Monday, December 06, 2010


Zeitoun is written by Dave Eggers about a man named Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy. It's sort of the same idea as Eggers brilliant and beautiful What is the What. Zeitoun and Kathy lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and chronicles what happened to their family. Zeitoun wouldn't evacuate the city with his wife and children because he owned a construction company and several rental properties and wanted to make sure they were in order, and, like many others, he had no idea how bad the storm would be.

The first part is how they learned about the storm and deciding whether or not to leave town, the second is how Zeitoun lived in the flooded city and some of the things he did to help people and animals, while his wife tried to find a place for her and the kids to stay. This part is really fascinating because Zeitoun had a canoe, which he used to help a handful of people, and he slept on the roof of his garage in a tent (because it was too hot in the house) quite happily. He fed neighborhood dogs that were trapped in their houses.

The story of his wife's adventures are less action-packed, but the story of her life is really interesting - she's a southern woman who converted to Islam and married the Syrian immigrant, Zeitoun. Her own family is unsupportive of her choices and her former Christian mega-church mocked her honest exploration of the Muslim faith. Her experience as a Muslim woman in the south could have made a great book in its own right.

The third part of the book came as rather a shock to me because I had no idea it was coming - Zeitoun was unlawfully imprisoned by FEMA agents and kept in jail without sentencing or a phone call for over a month. He was abused, served pork products that he couldn't eat, isolated and kept like an animal in an outdoor cage without so much as a blanket or a bed. He was arrested with one of his tenants and two companions on his own property. His companions had it even worse than him - they spent 5, 6 and 8 months in jail and lost all their possessions and savings. The book is a really horrifying tale of human rights abuses, not merely those related to how Zeitoun was treated but also how the swarms of military sent to New Orleans after the hurricane were not only ineffectual but caused more damage. Zeitoun, for example, paddling in his canoe was able to locate people who needed help because he could hear them. The military response rode giant boats that were loud and created dangerous waves. A "rescue" helicopter nearly killed him.

In summary, the Zeitouns seemed to be suffering from some fairly severe post-traumatic stress disorder - I hope they're doing better now. The betrayal of a government they trusted and the hatefulness of those in power destroyed some of their faith in humanity. It was very disturbing to read. Like many Eggers book, this one ends with pages of organizations to combat human rights violations and rebuild New Orleans, so if you finish with the desire to do more, you can.

1 comment:

KHM said...

Just finished this. Good read. I wish Eggers had spent as much time on the failures and disconnects in the response as he did on the Zeitouns. Because even after so much discussion of Katrina failures, the particular failures Zeitoun experienced were completely news to me. And horrifying all over again.

I found myself, like Kathy and Zeitoun, agog and asking over and over "in America? This is happening IN AMERICA?". And I'm pretty cynical already, sooo....