang on that Algerian connection than its founders could ever have imagined. The farm crisis of the 1980s decimated old farm towns like Elkader. Today, though agribusiness remains the largest employer in Iowa, it represents the smallest portion of the state’s gross product. The financial services sector is flourishing, actually, though it employs only a very elite group of well-educated professionals. Industrial jobs have disappeared; those few manufacturing plants that remain in the state are often there to take advantage of its decidedly non-activist, non-union workforce, including large numbers of undocumented, mostly Central American, laborers.

The one growing economic sector in Iowa is the heritage and ecotourist market in the northeast of the state. Elkader is part of the Driftless Area, a 24,000-square-mile geological novelty that spans parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. When the Great Plains were flattened by drifting glaciers during the last Ice Age, the Driftless Area was spared, creating the most topographically variegated terrain for nearly four hundred miles, as well as an extraordinary biodiversity. Amid recessionary fears and rising energy costs, the Driftless Area has emerged as a regional destination for summer travel.

Entrepreneurial city chambers have exploited these circumstances by promoting redevelopment projects, transforming sites once devoted to industry and agriculture into temples of consumption. Dubuque legalized riverboat gaming in the mid-1980s as part of an ambitious plan to revive the Mississippi Riverfront. Using taxes and subsidies from gaming corporations, Dubuque has orchestrated the development of a small specialty business culture, catering to an exclusive out-of-town clientele. Gaming has underwritten a similar recovery in nearby McGregor. Once little more than four bars, three churches, and a gas station, McGregor is now a veritable oasis of latte liberalism, one-stop shopping for locally produced wines and spirits, heritage produce, and snapping-turtle jerky.

In Elkader, the most visible signs of this sort of development are the renovated opera house — underwritten by big capital sponsors like the Ford Motor Company — and Schera’s, a North African restaurant operated by a gay couple recently relocated from Boston. Frederique Boudouani, one of the proprietors of Schera’s, is the son of Algerian and French parents; his partner grew up in nearby New Hampton, Iowa. Elkader’s “multicultural heritage” has become its comparative advantage in the regional tourism industry. No surprise, then, that when the Algerian Embassy contacted local officials in 2007 about reactivating the sister-cities program, Elkader was ready to listen.

The Abd al-Qadir embraced by Iowans — the gallant defender of other religions — is a caricature of the historical figure but not a wholesale invention. Even during his jihad against the French, Abd al-Qadir was noted for his liberal attitudes toward Christian prisoners. Yet in trussing him up for local consumption, Elkader has shoved the broader doctrinal basis for his beliefs into a narrowly secularist frame that resonates with the politics of postwar liberal internationalism. In the words of a student essayist from Elkader Central High School, Abd al-Qadir was the forerunner of Susan B. Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, in that he “helped revolutionize civil rights worldwide.”

On the one hand, this presents Abd al-Qadir as if his respect for other religions is somehow at odds with his faith as a Muslim, as if respect for other religious traditions was not a bedrock of Islam. On the other hand, this rendering of Abd al-Qadir strips his beliefs of all social and political context. The Elkader sister-cities website highlights his protection of Christians during the 1861 uprising in Ottoman Damascus, yet it fails to underline the extent to which Abd al-Qadir’s actions were those of an Arab nationalist — committed to a multiconfessional community of Arabs and a politics of anti-colonial solidarity.

As it happens, Elkader’s rebranding of Abd al-Qadir is rich with precedent. Since the start of the revolt in 1830, much of what has been written about Abd al-Qadir has been pure propaganda. Like many a latter-day Arab potentate — Saddam Hussein springs to mind — Abd al-Qadir has been celebrated and demonized in accordance with Western whims and ambitions. He appeared as the Bin Laden of his age, a devil sent to plague the French; yet after the overthrow of the July monarchy and the rise of Louis Bonaparte, Abd al-Qadir was made over as a liberator. Bonaparte hoped to realize his greater Mediterranean empire, uniting Arabs from North Africa to the Levant in a French protectorate under Abd al-Qadir’s leadership. While the end of the Second Empire spelled the death of this project, Abd al-Qadir went on to enjoy international respectability.

This Abd al-Qadir is, not coincidentally, the same character that Algeria would like the world to know. In the wake of the Algerian civil war (1991–2002), many Algerian intellectuals argued that the war was brought on by the failure of the nationalist project. Algerian nationalism was, they maintained, compromised by Arab nationalism; its postcolonial institutions only succeeded in reproducing a sense of transnational solidarity among Arabs, one that slid all too easily into the politics of Islamist revival. Despite its relative implausibility, this hypothesis has become the basis for postwar nation-building efforts championed by the Algerian state. The recovery of Abd al-Qadir as a national hero has proceeded as part of a general “reeducation” in the history of Algeria, one that (like all nationalisms) posits an idealized romance of the putatively national past as a way of articulating present political crises — and creating a safe space for economic development. The Abd al-Qadir revival is meant to produce social stability by promoting a greater sense of Algerianness, but also to brand Algeria as an exemplar of security and secularism against the larger field of Islamic — though not Islamist — nation-states.

And so — just as Algeria has been used to promote Elkader, Iowa — Elkader, Iowa, has been used to promote Algeria. In speech after speech, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has underlined the importance of Abd al-Qadir by celebrating his tolerance and generosity; stories highlighting the relationship between Elkader and Mascara appear with some regularity even in the pages of El Watan, a daily newspaper often critical of the government. When Ed Olson, the Elkader mayor whose “Algerian friends” cost him his reelection, died in August 2009, the story was national news in Algeria, as was a visit the previous year by the president of the Elkader Sister Cities Friendship Club, Kathy Garms, to attend a conference on Abd al-Qadir’s legacy.

The Elkader connection definitely seems to have increased awareness, among contemporary Algerians, of the historical al-Qadir. Whether that, in turn, might translate to a more distinctly Algerian identity is difficult to ascertain. In any case, the state has successfully inserted itself into a larger conversation about religious practice and political identity. Ironically — or not — Algeria’s promotion of al-Qadir echoes one of the US State Department’s more recent initiatives, promoting Sufism as an alternative to political Islam. A Sufi cleric in his lifetime, Abd al-Qadir represents the ideal that both projects seek to realize, a sense of Islamic spirituality divorced from the immediacies of the material world.

For its participation in this strange geopolitical parlor game, Elkader has been awarded an unprecedented level of access to foreign officials, as well as players at the highest levels of the global economy. When she visited Algeria in May 2008, Garms met with an array of government ministers, as well as officials from the Arab League and the US–Algerian Business Council — a veritable who’s who of global capital, including representatives from British Petroleum, Chevron, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Halliburton, Pfizer, Raytheon, and Shell Oil. The US–ABC is considering contracting with Elkader’s long-underused Caterpillar tractor plant to produce a fleet of earthmovers to remake the small Algerian town of Hassi Messaoud into a North African Abu Dhabi — a move that could herald Elkader’s industrial revival.

For the moment, the benefits that might come from these relationships remain largely speculative. Even the impact of Elkader’s ethnic marketing campaign is hard to quantify. Yet, in at least one way, the rapport between Elkader and Algeria has paid off. Shortly after Kathy Garms returned home from her Algerian visit, flooding along the Turkey River devastated parts of Elkader, destroying homes and ruining infrastructure. Algeria immediately offered to help, donating $150,000 to assist with the town’s relief efforts. The gift was presented, formally, by the Algerian ambassador to the US, Amine Kherbi, at the Elkader Opera House on July 5, 2008. Timed to coincide with the forty-sixth anniversary of Algerian independence, the ceremony opened with a line of Boy Scouts, marching to the stirring strains of the Algerian national anthem, hoisting the star and crescent of the Algerian flag.