Elkader, Iowa, a town of 15 hundred people, is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It’s also the headquarters of the Tea Party Patriots of Northeast Iowa.
And it’s the only town in the US named after an Arab Muslim, a 19th century Algerian jihadist.
On Elkader’s Main Street is restaurant called Schera’s Algerian American Restaurant.
From the outside, the restaurant looks like a classic America bar. In the window you can see neon signs advertising beer.
But when you walk through the door your eyes are drawn to a display on the wall.
Frederique Boudouani, co-owner of Schera’s shows off a wall in the restaurant where a US and Algeria flag hang next to each other. There is also a picture of Emir Abd el Qader.
Abd el Qader’s most famous deeds involved leading an armed resistance to French colonial rule. He was a 19th century jihadist. But after he was forced into exile, Abd el Qader became a kind of interfaith hero. In Damascus, he saved a group of Christians who were attacked by Druze.
But that’s not what some people here think about when they first see the Emir with his beard and white shawl.
“When a lot of people come in here the cultural reference they have is with mullahs in Afghanistan, or al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and those kinds of things,” co-owner Brian Bruening explained. “So we always have to make that extra effort … all Arabs are not Bin Laden. Actually the Emir was the opposite. He was a Sufi, he was a peacemaker.”
Boudouani said one of the ironic things is in pronouncing Elkader. “People generally say ‘Elkada,’ and I always emphasize to people that ‘r’ in Elkader not a silent ‘r’. Please pronounce it.”
As Boudouani made the filling for burek, a mixture of ground beef, onion, parsley and egg filling, he called it part of “the trinity” of Algerian food, which includes onions, black pepper, and cinnamon.
Frederique was born in Algeria. Brian’s a native of Iowa. The two fell in love as students in Boston. But only a few months later, September 11th happened.
“My way of trying to make sense of that horrific event I decided to research the history of Islam in United States,” Boudouani said.
And so they found themselves in the town named after the man Frederique considers Algeria’s George Washington.
“Coming from Boston at the time of our first trip to Elkader, you think you’re going to a town in the Midwest where the stereotype is that people are not really accepting, not really open minded,” Boudouani said.
But to their surprise the mayor of Elkader, Ed Olson, was personally eager to greet anyone interested in the town’s Algerian connection. Frederique’s Algerian friend, Faycal Belakhdar remembers his first encounter with Mayor Olson.
“It was Sunday we were driving, we were downtown,” Belakhdar said. “Suddenly we see the old Mayor Mr. Olson. He came from his house wearing his robe. Somebody apparently called him and told him. There is some people with dark hair they must be Algerian. So we were at stop sign… everybody with dark hair… then we have this old man saying salaam alaikum.”
Back in the 1980s Mayor Ed Olson was invited by the Algerian Embassy to join the Sister Cities program. Elkader is now sister cities with Mascara, Algeria. Ed and his wife Ruth even took a delegation to visit Algeria.
And so Ruth and Ed welcomed Frederique and Brian-and helped them start Schera’s restaurant. Ed passed away in 2009, but Ruth is still a regular.
“I think the restaurant is a fine addition to our town,” Ruth Olsen said. “It’s drawing a lot of people to Elkader who would have never had any reason before to come.”
Ruth admits not everyone here is delighted by the idea of an Algerian-American restaurant run by an openly gay couple.
“We’re a small enough community,” she said. “We’re a basic Christian community … there’s a lot of people in a small Iowa town that don’t understand.”
Boudouani said they try to act as cultural educators but it can be exhausting when you’re the town’s only Muslim.
“If there is a bomb in a nightclub in Bali people come and feel compelled to ask me why did that happen, can you explain it to us,” Boudouani said. “I turn into this sort of weird spokesman for the whole faith.”
Boudouani and Bruening admit there are plenty of locals who refuse to come to Schera’s. And a few town residents did raise concerns about their motives and their background, but nobody would say anything on the record.
Still the restaurant has its share of local regulars. Richard wears a checked flannel shirt and looks like you’d imagine an Iowa farmer to look.
“Here it’s a whole new taste,” he said. “Just more relaxing and more enjoyable… culture, that’s a good word. You can tell I’m a farmer.”
Richard’s wife Betty says it’s not just about the food.
“I think people who reach out and want to know others and like culture and like new experiences like that are grateful that this is here,” she said. It’s so needed because people across the country were having such a thing about anti-Muslim type thing… and basic thing is we’re all the same.”
Boudouani said what he’s hoping is that people get to know them as human beings and then the stereotypes shed naturally.
Bruening says it makes sense for them to do this in Iowa. The state has historically been on the forefront of progressive issues-from desegregation to gay rights.
“Who says we can’t come to Iowa and make a life for ourselves?” Bruening asked.
Boudouani and Bruening both say Elkader is now home.