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It’s my very great pleasure today to welcome world-renown author Elsa Marston. Elsa has written prolifically about the Middle East and has published several titles for children. I asked Elsa to stop by today to share her latest release with us The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria (Wisdom Tales Press 2013).
This poignant biography for teens shares Abd el Kader’s efforts to prevent the French colonization of Algeria but what he is truly known for his deep respect and acceptance for friend and foe alike and an in-depth interest in people of all political and religious backgrounds. I can share with you that my own teen couldn’t put this book down and felt greatly inspired by the ideas of Abd el-Kader and his ways of building harmony and peace between people, ideas, and political agendas.
Welcome Elsa. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your journey about writing this fantastic biography.
Abd el-Kader, Freedom-fighter and Bridge-builder
Why should Americans want to know about a man who lived in North Africa 200 years ago?
Because it’s such a great story! In fact, a major motion picture about the Emir Abd el-Kader is currently in the works—and it’ll be worth waiting for.
But who was he? In a nutshell, the Emir (prince, or commander) was an authentic Muslim hero who led resistance to the French conquest of Algeria in the 1830s and ‘40s, yet always sought religious truth and harmony. A celebrity in his own time, he speaks to us today.
And he’s the subject of my recently published book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria (Wisdom Tales Press 2013), a biography for teens. I first learned about Abd el-Kader years ago, as a graduate student doing research on the history of France in Algeria. He was dashing, handsome, and young (only 25 when he stood up to the strongest army in Europe). I also knew that he somehow saved the lives of many Christians in Damascus. Intrigued, I remembered him—and when I was recently asked to write a biography of the Emir, in connection with an essay contest (see information below), I couldn’t say no.
Here’s a brief outline of the Emir’s life. He was born in a village of Algeria in 1807, into an elite, highly respected Muslim family; and being a very bright boy, he was well-educated. When the French decided to seize Algeria in 1830, he was chosen by tribal leaders to take on the job of resisting the invasion. Making a quick transition from religious mystic to military strategist, the Emir carried on guerilla warfare against the vastly superior French army for some 15 years. A superb horseman, he quickly earned a reputation for being “un-catchable” (French painters and writers found him a fascinating subject.) He established a more-or-less modern state, and set a high standard for compassion and merciful treatment of prisoners-of-war and captured civilians.
But finally, in late 1847, the Emir had to give up. The French honored him, agreed to his request that he and his family be exiled in Egypt or Palestine, and then promptly broke their promise For almost five years Abd el-Kader and his followers were held prisoners in France, in one fort or château after another. He had attracted much international attention during his military struggle, and now—despite being a prisoner—he became even more of a celebrity, renowned for his intelligence and dignity, his interest in learning about modern ways from military training to Christian thought, and not least of all, his charm. When, thanks in part to the convolutions of French politics, he was finally released, he was lionized even more extravagantly.
Abd del Kader with General Patrice Mahon from France.
Once again, however, the French tricked him, sending him into exile in Turkey, the heart of the Ottoman Empire—where he was not a welcome guest. In 1855 he persuaded the French emperor to let him live in Damascus, Syria, where he was soon greatly esteemed as a teacher. But five years later, 1860, Abd el-Kader learned of plans for a possible massacre of the local Christians. He tried repeatedly to avert it, but in vain. With the connivance of the Ottoman governor, terrible violence broke out, and a great many Christians would have been killed but for Abd el-Kader’s persistent efforts to save them. With his loyal contingent of Algerians-in-exile, he brought them to his very, very large house; but, with thousands of men, women, and children crammed inside until they could be moved elsewhere, it was a time of great suffering.
The western world was thrilled by Abd el-Kader’s heroic saving of the Christians—which he described as simply the humanitarian thing to do and the Islamic thing to do. For the rest of his days he was able to lead a peaceful life, but hardly an idle one. He was still a celebrity, a “must-see” visit for European and American travelers in the Middle East. Fascinated by modern technology, he even played an important role in the construction of the Suez Canal.
He always promoted his belief that all religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) were basically founded on the same truths. While Abd el-Kader’s feats in times of conflict certainly provide the most dramatic chapters in his story, his role as a pioneer in interfaith bridge-building is most important, I believe, in explaining his relevance today. A man of devout faith who was consistently open-minded, compassionate, and respectful towards all, he is a model for young people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
So there are the bare bones of the story. I’m often asked how I did the research for this book. Fortunately, many books and articles were written about Abd el-Kader in the 19th century and early twentieth.. Although by mid-20th century he had been largely forgotten—except by the Algerians, for whom he was always the national hero—in very recent years there has been a revival of interest, with new research, publications, and conferences. The essay contest mentioned at the start is run by the Abdelkader Education Project (www.abdelkaderproject.org) , started in 2008 in Elkader, Iowa. (Yes, Elkader was named in honor of the Emir at its founding in 1846! That suggests how his fame spread during those years when he was giving the French army such a hard time.) I did not, therefore, have to go to Paris and dig through military and diplomatic archives, since someone else had already done it.
And that, it seems to me is one of the main differences between writing nonfiction for young people and for adult readers. The latter expect new research, new findings—perhaps leading to new conclusions. A book for young people, generally speaking, is based on materials already at least somewhat accessible; but this material must be presented as accurately and fairly as possible, and in a way as comprehensible and interesting as possible.
I still faced a challenge, though: how to prevent the biography of a “bigger than life” individual such as the Emir Abd el-Kader from sounding like hagiography. Was he really “perfect,” or did he have any quirks or faults? To be sure, not everything written about him in the 19th century, especially when he was fighting the French, was complimentary. The French troops were indoctrinated to think they would suffer horrible deaths if they fell into Algerian hands—the better to inspire them to fight to the death; thus some French writers described the Emir as a monster, a treacherous, vicious barbarian. This is the way of armies at war, of course, and the media, politicians, and public who support them. But critical books are exceedingly rare. With very few hints that might offer some modification, the picture of the Emir that endures is of an extraordinary man almost too good to be true.
I did, however, try one tactic in hopes of getting a little below the glowing surface. At certain moments in Abd el-Kader’s life, when he—or anyone else—would likely have experienced strong emotional reactions, I suggested what those emotions might well have been, such as disappointment, shock, anger. I’m aware that some writers of biography insist that nothing can be said about—or by—the subject that cannot be backed up by an authentic document. For someone of a different time, place, and culture, however, who did not leave an easily accessible literary heritage, that’s quite a challenge. I can only hope my attempt to give Abd el-Kader a little more depth by suggesting something of his emotional life will help readers feel a little more “human” contact with him.
My book, The Compassionate Warrior, is available from the publisher (www.wisdomtalespress.com) , or Amazon, Powells, or your favorite bookstore. The Wisdom Tales website includes questions for group discussion, and other educational materials to support classroom teaching. I believe there are no other in-depth YA biographies of contemporary or recent-historical Muslims whose faith was an important framework for their lives—except for Malcolm X; thus The Compassionate Warrior offers an unusual chance for discussion of how a person’s religious beliefs can shape his or her life, accomplishments, and relationships..
Oh yes, about that major motion picture. It’s being produced by a team of American, Algerian, and French filmmakers, including Cinema Libre Studio in Los Angeles with Charles Burnett as director. I don’t know when it will reach the screens, but I hope you’ll agree that there is plenty of cinema-worthy drama in Abd el-Kader’s story.
Elsa Marston is a New Englander who lives in southern Indiana (Bloomington) and writes about the Middle East—where she has close contacts through her late husband’s family in Lebanon plus many sojourns in Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine. Her recent books include Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World, The Ugly Goddess, and Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change, with a picture book, The Olive Tree, forthcoming from Wisdom Tales Press. She’s a theatre-lover, occasional artist, political activist, erstwhile tennis-player, doting grandmother, and cat-person. Her website is www.elsamarston.com, and email: firstname.lastname@example.org.