In the compelling Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (best known for “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) has created a piece of advocacy journalism that deserves to be read and discussed. I plowed straight through the first 200+ pages on Sunday night, stopping only when I simply couldn’t stay awake. Then I finished it last night, after impatiently putting the kids to bed. Positive reviews and summaries are starting to come in, and there’s a nice interview with Eggers over at Salon.
This non-fiction work chronicles the lives of Abdulrahman and Kathy (nee Delphine) Zeitoun, a Muslim couple living in New Orleans in 2005, when the city was brought down by Hurricane Katrina.
Eggers masterfully sketches out the successful but somewhat plain lives of the couple in sympathetic detail, using the lead-up to Katrina for descriptions of and digressions into: their successful contracting business; Abdulrahman’s ancestry and childhood in Syria (including a lavish description of his aquaphobic father and his late brother, who became arguably the greatest ocean swimmer in the world); Kathy’s Christian upbringing and her conversion to Islam; and, most significantly, the couple’s loving relationship and their warm family (including Kathy’s son from a brief, early marriage and the couple’s three daughters).
Like any good documentary work, Zeitoun ties the joys, stress, travails and humiliations of the Zeitoun family to the larger issues of our collective national failure during and after Katrina. (The story doesn’t dwell on the failures that allowed Katrina to devastate the city; for that, see this and this.) As was typical when severe hurricane warnings were posted, Kathy and the kids evacuated the city while Abdul remained behind to protect their home and the many rental properties the Zeitouns owned and managed. The book effectively cross-cuts between Kathy’s odyssey (involving nasty relatives, interminable traffic, and — finally — escape to her best friend’s home in Phoenix) and Abdulrahman’s heroism and subsequent incarceration.
After the flood, Zeitoun (as he’s mostly called) used his canoe — which he’d bought for no real reason some time ago, but now saw as providential — to rescue people who might otherwise have drowned, and to feed dogs who would otherwise have starved. Eggers effectively reflects Zeitoun’s own sense that he was meant by God to stay, and that his actions were heroic (although Zeitoun would never have used that word himself). Yet from the start, Zeitoun and other residents are treated as annoyances by the very government rescuers who were supposed to be helping them. At one point, two government speed boats zoom past the canoe, almost capsizing it and ignoring his plea to stop. In another inexplicable incident, Zeitoun is unable convince government workers to do anything to rescue an elderly couple that will surely otherwise drown. (Zeitoun and a friend are forced to return and improvise a risky strategy of their own.) Yet for the first two-thirds of the book, the reader is somehow buoyed (sorry!) by the can-doism of Zeitoun and his fellow residents (especially Todd Gambino, who might have rescued as many as 200 people).
Then the book turns dark. Kathy can no longer contact her husband, and, assuming him dead, falls apart by degree (It can’t get worse than this, she thinks.). But Zeitoun isn’t dead; he’s been imprisoned. Zeitoun and others (including Gambino) captured in a house that Zeitoun owned were arrested, placed in a makeshift prison at the New Orleans Greyhound station, and then transferred to a maximum security prison. For almost three weeks, Zeitoun was given no reason for the arrest (there were unofficial statements that he and one of his fellow prisoners “were al Qaeda”), not arraigned, and not even allowed to make a phone call to his wife. The conditions in the prisons made sleep or comfort almost impossible. Despite severe and disabling pain, he was never granted access to a doctor. He was given food (pork) that he couldn’t eat. This is the man Kathy found after those three weeks:
“He looked like a different man, a smaller man, with longer hair, almost all of it white….He’s so small, she thought….She could feel his shoulder blades, his ribs. His neck seemd so thin and fragile, his arms skeletal. She pulled back, and his eyes were the same — but they were tired, defeated. She had never seen this in him. He had been broken.”
The reasons for the treatment of Zeitoun and thousands of others (Gambino spent five months in prison, and after charges were dropped, never recovered over $2,000 that had been taken from him) are complex, but a few realities emerge:
Once FEMA was made subordinate to Homeland Security, the focus — even in a situation that was clearly a natural disaster and not a terrorist strike — changed from public health and emergency management to law enforcement. Homeland Security had thought through how terrorists might exploit the aftermath of a natural calamity and then, doubtless fueled by hysterical media reports about looting, rape and murder, worried less about rescue and provision of basic services than crime prevention. Consider the construction of the emergency prison and the vast amount of time and money that went into it; this isn’t what one does in regard to a public health catastrophe. (See pages 236-237 for a vivid account of this issue.) As Professors Wendy Mariner, George Annas and Wendy Parmet state in a recent article: “Since September 11, 2001, emergency preparedness policies have shifted their focus from public health to national security….[T]his shift is both contradictory and ineffective.” Zeitoun makes this point graphically.
Further, once the issue moves away from emergency management and public health to law enforcement, the potential for abuse soars. Law enforcement will avail itself of all available tools, and, given the opportunity, will come to reflect the worst prejudices of the society. Thus, it’s never entirely clear what impact Zeitoun’s Middle Eastern appearance had on his treatment (was it really all about looting? but then why no chance to explain, no chance to make a phone call?), but it is plain that his African-American cellmates were there at least in part because of their skin color and racial profiling. This story is the worst:
“One man said he was a sanitation worker from Houston. His company had been contracted shortly after the storm to come in and begin the cleanup. One morning he was walking from the hotel to his truck when a National Guard truck pulled up. He was arrested on the spot, handcuffed, and brought to Camp Greyhound….He was in uniform, and had identification, the keys to his truck, everything. But nothing worked. He was charged with looting and put in the cages….” (pp. 258-59)
Don’t even get me started on the FEMA trailer debacle that forms a kind of slapstick sideshow to this extraordinary work. (It’s detailed on pages 308-310. Preview: a trailer is pretty much useless if you can’t get into it.)
The book concludes with a chapter about the Zeitouns’ life now. Abdulrahman is more of a workaholic than ever, seemingly trying to forget by rebuilding. And “Kathy has lost her memory. It’s shredded, unreliable.” Because of what happened to her husband, she’s become a fretting mother, afraid to allow her kids the freedom they need to develop.
The Zeitouns (especially Abdulrahman) emerge as particularly resilient, emblematic of the American optimism and capacity for reinvention that may have led this Syrian national here. Not even the Department of Homeland Security was able to crush that spirit.
By all means, buy this book. Eggers is getting none of the royalties, having committed them to various relief organizations that are spelled out at the end of the work. And it will keep you up late.