Saturday, July 17, 2010

Royals Today: All-Star Break Edition.

The All-Star Break is a good time to reflect, so here are some reflections on the Royals over the season’s first half.

- I’ll admit to thinking that the sky was caving in when Zack Greinke was scratched from his Sunday start, after we had already learned that he had felt something weird in his shoulder after he had made an awkward throw on a fielding play in his previous start.

But he made his start as promised last night, and while the results were ugly early, he retired nine of the last ten batters he faced, three by strikeout. I was unable to watch the game, but the reaction I got from Royals fans on Twitter was that he was just missing his spots early in the game. My hope is that he was just tentative early on, and once he realized that he wasn’t feeling any pain on his throws, he felt more confident as the game progressed.

Greinke insisted after his start that his shoulder felt fine, but we’ll have to see if he has any flare-ups of his shoulder pain over the next start or two. But if he doesn’t, then we have to credit the Royals for learning their lesson, and doing the cautionary and sensible thing last Sunday. Ideally, such a lesson wouldn’t have cost them the services of their second-best starter, and the last half of a $55 million contract. But at least they learned their lesson well.

- It’s a compliment to Billy Butler, I suppose, that he’s hitting .321 (just a point outside of the league’s top 10), he’s hit 26 doubles (fifth in the league), he’s missed just one game all year…and his season still has the faint whiff of a disappointment.

Maybe we expect too much from Butler. I mean, he’s hitting .321/.388/.480; his 868 OPS is higher than last year, and that’s even though offense is significantly down in the AL as a whole – his OPS+ has jumped from 124 to 135. His defensive numbers, if you trust those things, are much better as well. He wasn’t a deserving All-Star, not when you compare him to the other first baseman in the American League. But he’s a heck of a player.

Quietly, he has cut his strikeout rate by 27% from last year – he’s on pace to strike out 74 times this year after 104 strikeouts last year – while walking at a slightly higher rate. That’s not a small thing, and speaks highly to his ability to continue to hit .320 or better in the future.

But there is one downside to making so much contact, and that’s where the whiff of a disappointment is coming from. More contact means more double play opportunities, and Butler leads the major leagues with 21 GIDPs. Pablo Sandoval, who’s pretty similar as a hitter to Butler, is the only other player with more than 16 GIDPs.

Butler, in fact, had grounded in 21 double plays just 76 games into the season. By comparison, in 1991, John Olerud led the AL with 21 GIDPs for the entire season. We have GIDP data going back to at least the mid-1950s, and only two players in history have grounded into that many double plays in his team’s first 76 games. Jim Rice, of course, did it in both 1984 (23) and 1985 (26). Rice would finish those two seasons with 36 and 35 GIDPs – which are still the two highest GIDP totals in history. The other was a guy named Sid Gordon, who as a rookie third baseman for the New York Giants had 22 GIDPs in his team’s first 76 games in 1943.

Gordon would play in 58 more games the rest of the season and would only have 4 more GIDPs, which speaks to an important point – GIDPs are the result of luck and circumstance as well as “talent”, and it’s unrealistic to expect Butler to continue to ground into double plays at this rate. In fact, Butler hasn’t hit into one in his last 13 games.

Still, this is the player Butler has always been – he’s right-handed, he’s slow, and he hits the ball on the ground a lot. He ranked sixth in the league with 23 GIDPs in 2008, and only played 124 games. Last year, he ranked ninth with 20 GIDPs. Even when he was winning a batting title in Double-A at the age of 20, he hit into 25 double plays in just 119 games. (Alex Gordon was batting in front of him all season, so he certainly batted with a man on first base a lot.) While it’s unlikely that Butler will continue on his current pace, which would have him breaking Rice’s all-time record*, he’ll probably end up with around 32 GIDPs, which would tie him for third on the single-season list.

*: After all these years of waiting for some Royal to break Steve Balboni’s sad record of 36 homers in a season, how awesome would it be if someone broke Jim Rice’s GIDP record first? If the Royals can’t have a player hit 37 homers, at least they can have one that hits into 37 double plays.

Butler may be doomed to always hurt his teams by grounding to a couple dozen double plays a season, like Rice, or like Gordon, who would lead the NL in GIDPs three times in his career. But there is another path he can follow, a path best represented by Carl Yastrzemski.

I don’t want to overstate the similarities between Butler and Yaz, who after all was a left-handed hitter and was considerably more athletic than Billy. But as young hitters, they are eerily alike. Both were rookies at the age of 21. At the age of 22 and 23, Yaz hit a combined 33 homers, Butler 22. At the age of 23, Yaz hit .321 and led the league with 40 doubles. At the age of 23, Butler hit .301 and finished second in the league with 51 doubles.

At the age of 22, Yaz led the league with 27 GIDPs; Butler might well have led the league two years ago if he hadn’t spent a month in Triple-A. And at the age of 24, both players hit into their 21st GIDP of the season in their 75th game.

Yaz would finish the season with 30 GIDPs, which at the time was the second-highest total on record, behind Bobby Doerr’s 31 in 1949. (What is it with Red Sox and high GIDP totals?)

But Yaz would never hit into 30 double plays again. He would never hit into even 20 double plays again. The following year he had 16 GIDPs, then 17, and then, in his Triple Crown year of 1967, he hit into just 5. After hitting 15 homers at age 24, he hit 20 and 16 the following two years (but led the league in doubles both years), and then broke out with 44 homers.

So without doing extensive research into Yastrzemski’s groundball/flyball tendencies, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as he got older, as he matured as a hitter, Yaz learned to elevate the ball more. It remains to be seen if Butler can do the same, but he’s an immensely talented hitter, and as Yaz showed, it has been done before.

- After losing again last night, the Royals are back to .500 under Ned Yost, at 27-27. That’s still an impressive accomplishment, to take a team that was 12-23 when he was hired and have them play .500 ball for nearly two months.

The biggest difference between the Trey Hillman Royals and the Ned Yost Royals appears to be the performance of the bullpen, whose struggles under Hillman, as you might recall, was the subject of at least one article here.

Except I’m not sure that the improvement in the bullpen can be traced to the managerial switch. For one thing, the bullpen’s improvement started not when Hillman was fired on May 13th, but on May 1st, when the relievers combined for five scoreless innings in an 11-inning win against Tampa Bay.

In April, the bullpen combined to give up 87 hits and 51 walks in 73 innings, leading to a 6.16 ERA and 7 bullpen losses. And that includes Joakim Soria, who allowed just 3 runs and 10 baserunners in 11 innings.

But from May 1st until the day Hillman was fired, the bullpen had a 3.22 ERA in 36 innings, and the only blown save and loss in that span can be pinned on Soria, who allowed back-to-back homers to the Rangers in that wild 12-11 game in Arlington.

Since Yost took over, the bullpen has continued to pitch very well, despite some recent hiccups – since May 14th, the bullpen has thrown 160 innings, allowed 148 hits and 54 walks, struck out 111 men, and allowed a 3.26 ERA (and just one unearned run.) A bullpen that was on a record pace of futility a month into the season now has a 4.04 ERA for the year, just a fraction off the AL bullpen average of 3.98.

But is this really the manager’s doing? Compare the bullpen of today with the bullpen of Opening Day:

Same: Soria, Robinson Tejeda, Kyle Farnsworth, Dusty Hughes

Shipped out: Luis Mendoza, Juan Cruz, Roman Colon, John Parrish

Brought in: Blake Wood, Kanekoa Texeira, Victor Marte

Of the four holdovers, Soria is Soria, but the other three saw dramatic turnarounds after April. Dusty Hughes got off to a rough start, allowing six runs in his first six appearances, but started to turn the corner on April 20th, throwing 5.2 scoreless innings the rest of the month.

Farnsworth was pretty bad in April – 13 hits, 4 walks in 10 innings with a 4.82 ERA – but was Marianish relative to Tejeda, who in 9 innings allowed 14 hits and 13 walks. Batters hit .368/.519/.533 against Tejeda in April. Since May 1st, Farnsworth has allowed just 20 hits and 6 walks in 29 innings, with a 1.55 ERA; Tejeda has been even better, allowing 20 hits and 9 walks in 32 innings, and he has an 0.84 ERA since the beginning of May.

But again, all three pitchers started turning their seasons around before Hillman was fired. (The rumor with Tejeda is that he started pitching lights-out after the Royals essentially forbade him from shaking off Jason Kendall ever again. Farnsworth’s improvement has been linked to him throwing a two-seam fastball, although that wouldn’t explain his April struggles.)

If you’re looking for a specific impetus that might have triggered the improvement in the bullpen, your best isn’t when the Royals let Trey Hillman go, but when the Royals let Juan Cruz go. Cruz, in addition to pitching terribly – which it turns out was the result of an undiagnosed shoulder injury he had probably been pitching with since last year – was an enormous PITA by all accounts. Particularly in the closed-in world of the bullpen, where six or seven guys spend the entire game together in a walled-off area away from the rest of the team, having to hang out with a guy that was a Grade-A prick can’t have been good for the bullpen’s psychology.

This is one of those unquantifiable issues that can’t be adequately evaluated by analysts like me, but with the Braves’ recent trade of Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays, the issue of team chemistry has come up again. Consider the rejuvenation of guys like Farnsworth and Tejeda after Cruz was released a data point in favor of chemistry.

But the bigger improvement in the bullpen was that the Royals got rid of Cruz, and Luis Mendoza, and the inexplicable Roman Colon, and replaced them with pitchers who actually deserve to be in the majors. It took a while; the Royals had to cycle through Josh Rupe and Bryan Bullington and Brad Thompson before they decided Blake Wood was ready, and before they very shrewdly claimed Texeira off waivers from the Mariners*.

*: Adding to the argument that the Mariners, as an organization, were very overrated going into the season, is the fact that the Mariners waived Texeira – much to the consternation of their fans – about 48 hours before Ken Griffey finally read the writing on the wall and retired. Since the Royals picked him up, Texeira has a 2.00 ERA, thanks to a good sinker and good control. Thanks, Ken!

Here’s the combined numbers of Cruz, Mendoza, Colon, Rupe, Thompson, and Bullington this year:

44 IP, 70 H, 25 BB, 29 K, 10 HR, and an 8.24 ERA.

And here are the combined numbers of Wood, Texeira, and Victor Marte:

66 IP, 62 H, 24 BB, 31 K, 9 HR, and a 3.97 ERA.

The new guys aren’t perfect by any means. I remain mystified as to how a pitcher with Blake Wood’s fastball has struck out just 8 batters in 25 innings. And I’ve been saying since last year that Marte’s combination of poor control and flyball tendencies were a bad mix, and reality has set in as he’s allowed 8 runs in his last four outings. Still, the low end of the bullpen totem pole has combined for a 3.97 ERA. That’s why the bullpen has gone from an enormous weakness to, arguably, an asset.

On April 27th, at the bullpen’s low point, I wrote “I stand by my position that Hillman is mostly an innocent bystander in all this. It’s hard for any manager to look smart when he has exactly one reliable reliever. Hillman deserves better than to be scapegoated because his GM has made such a mess of things.”

I still stand by those words, with the caveat that I didn’t appreciate at the time what kind of influence Cruz had on the bullpen, or that Kyle Farnsworth was redeemable. But the difference between the bullpen of today and the bullpen of April has less to do with the manager and more to do with the personnel. That’s not to defend Hillman, but it is to lay the blame on Dayton Moore. And by the same token, the credit for the bullpen’s improvement belongs less to Yost than it does to Moore for finally giving up on his pet projects and giving opportunities to rookies who deserved it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus.

The year was 1860, and the world was, as usual, in upheaval. In China, the Second Opium War was coming to an end. America was preparing itself for major surgery, in the form of the Civil War, that would finally cure the young nation of its congenital defect of slavery. And in the heart of the Middle East, in a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire that would later become modern-day Syria, an unholy concoction was brewing. That’s right: politics was mixing with religion.

Christians and Muslims had lived side-by-side in the holy land for over a thousand years. Muslim armies had conquered modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt in the middle of the seventh century, and while the Muslims maintained full political authority, Christians and Jews were allowed to freely practice their religion. The notion that non-Muslims were forced to convert at the point of a sword is laughable – in Egypt, for instance, it is estimated that Muslims made up only half of the population in the year 1200 – five hundred years later.

The area around Lebanon and Syria, in particular, was as religiously diverse as anywhere in the world in the mid-19th century. In addition to substantial numbers of Muslims (both Sunni and Shiite), Christians (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Chaldean, Syriac, and others), and Jews, there were also religious groups like the Alawi and Druze, who had splintered out of mainstream Islam centuries earlier and were now considered their own religions.

By the standards of that era, these groups lived in relative harmony. Which is to say, by the standards of that era, the fact that these groups co-existed at all was a miracle. If you were a religious minority anywhere in the world, your life was in peril. Just the year before, the very first pogrom in Russia took place in Odessa, claiming the lives of many Jews. Not even America was immune to this sort of religious violence; in 1838, 18 Mormon men were killed in the Haun’s Mill Massacre in Missouri.

The Druze and Maronite Christians were concentrated in Lebanon. The two groups had never liked each other, and their relationship was getting worse. It didn’t help that outside powers were encouraging both sides. The French supported the Christians, the British supported the Druze, and with the Ottoman Empire crumbling by the day, the Turkish rulers were unable or unwilling to end the conflict.

In 1858, Christian peasants in Lebanon mounted an uprising against their Druze feudal lords. The Druze retaliated. The patriarch of the Maronite Christians then threatened to forcibly remove the Druze from the Lebanese mountains. Then things got ugly.

In May of 1860, a group of Christians fired upon a group of Druze outside Beirut, killing one. In the wave of violence that followed on both sides, dozens of villages were burned to the ground, and hundreds of people were killed. The violence spread outside Lebanon and into Syria, towards Damascus, where ambitious men were plotting to shape this heretofore random violence into something much more sinister.

Chief among them was the Turkish governor of Damascus, Ahmed Pasha, who wanted nothing more than to give his population a “correction” – today we would call it ethnic cleansing. In March, he had already begun meeting in secret with two chiefs from the Druze and the mufti of Damascus. Together they hatched a plan to bring about a full-on war in the Christian quarter of the city.

The plan appears to have been this: that the Druze would incite attacks against Christians, “forcing” the Turks to step in and escort the Christian community to a citadel outside the city for their protection. There, Druze conspirators would be waiting to slaughter them all.

With tensions rising between the two sides every day, it would only take a single match to light the fire. That match was lit on July 8th. Pasha arranged for some Muslim boys to draw images of crosses at the edge of the Christian quarter of the city, then to desecrate those images by spitting and throwing garbage at them. The bewildered kids were immediately arrested, with their punishment designed to provoke the rage of the greater Muslim community.

“On July 9, the culprits, mere props in a scenario planned by Ahmed Pasha, were ordered to be publicly beaten, then forced on their hands and knees to wash the streets they had slopped with garbage. Provocateurs did the rest.”

The massacre of Damascus had begun.


“I was told Abd el-Kader was the Algerian George Washington, the father of modern Algeria…Abd el-Kader was the first Arab to create a semblance of tribal unity in order to combat the French occupation. But in defeat, I noted a resemblance to Robert E. Lee. He was gracious, magnanimous, respected by his enemies, and deeply religious.”

Abd el-Kader was one of those men who, in Shakespeare’s words, had greatness thrust upon him. He certainly was not born into it. He was born in a remote region of the Turkish province of what we now call Algeria, in 1808, to a tribal family living on the edges of the Sahara desert. You would be hard pressed to find a region on Earth from which one of the century’s most influential men would be less likely to emerge.

Abd el-Kader was born into a tribe of warriors, men who for centuries had valued valor above all else, and prized nothing more than a fast and sturdy horse. His father Muhi al-Din was a marabout, a religious leader for his tribe, and a leader of a Sufi Muslim tradition known as the Kadiriyya order. It was expected from the time of his birth that Abd el-Kader would follow in his father’s footsteps. “His destiny, had it been his to guide, would have been that of a married monk, living a life of prayer, meditation, and teaching.”

Like all men of his tribe, Abd el-Kader was trained in horsemanship and swordplay and the other arts of warfare, but his primary training was in his religious studies. As a teenager he was sent by his father to the city of Oran to continue his studies. He would return home when he as 15; at the age of 17 he was married, and then set off with his father on the pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that would take two years to complete. This journey would include stops in Damascus and Baghdad, where “word spread of the amazing knowledge and intellectual agility of this young Maghrebin who could politely hold his own with the leading scholars of the city.” Abd el-Kader returned to his home village of Mascara in 1828, and likely would have spent the rest of his life there had events not interceded.

But they did. In 1830, King Charles of France saw an imperial campaign as a great way to counter unpopularity at home, and used a minor diplomatic incident as an excuse to invade Algeria. Algiers surrendered to the French quickly and fairly bloodlessly, although it was not enough to save the King; Charles abdicated later that year and transferred the crown to his cousin, Louis-Phillipe.

Had the French been more magnanimous in victory, the war might have been over quickly. The ruling Turks were hardly beloved by the local population, so if it was just a matter of paying taxes to a different leader, most of the citizens would have gone along with minimal protest.

But like so many foreign conquerors, the French soon turned the local populace against them by being unnecessarily harsh, by being completely tone-deaf to the local culture, and by kicking out the Turks, the only group of people who could have served as intermediaries. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1837, “Once the Turkish government was destroyed with no substitute to replace it, the country fell into appalling anarchy.”

The political vacuum cried out for leadership, which by default fell onto the religious leaders of the various tribes outside the city. The brutality of the French occupation forced these tribal religious leaders to unite against their oppressor. In 1832, the various tribes came together to nominate Abd el-Kader’s father Muhi al-Din to be their sultan.

Muhi al-Din agreed on one condition: that immediately after he accepted the position, he would abdicate in favor of his son. This was met with immediate approval; Abd el-Kader’s religious knowledge, strength, and courage were already famous throughout the region. At the age of 24, Abd el-Kader became the leader of his people in a war against foreign occupation. He would soon earn his title of “Emir al-Mumineen” – the Commander of the Faithful.

In retrospect, Abd el-Kader’s task was hopeless from the start. No amount of military brilliance could have made up for the difference in manpower and technology between the French army and the ragtag bunch of Algerian Bedouins. But man, did he try.

For 15 years, Abd el-Kader led his people in resistance against the French. He led his soldiers by example, staying in the saddle day and night, stopping only to pray, sometimes covering as much as 150 miles in a day to engage the enemy in battle. The French were astonished, and then impressed, at the military prowess of their young enemy.

Abd el-Kader wasn’t simply fighting a war against the French; he was also fighting to establish a nation among his own people. He commissioned a free-standing army. He established and collected taxes necessary to keep his army supplied. He created a cabinet of advisers, including a Jewish merchant who served as his ambassador to the French.

He had to battle not only the French, but the leaders of his own people, many of whom were not averse to working with the enemy or rebelling in other ways if it suited them.

By 1834, Abd el-Kader’s forces had achieved such success that the French general in charge with subduing them sued for a cease-fire, which was granted. Some extremists in his own community labeled him a heretic for negotiating with the French, forcing Abd el-Kader to wage another battle to defeat them.

A year later, though, another general in the French army used a flimsy pretext to break the cease-fire and marched upon Abd el-Kader’s forces. The French forces were ambushed and suffered a humiliating defeat, which burnished Abd el-Kader’s reputation, both with his own people and around the world.

This only made the French mad, though, and they returned in 1836 with more forces and more determination to exterminate their annoying adversary. Abd el-Kader learned quickly that he could not defeat the French army in a pitched battle, and resorted to lightning attacks, his cavalry emerging out of the desert to overwhelm a surprised French unit, then disappearing into the sand just as quickly.

Meanwhile, the exploits of this undermanned, underfunded guerrilla leader, standing up to the mighty French, began to draw the interest of the British and the Americans – the British because of their long-standing rivalry of the French, the Americans because of their own experience with fighting off British imperialization only a few decades before.

Abd el-Kader’s exploits were recounted in America in popular digests like Littell’s Living Age, and one reader was sufficiently taken by el-Kader to name a town after him. Timothy Davis, a lawyer who had settled in Dubuque in 1836 (Iowa had not yet become a state; it was still part of the Louisiana Territory), had acquired property on the Turkey River nearby which seemed ideal for a flour mill, and sketched out a new town to be built around the mill. “So Timothy Davis, a pioneer spirit, respected lawyer and distant admirer of this resilient underdog, named the new settlement after Abd el-Kader, wisely shortened for American tongues to Elkader.”

Elkader, Iowa was founded in 1846. It remains today as the seat of Clayton County, with a population of around 1500. It is the only city in America named after an Arab.

In 1837, General Thomas Bugeaud was put in charge of the French operations in Algeria. His initial assignment was to secure another peace treaty with Abd el-Kader, which he did. This treaty acknowledged France’s sovereignty over the coastal cities of Algiers and Oran, while conceding the interior desert regions to Abd el-Kader. Once again, the French government was not pleased with the terms of the treaty once the details became known. Furthermore, the text of the treaty in Arabic was slightly, but crucially, different than the text in French. In 1839, the French took advantage of the ambiguity by marching their army through a region of the country that was forbidden to them in the Arabic version. The war began anew.

By 1841, the French had become fed up with the resistance of Abd el-Kader and his small army. It was clear that their conventional war tactics were not working. General Bugeaud gave his recommendation to the French Parliament. “We need a leader who will be implacable and wage unlimited war.” He was referring to himself.

For the next six years, the French waged Total War. Over 100,000 soldiers – one-third of the entire French army – was stationed in Algeria, and they were not constrained by the ordinary rules of warfare. Houses were burned, livestock was shot, crops were destroyed. If Abd el-Kader was Robert E. Lee, then Bugeaud was William T. Sherman.

In the words of one of Bugeaud’s most trusted officers, “I shall leave not a single tree standing in their orchards, not a head on the shoulders of these wretched Arabs…I shall burn everything, kill everyone.” The same officer was responsible for suffocating hundreds of men, women, and children who had taken refuge inside a series of caves. In the English press, Bugeaud became known as “The Butcher of the Bedouins.”

By contrast, Abd el-Kader conducted war in as civilized a manner as possible. He devised a series of rules for the treatment of prisoners which were, in some ways, a forerunner to the official rules codified in the Geneva Convention in 1949. In one instance, he released a group of French captive soldiers because he did not have enough food to feed them. Some prisoners were so impressed with Abd el-Kader’s treatment of them that they formally defected to the other side, and served as foreign advisors to the emir.

Through intermediaries, Abd el-Kader set up a correspondence with the Bishop of Algiers, and agreed to release French prisoners of war in exchange for the bishop’s promise to press the French military to release Arab prisoners – which he did, with only limited success. If the French soldiers knew that they would not be slaughtered by the enemy if taken prisoner, they might not fight quite so passionately. As a French Colonel wrote, “We are obliged to try as hard as we can to hide these things [the treatment accorded French prisoners by the Emir] from our soldiers. For if they so much as suspected such things, they would not hasten with such fury against Abd el-Kader.”

Prisoners who were brought to Abd el-Kader were questioned to make sure they had been treated well on their journey; if they weren’t, the Algerian soldier responsible for their care was flogged. Female captives were turned over to the care of the one person in the world that Abd el-Kader trusted most: his own mother.

But the French were too strong, and Abd el-Kader’s Algerians were too disunited. By 1847 he wasn’t fighting a war so much as he was evading capture. His lieutenants were starting to surrender to the French. Abd el-Kader took his family to Morocco, seeking refuge there, but were refused by the Sultan, who did not want to anger the French. Many of his remaining loyal followers wanted to launch one last attack, to go out in a blaze of glory. Abd el-Kader refused.

“If I thought there were still a possibility to defeat France, I would continue. Further resistance will only create vain suffering. We must accept the judgment of God who has not given us victory and who in His infinite wisdom now wants this land to belong to Christians. Are we going to oppose His will?”

In December, 1847, Abd el-Kader sent word to General Lamoriciére, now leading the battle against him, that he was prepared to discuss the terms of his surrender. An agreement was reached, and signed by the King’s own son, that Abd el-Kader and his men would surrender, ending the 15-year war, in exchange for safe passage to Alexandria or Acre in Egypt, where Abd el-Kader planned to live out the rest of his days.

And once again, Abd el-Kader was betrayed when an agreement he reached with one Frenchman did not go over well with the rest of them. The French had more important things on their mind than what to do with Abd el-Kader – the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe was collapsing, and in February of 1848 he abdicated before he could be overthrown. The new government refused to ratify the agreement. Abd el-Kader and his family were instead forcibly moved to France, where they were held prisoner – in fairly luxurious surroundings – for over four years.

The French betrayal of Abd el-Kader only made him a more heroic figure in the eyes of the world. In 1850, a horse named Abd el-Kader (nicknamed “Little Ab”) was entered into the Grand National Steeple Chase in England. The horse, a 33-1 longshot, won. And won the same race the following year. The British author William Thackeray wrote an elegy to Abd el-Kader entitled “The Caged Hawk.” De Tocqueville himself called Abd el-Kader “a Muslim Cromwell.”

And within France, Abd el-Kader became a sort of celebrity. “A cult of sorts began to form around the personality of the emir. People streamed from all over France to visit him.” It was, I imagine, sort of the 19th-century version of going to see the Pope at Yankee Stadium. At one point Abd el-Kader was assigned a new French guard who had requested to be transferred; “he wanted the honor of guarding the emir to repay the consideration with which he had been treated as a former prisoner.” As a nun who cared for Abd el-Kader’s family wrote to her superior, “Allowing for certain exceptions of a theological nature, there is no Christian virtue that Abd el-Kader does not practice to the highest degree.”

In 1849, citizens of Bordeaux put Abd el-Kader’s name on the ballot as a candidate in the presidential elections. By 1852, French public opinion had turned in favor of their fallen enemy, and the elected President, Louis Napoleon (soon to be Emperor Napoleon III), announced that Abd el-Kader was to be freed. After a triumphant parade through Paris, Abd el-Kader and his family were sent to Bursa, a Turkish city not far from Istanbul. Bursa did not agree with the emir, though, and in 1855 – after obtaining approval from Napoleon – Abd el-Kader moved to Damascus.

On the way to Damascus, Abd el-Kader met and befriended the British military attaché in Lebanon, Colonel Charles Henry Churchill – distant cousin of Winston. Churchill would eventually write the definitive biography of Abd el-Kader of his time. When Abd el-Kader arrived in Damascus, as Churchill wrote, “Not since the days of Saladin had anyone received such a triumphal welcome.”


And so it was that in 1860, Abd el-Kader, the tragic hero of the Arab world, found himself in the epicenter of the maelstrom of mayhem. Abd el-Kader had retired from political life, but he still wielded a substantial amount of symbolic power, should he need it. He would.

Connected as he was to the elites of Damascus, Abd el-Kader had heard rumors that certain elements of Damascene society were planning to take advantage of the violence in nearby Lebanon to launch an attack on the local Christians. He was sufficiently concerned to inform the French Consul, and together they went to see the governor, Ahmed Pasha, not realizing that the conspiracy went all the way to the top. Pasha reassured them that there was nothing to the rumors.

Nonetheless, the rumors were so persistent that the Consul was persuaded to do something extraordinary: under the tightest of secrecy, he authorized the expenditure of French money to arm Abd el-Kader and a thousand of his Algerian men.

On July 8th, Abd el-Kader had learned the details of the plot between the Druze and the Turks, and had rode out of the city to confront the Druze cavalry before they attacked. He – and his small army – succeeding in, ahem, convincing the Druze to call off their attack. Meanwhile, though, he was oblivious to the fact that there was a mob already sweeping through Damascus.

He returned to the city on July 10th, and found chaos before him. “Abd el-Kader soon learned that the Turkish troops assigned to protect the populace had been ordered into the citadel or were lackadaisically watching as rioters were running amok, burning homes and slaughtering Christians.”

And at that moment, Abd el-Kader, the man who had led his Muslim people in a war against Christian invaders for 15 years, knew what he had to do. And that he had to do it quickly.

First he and his men hurried to the French consulate to offer safe harbor; the French were immediately joined by Russian, American, Dutch, and Greek diplomats looking to flee the scene. And then:

All afternoon of July 10, Abd el-Kader plunged into the chaos of the Christian quarter with his two sons shouting: “Christians, come with me! I am Abd el-Kader, son of Muhi al-Din, the Algerian…Trust me. I will protect you.” For several hours his Algerians led hesitant Christians to his fortresslike home in the Nekib Allée, whose two-story interior and large courtyards would become a refuge for the desperate victims.

“As night advanced fresh hordes of marauders – Kurds, Arabs, Druzes – entered the quarter and swelled the furious mob, who, glutted with spoil, began to cry for blood. Men and boys of all ages were forced to apostatize and were then circumcised on the spot…Women were raped or hurried away to distant parts of the country where they were put in harems or married instantly to Mohammedans,” wrote Churchill of the events. “To say that the Turks took no means to stay this huge deluge of massacre and fire would be superfluous. They connived at it, they instigated it, they shared in it. Abd el-Kader alone stood between the living and the dead.”

Abd el-Kader returned with his men, and every Christian they could pull away to safety, to his estate.

News spread among the rioters that the emir was protecting the Christians. The next day an angry crowd gathered at his door to protest. They were prepared to tolerate his harboring diplomats, but demanded that he hand over the local Christians under his protection. As the mob got larger and more unruly, the emir came to the door.

“Give us the Christians,” the crowd shouted after he had quieted it by his silent presence.

“My brothers, your behavior violates the law of God. What makes you think you have a right to go around killing innocent people? Have you sunk so low that you are slaughtering women and children? Didn’t God say in our holy book, Whoever kills a man who has never committed murder or created disorder in the land will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity?

“Give us the Christians! We want the Christians!”

“Didn’t God say there should be no constraint in religion?” the emir vainly replied.

“Oh holy warrior,” cried out one of the leaders in the mob. “We don’t want your advice. Why do you stick your nose in our business?”

“You have killed Christians yourself,” shouted another. “How can you oppose us for avenging their insults. You are like the infidels yourself – hand over those you are protecting in your home, or you will be punished the same as those you are hiding.”

“You are fools! The Christians I killed were invaders and occupiers who were ravaging our country. If acting against God’s law doesn’t frighten you, then think about the punishment you will receive from men…It will be terrible, I promise. If you will not listen to me, then God didn’t provide you with reason – you are like animals who are aroused only by the sight of grass and water.”

“You can keep the diplomats. Give us the Christians!” shouted the mob, sounding more and more like Romans in the Coloseum.

“As long as one of my soldiers is still standing, you will not touch them. They are my guests. Murderers of women and children, you sons of sin, try to take one of these Christians and you will learn how well my soldiers fight.” The emir turned to Kara Mohammed. “Get my weapons, my horse. We will fight for a just cause, just as the one we fought for before.”

“God is great,” his men shouted, brandishing their guns and swords. Faced with the emir’s battle-hardened veterans, the crowd melted away bravely hurling insults.

Well over a thousand Christian refugees were housed inside Abd el-Kader’s home, making it so crowded that people could not sit or lie down, let alone use the facilities. So Abd el-Kader arranged for small groups of his Algerian men to accompany the Christians, in groups of 100, to the citadel outside the city – the same citadel that the Druze had originally planned to use to slaughter them.

The residence was finally emptied out and cleaned. Abd el-Kader then circulated word that a reward of fifty piasters would be paid for each Christian brought to his home. For five days, the emir rarely slept, and when he did, it was on a straw mat in the foyer of his residence where he dispensed reward money from a sack he kept by his side. As soon as 100 refugees were collected, his Algerians escorted them to the citadel.

The worst of the rioting ended on July 13th, 1860 – one hundred and fifty years ago today. At least 3,000 Christians were killed before it was all over. Abd el-Kader was credited with saving upwards of 10,000 Christians, including the entire European diplomatic corps.

Word reached France a week later – both the horrifying news of the massacre, and the incredible news of Abd el-Kader’s pivotal role in stopping it. The French were in equal parts ecstatic and dumbfounded. Editorials praising his actions were printed in newspapers throughout the country. Le Gazette de France wrote:

“The emir Abd el-Kader has immortalized himself by the courageous protection he has given the Syrian Christians. One of the most beautiful pages of the history of the 19th century will be devoted to him.” Another paper wrote: “When the carnage was at its worst, the emir appeared in the streets, as if sent by God.”

Word traveled across the Atlantic in due course. On October 20th, the New York Times published its own editorial:

“For Abd-El-Kader this is indeed a chapter of glory, and of the truest glory, too. It is no light thing for history to record, that the most uncompromising soldier of Mohammedan independence, when that independence kept the mountains, sword in band, became the most intrepid guardian of Christian lives and Christian honor in the days of his political downfall, and in the decline alike of his people and of his faith. The defeats which surrendered Algiers to the Frank have been strangely and nobly avenged…To-day the Christian world unites to honor in the dethroned Prince of Islam, the most unselfish of knightly warriors, risking limb and life to rescue his ancient foes, his conquerors and the conquerors of his race and his religion, from outrage and from death.”

(Amazingly, the New York Times has archives that date back to 1851. You can read the full editorial here.)

Abd el-Kader was not the only Muslim who strove to defend the Christians of Damascus from the raging mob. In particular, in the area of Damascus known as Maydan, which (then and now) was home to the most devoutly religious Muslims in the city, Muslims hid and protected their Christian neighbors from the violence. But Abd el-Kader became the face of those Muslims who had stood up to defend the Christian community, and as such, honors and accolades descended upon him from all over the world.

The French immediately bestowed upon Abd el-Kader, who barely a decade before had been their greatest enemy, the French Legion of Honor. (This would be like America, in 1987, awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Ho Chi Minh.) Russia, Spain, Prussia, Great Britain, and the Pope all awarded various distinctions on Abd el-Kader. And from the United States came a gift of a pair of finely wrought colt pistols – one source claims they were made of gold – delivered in a maple box which bore the inscription: “From the President of the United States, to his Excellency, Lord Abdelkader, 1860.”

(Two of my sources claim the gift was sent by President Lincoln, not President Buchanan. While this would make the story even better – one of our best presidents rather than one of our worst – Lincoln did not take office until March, 1861.)

Abd el-Kader was characteristically modest about his role. In a letter to the Bishop of Algiers, he wrote,

“…That which we did for the Christians, we did to be faithful to Islamic law and out of respect for human rights. All creatures are part of God’s family and those most loved by God are those who do the most good for his family. All the religions of the book rest on two principles – to praise God and to have compassion for his creatures…The law of Mohammed places the greatest importance on compassion and mercy, and on all that which preserves social cohesion and protects us from division. But those who belong to the religion of Mohammed have corrupted it, which is why they are now like lost sheep. Thank you for your prayers and good will toward me…”

The impact of the massacre was significant. As soon as word reached France, an army was dispatched to Lebanon. The Turkish sultan, looking to deprive the French of a reason to invade, dispatched his own army to Damascus to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. In the end, over 300 men were found guilty, half of whom were exiled from the empire. The others were sentenced to death, including the governor, Ahmed Pasha, who was shot. But the lingering question of who was the true instigator of the unrest – whether it was the Turks who wanted revenge, or whether it was even the British or French who were looking for an excuse to occupy Syria – remains unsolved to this day.

Meanwhile, the French and British both still had designs on the area, and as a bridge until the day came when they could officially colonize the region, the idea was floated of installing Abd el-Kader as the ruler of Damascus. The only problem was that Abd el-Kader had no interest. As he told a visiting French journalist, “My career in politics is over. I have no ambition for worldly glory. From now on, I want only the sweet pleasures of family, prayer, and peace.”

He was true to his word. Abd el-Kader lived out the rest of his days in Damascus, and his residence was on the must-visit list of any European who came to the city. In 1869, Abd el-Kader was influential in convincing the Arabs of the worthiness of a project to build a canal to link the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, which helped to make the Suez Canal a reality.

Otherwise, Abd el-Kader lived a life of simple spirituality, spending much of his time writing a commentary on the works of Ibn Arabi, the famous 13th-century Muslim scholar. He died of renal failure on May 25th, 1883, and was buried next to Ibn Arabi’s tomb in Damascus. The New York Times ran an obituary a few months before his death, which read in part:

“One of the ablest rulers and most brilliant captains of the century, if the estimates made of him by his enemies is correct, is now, in all probability approaching the end of his stormy career…The nobility of his character, no less than the brilliancy of his exploits in the field, long ago won him the admiration of the world…Great men are not so abundant that we can afford to lose them without a word. If to be an ardent patriot, a soldier whose genius is unquestioned, whose honor is stainless; a statesman who could weld the wild tribes of Africa into a formidable enemy, a hero who could accept defeat and disaster without a murmur – if all these constitutes a great man, Abd-El-Kader deserves to be ranked among the foremost of the few great men of the century.”


One of the youngest people to accompany Abd el-Kader on his journey into exile, first to France and later to Damascus, was Muhammad Yunus, who was just seven years old when he left Algeria. When the mob invaded Damascus. Muhammad Yunus Al-Jaza’iri (Al-Jaza’iri is Arabic for “The Algerian”) was in his early 20s, but he had already earned a position as a trusted confidant to Abd el-Kader and occupied a high place in the emir’s army, and he played a pivotal role in rescuing the Christians from the mob. Which isn’t surprising, as Muhammad Yunus’ own father, Muhammad Sha’aban, had been one of Abd el-Kader’s most trusted lieutenants during the war in Algeria. Also, Abd el-Kader was his uncle.

While Abd el-Kader’s fame made him untouchable, those around him were not so lucky. Muhammad Yunus was poisoned and died suddenly in 1880. The Druze were suspected, but nothing was ever proved.

When Muhammad Yunus died, Abd el-Kader himself was the executor of his estate, and until he passed away Abd el-Kader served as the guardian to Muhammad Yunus’ young son, Mahmoud, my great-grandfather.

Muhammad Yunus was my great-great-grandfather.

Abd el-Kader, as best as we can discern from the genealogy records, was my great-great-great-great uncle.

I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, and particularly since 9/11 I have tried, when circumstances allow, to make this an underlying theme in my work: that Muslims and Christians can live together, that there is more that unites us than divides us, that it is only the extremists on both sides who want to see a Clash of Civilizations, and not co-existence, rule the day.

Just know that greater men have tread this way before. My efforts to do so are a speck of dust on top of a mighty mountain of tolerance my ancestors built in 1860. I am honored to play whatever miniscule part I can in echoing the message that Abd el-Kader spread so eloquently, and with such impact, 150 years ago today.

(All italicized words above are quoted directly from John W. Kiser’s wonderful book, Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader, without which this article could not have been written.)

Enjoy the All-Star Break, everyone. There will be a baseball post here soon enough.