By Pamela Toler, W & M Contributor
Unlikely though it seems, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the French Foreign Legion over the last week.
I bet most of you have a few stock images of the Foreign Legion in your heads: men fleeing from their past into the desert and anonymity, absinthe, burning sands and blazing sun, those funny little billed caps with the flap down the back. (Extra points for anyone who knows what those caps are called.)
For most of us, those images come from trashy novels and B-movies that are kissing cousins to the American western at its least thoughtful. Both genres are heavy on the last minute arrival of the cavalry*, noble (or savage) armed horsemen as opponents, last chance saloons, and strong, silent heroes. Not to mention burning sands and blazing sun (see above).
And just like in the American western, the dangerous armed horseman on the ridge has his own version of the story.
If the French hadn’t invaded Algeria in 1830**, Algerian emir Abd al-Qadir would probably have been content to follow his grandfather and father as the spiritual leader of the Qadiriyah Sufi order. In the fall of 1832, when the French began to expand their control into the Algerian interior, the Arab tribes of Oran elected al-Qadir as both the head of the Qadiriyah order and as their military leader.
Al-Qadir led Arab resistance against French expansion in North Africa from 1832 to 1847. He was so successful that at one point two-thirds of Algeria recognized him as its ruler. The French signed treaties with al-Qadir and broke them. (Similarities to the American western, anyone?) After a crushing defeat in 1843, he was hunted across North Africa as an outlaw.
Abd al-Qadir surrendered at the end of 1847 and was imprisoned in France until 1853. Following his release, he settled in Damascus, where he entered the stage of world history one last time. In 1860, the Muslims of Damascus rose and began slaughtering the city’s Christians. When the Turkish authorities did nothing to stop the massacre, Abd al-Qadir and 300 followers rescued over 12,0000 Christians from the massacre. Once hunted by the French as a dangerous outlaw, Abd al-Qadir received the Legion of Honor from Napoleon III for his efforts.
Heroism is in the eye of the beholder.
*In fact, the Foreign Legion was an infantry unit. Just saying.
** Over what the French press called the Incident of the Flyswatter. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
This post previously appeared in History on the Margins.
About the author: Pamela Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is particularly interested in the times and places where two cultures meet and change.