, September 17, 2013
(view all comments by Sheila Deeth)
In the early 1800s, a slowly declining Turkish empire abandoned Muslim Algeria and the Christian French moved in. Leading resistance to the French was a learned religious leader called Abd El-Kader. The story of his attempts to unite warring tribes in a proto-democracy, while maintaining faith in God and avoiding being cheated by treaties, seems as fresh and relevant today as it must have been then. English and American observers delighted in the exploits of the noble warrior because, after all, they didn’t like the French at the time. But the French had better weapons and better-trained troops, and eventually they won. El-Kader the noble warrior then became El-Kader the romantic foreigner, held with his family and friends under house arrest in France while the government tried to determine what to do with him. Eventually El-Kader was moved to Damascus, where escalating tensions, religious and political, led to riots and the destruction of the Christian quarter. El-Kader the Muslim led efforts to save Christian lives and was rewarded, ironically, with medals, and even weapons of war by foreign powers.
It’s an exciting story, and one that would make a great movie. But it’s also true, and through it all is threaded the honest faith of a learned and passionate believer. Author Elsa Marston tells the story with simple words and complex detail, building clear and eminently readable images, not just of events, but also of the people and world behind them. The Damascus riots aren’t just a scene where El-Kader can shine, but they’re described through the eyes of history, geography, and politics, with all the troubles leading up to them and the questions of who could have seen or made a difference before the disaster. What could just be Muslim against Christian becomes a much more nuanced event, and the Muslim hero is a hero not for his adherence to faith but for the wise and honest actions born of his faith.
Elements of El-Kader’s writing and beliefs are given throughout this book, building into a picture of a man who firmly believes in God, who is sure that God desires good for humanity, who sees behind the rhetoric, and whose vision of a world where we can discuss differences without resort to violence is as relevant today as it was then. Believing that “generosity and neighborliness… are at the core of all religions,” he maintains that “religious law is not fixed,” just as a doctor’s prescription for illness must change over time. He takes time to learn, gives time to strangers, and offers a timeless message of religious hope. As such, he might truly be a hero for our time, and we would do well to learn more of him.
This is not a simple book, but it’s an easy book to read. Ideal for middle-school and up, it offers fascinating relatable characters, an interesting story, deep analysis, well-researched history, and a well-reasoned approach to issues of faith and religious struggle. It’s highly recommended.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this novel by the publisher with a request for my honest review.