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Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

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  • Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

    Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

    In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, longtime New Orleans residents Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun are cast into unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water. Good Samaritan Abdulrahman has stayed on in the city, traversing its deeply flooded streets by canoe, feeding trapped dogs and rescuing survivors, as New Orleans becomes a disaster zone. But nothing could prepare him for the wholly unexpected nightmare that follows.....

  • #2
    Valerie Martin:

    March 21, 2010 -- On 19 September 2005, Kathy Zeitoun answered the phone at her friend Yuko's house in Phoenix, Arizona. The caller identified himself as an official in the Department of Homeland Security. He informed her that her husband, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, was a prisoner at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Centre in St Gabriel, Louisiana. "He's fine, ma'am. We have no more interest in him." "You have no interest in him? Is that good or bad?" "That's good."

    Dave Eggers's latest book, Zeitoun, patiently unravels the harrowing tale of how Kathy Zeitoun, a Louisiana native who grew up in a southern Baptist family in Baton Rouge, came to be on the other end of that phone call in Phoenix, where she learned that her husband, who had been missing for two weeks, was still alive, and not, as she'd feared, murdered or drowned in the floodwaters still inundating the city of New Orleans. She had last seen him on 27 August, when she and their four children evacuated the city before the approaching hurricane. Zeitoun insisted on staying behind to look after their various properties. As the children waved to their father, Kathy experienced a sense of déjà vu.

    A dozen times they had lived this moment, as Kathy and his children drove off in search of sanctuary or rest, leaving Zeitoun to watch over his house and the houses of his neighbours and clients all over the city. He had keys to dozens of other houses; everyone trusted him with their homes and everything in them. The hurricane, as everyone knows, was Katrina, and it battered the city with the expected wind and rain, while Zeitoun and many thousands of his fellow citizens – some jammed into the comfortless shelter of the Superdome, some in their own beds – stayed awake and listened. His house sustained minor leaks he contained in buckets. Electrical power went out. The next day passed quietly, as did another night. On 30 August, Zeitoun woke to the sound of running water, which he first took to be a broken pipe. His ordeal had begun.

    Zeitoun is an odd book, not beautifully written and not always entirely credible. It was produced with the assistance and approval of the Zeitoun family, and all author proceeds go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which is dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans. David Eggers is a serious good-doer, a writer of enormous energy, determined to make the world better by virtue of the stories he investigates and puts forward. He first read a short version of Abdulrahman Zeitoun's story in a collection titled Voices from the Storm, part of the Voice of Witness series published by McSweeney's, the publishing company Eggers founded and directs.

    Zeitoun's account so fascinated Eggers that he met the family and persuaded them to undertake an expanded treatment of their experience. In a print interview, Eggers confessed that he "fell in love with the whole family", which accounts for the queasy-making hagiographic tribute that occupies the first 80 or so pages of the book. The style is cloying. Reading it is like being fed spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk, but if you just keep swallowing, you'll get some interesting family background, useful information about Islam, and a fair idea of what daily life for a Syrian painting contractor and his family in New Orleans is like. Once the family is separated and the waters rise, the story takes off, and even the style improves. What happens to Zeitoun in the days after the flood is spellbinding, and gradually you see what Eggers is after – nothing less than an indictment of the entire Bush era, of its whole xenophobic, anti-Islamic, militaristic, and belligerent take on the world beyond our sacred shores.

    Zeitoun, a devout Muslim who spends the first days after the flood rowing around in his canoe rescuing people in distress and feeding dogs left trapped inside flooded houses, feels he is called by God to do this good work. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: "God has a plan." As the waters turn toxic and the city empties out, a group of heavily armed men burst through the door and arrest Zeitoun for looting his own house. After that, things get much worse for him, and for his family, who are condemned to getting news from the media, which is spewing exaggerations, falsehoods and paranoid fantasies with the concentrated force of, well, a hurricane. A war-crazy populace is encouraged to believe a drowned city is a war zone. The governor goes on TV to inform the miserable survivors who may consider looting that she has called in more National Guardsmen, and that "they have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will."

    In a Salon interview, Eggers described the descent of the armed upon a suffering population as "a legacy of the war on terror, this mentality that an overwhelming military response was the solution to a humanitarian crisis". At one point, poor Kathy desperately searches the internet to find out how many gun-toting law enforcement officials have been turned loose in a city in which perhaps 30,000 people are left, struggling to survive. The figure Kathy comes up with is 28,000. I thought her figure might be a little high, so I did a bit of internet research myself. Between 29 August and 10 September, the number of National Guard troops sent to manage the chaos in New Orleans went from 7,841 to 46,838. This doesn't include the scores of privately hired Blackwater mercenaries, as well as an Israeli commando group called Instinctive Shooting International. It wasn't a rescue operation the government was running; it was an invasion.

    As for Zeitoun, he roasts for awhile in a Guantanamo-style cage behind the bus station, where the guards inform him that he is al-Qaida. When he is finally returned to his family he has lost 20 pounds and looks to his wife like "a sad old man". He's still convinced God had something to do with it. "It was a test," Zeitoun thinks. "Who among us could deny that we were tested?" He's right about that. Hurricane Katrina was a test. But it wasn't sent by God to test the devotion of a Syrian painting contractor in New Orleans. It was a test of the ability of a nation to protect its people, and that nation failed the test, big time. Abdulrahman Zeitoun's grim saga is a testament to this disturbing and depressing fact.


    • #3
      Claire Allfree:

      April 1, 2010 -- Some books make your blood boil. This, although imperfect, is one of them. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Kathy Zeitoun left the city with her children to stay with friends, leaving her Syrian-born husband Abdulrahman behind. Zeitoun was determined to protect the family home plus the rental properties he owned; he also felt compelled to stay and help. For a week he paddled the waterlogged streets, providing assistance where he could, before he was abruptly arrested by a group of armed soldiers, supposedly for looting, taken away, strip-searched and placed inside a 5m by 5m cage, one of many in a hastily erected compound a few blocks from New Orleans’s Superdome. He was denied access to a telephone and proper food, and watched as soldiers regularly pepper-sprayed other inmates. After four days, he was transferred to a high-security prison, again denied access to a telephone before, ten days later, he was finally released. Dave Eggers’s third-person narrative style as he pieces together this incredible story isn’t always effective: in the book’s first half there is little critical distance from the Zeitouns, and his two-dimensional hagiography does them a disservice. Only when Zeitoun is imprisoned does the matter-of-fact prose acquire a sinister power, lending the inscrutable face of Kafka-esque totalitarianism to government security forces high on a mix of gun-toting power and paranoid xenophobia. Zeitoun is a jaw-dropping critique of an administration so obsessed with counter-terrorist policy it prioritised rounding up innocent people at the expense of providing water, food and housing to a stricken city. Read it and weep.


      • #4
        Molly McCloskey:

        April 3, 2010 -- If you type “Hurricane Katrina” into you will get more than 2,000 results: books on the disaster written by public-health officials, storm chasers, journalists, urban planners, crisis counsellors, black intellectuals, those who found God, mitigation and preparedness experts, emergency responders, poets. There is a book of post-Katrina recipes. There is a memoir by a dog. My favourite – though I didn’t make it through all the titles – is called Nice try, Katrina! Now the American writer Dave Eggers has added Zeitoun, a non-fiction account of events as seen through the eyes of a Syrian-American living in New Orleans, to the list.

        Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his American wife, Kathy, run a busy painting and property-management business. They are devoted parents to four children, hard working, conscientious. They are good neighbours and devout Muslims. (Kathy converted to Islam from Christianity some years before meeting her husband.) As the storm gathers force during the last week of August 2005, Kathy takes the kids to Baton Rouge. Zeitoun, even as a mandatory evacuation order is issued, opts to stay. As well as his own home, he has a handful of properties he wants to keep an eye on.

        The hurricane hits early on the morning of August 29th. By that evening the water in the streets around Zeitoun’s house has receded. The damage outside is extensive, but nothing worse than he’s seen after a handful of other storms. So that’s that, he thinks. But the nightmare has only begun. The next morning he wakes to a rapidly rising river outside his door. The levees have been breached. By nightfall his neighbourhood is under three metres of water.

        Zeitoun, a physically strong man with a freezer full of food, plenty of water and an aluminium canoe, decides to paddle out to check on one of his properties. Almost immediately he comes upon an elderly woman trapped in her flooded home. He arranges a rescue. By day’s end he has assisted in the rescue of four more elderly people. He spends the next few days looking for opportunities to help, transporting people from their ruined houses and feeding trapped, abandoned dogs. Kathy, by now in Phoenix with the kids, is begging him to leave the city – the news is full of reports of armed gangs, looting and lawlessness. But Zeitoun has never felt such a sense of purpose; he’ll hold out a little longer.

        Eggers is good at depicting the increasingly surreal sights Zeitoun encounters and the post-apocalyptic stillness of the submerged city. When Zeitoun comes upon a group of dead puppies on the interstate overpass, some of them shot several times, he begins to think maybe Kathy is right. Maybe it’s time he got out. By now the city is full of armed forces: private security firms (including one called Instinctive Shooting International), state and local police, National Guard, Swat teams, Border Patrol tactical units, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals special-ops teams, snipers. Seven days after Katrina, as Zeitoun is making a phone call from one of his houses – he phones Kathy every day at noon – six people in uniforms carrying M-16s show up. It will be 13 days before Kathy receives any news of her husband, by which time she has concluded, quite logically, that he is dead.

        What happened to Zeitoun following his arrest – along with three other men at the house – comprises the second half of Eggers’s narrative, a Kafkaesque tale for the post-9/11 age. Good Samaritan Zeitoun was held for 23 days without charge – first at “Camp Greyhound” (a series of wire cages erected in the parking lot of the New Orleans bus station), then at a nearby maximum-security prison. He was never read his rights and never allowed a phone call. Plastic bullets, pepper spray, rectal searches – all in a day’s work for the guards at Camp Greyhound.

        The temporary jail had been constructed in the days immediately following Katrina to house inmates from a nearby prison that was expected to flood. But responsibility for prisoners from New Orleans fell to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, following 9/11, had been folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Zeitoun was an innocent victim of this union. Though his arrest apparently resulted from confusion and carelessness, and not because he was Syrian, once his nationality was known he was regarded as a possible terrorist. Those he was arrested with (two of them white Americans, the other Syrian) fared worse, spending between five and eight months in prison before charges against them were dropped. Between them they had more than $12,000 confiscated upon their arrest, none of which they ever recovered.

        Dave Eggers’s debut work was the best-selling A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a wonderful memoir about raising his younger brother following their parents’ deaths from cancer. He has since written novels, screenplays and children’s books, and is the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house. He co-founded 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing centre for inner-city kids in San Francisco (and the inspiration for Fighting Words, a similar venture in Dublin established by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love). He is donating all his proceeds from Zeitoun to the Zeitoun Foundation, which funds projects aimed at rebuilding New Orleans and promoting respect for human rights.

        The Katrina disaster exposed the U.S. government to charges of racism (if it had been white Americans trapped and homeless, federal assistance would presumably have been quicker to arrive) and of having failed to make investments that could have mitigated the disaster: more than 25 years ago authorities were advised that the levees in New Orleans would not survive a storm of Katrina’s force. Dave Eggers has highlighted another dark twist to the story. Although he depicts Zeitoun and Kathy as so spotlessly good they can occasionally feel a tad unreal, and though his lessons on Islam can read like simplistic correctives to American prejudices, he has produced a gripping, provocative and necessary work whose heart is most definitely in the right place.


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