- The Compassionate Warrior: Abd El-Kader of Algeria by Elsa Marston
The Compassionate Warrior: Abd El-Kader of Algeria, by Elsa Marston (also known as Elsa Marston Harik), according to the accomplished Rhodes Scholar Barbara Petzen, is a biography of “a true Muslim hero, a man who combined the best qualities of a freedom fighter and a peacemaker . . . [who was] often called the George Washington of Algeria, the Emir Abd El-Kader (whose name is sometimes spelled as Abd el-Kader)[, who] led his people in a long fight to resist the French conquest and colonization of their country. . . . Although he did not achieve liberty for Algeria, Abd El-Kader stands in the company of other great modern-day heroes who championed the rights of their people—Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others” (p. ix).
Marston first became familiar with Abd El-Kader’s story “in the late 1950s, when I was doing research on French education in colonial Algeria” (p. xi). At the time, the Algerian war of independence was in full swing. Upon completing her research, Marston went to the American University in Beirut, where she met Iliya Harik (1934–2007), whom she later married.
The story begins in December of 1847, when Abd El-Kader voluntarily went in peace to the French generals fighting in Algeria to give his word of honor that fifteen years of fighting was enough, and that “he would leave Algeria forever, asking in return only that his exile be in Egypt or another Arab country. The French officers had agreed readily and had treated him with every courtesy. Enemies could not have made peace in a more respectful manner” (pp. 1–2).
In a prologue, twelve chapters, and an epilogue, Marston provides a fascinating biography of Abd El-Kader (1807–1883), whom she portrays as a heroic Arab who led Algeria’s resistance to French colonial conquest of Algeria. He was handsome, a brilliant military strategist, a superb horseman, and a renowned Muslim leader. In 1860, aged 53, he saved thousands of [End Page 75] Syrian Christians from mob violence in their native Syria. That act of bravery earned praise from such diverse world leaders as Pope Pius IX, Abraham Lincoln, and Napoleon III.
Marston’s epilogue offers a glimpse of Algerian history after Abd El-Kader, in which she confirms: “The Emir Abd El-Kader kept his word and never returned to Algeria, yet he must have kept track of what was going on in his homeland” (p. 135). Although he was no longer around, a serious insurrection started in Algeria in 1871: “Some eight hundred thousand people joined in, mostly impoverished Kabyles (Berbers), and for a few months attacked settlers’ farms and villages and forts over a wide area” (p. 35). French troops ended the insurrection in June 1872, when they imposed punishment “intended to completely discourage any further thought of resistance. The tribes were all but ruined by land confiscation and financial penalties” (p. 135).
In the end, Algeria was a colonial triumph, as the French officials dealt with the native population harshly, while French officials in Parliament back home put in place policies to further undermine Muslim society and identity, and the Marabous—Abd El-Kader’s class—“were given a somewhat protected status, but lost the people’s respect because [they were] regarded as collaborators” (p. 137). Not all French people jubilated at the conquest of Algeria. Many deplored what they saw to be a gross injustice. Some statesmen and administrators “tried persistently to bring about reform, but the settler society and government of Algeria could always block any change that might affect their total domination of the country” (p. 137).
Abd El-Kader’s heroic exploits were recalled by indigenous Algerians a century later, when his grandson Khaled became one of the Muslim leaders that were seen as Algerian nationalists. It was not surprising for Algerians to learn that Khaled, in 1919, had presented a petition to President Woodrow Wilson, in which he called...