Friday, November 5, 2010
Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun"
But a friend highly recommended it, and so I bought it and have now read it. It wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. It was about the hurricane, and about one family’s experiences. But the real story snuck up and hit me right between the eyes.
Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their children are a Muslim family living in New Orleans. He is a native of Syria; she is from Baton Rouge and was a convert to Islam before they met (she’d been raised a Southern Baptist – now there’s a change). They owned an operated a home building/rehabbing/painting business in New Orleans, and also owned several rental properties in the city, several near their uptown New Orleans home.
As Katrina approached, Kathy left with the children and went to Baton Rouge to stay with family; she’d eventually end up with a close friend in Phoenix. Abdulrahman chose to stay in the city through the storm, to protect their home and, to the extent he could, the other properties they owned. For the first week after the storm, he paddled his aluminum canoe all over the uptown area, helping rescue stranded people and even feeding dogs left behind by neighbors. He maintained phone contact with Kathy through a landline that still worked at one of their rental homes.
And then – he disappears. Kathy will not hear from him or of him for more than three weeks.
I expected the story to turn toward the lawlessness and gangs that were roaming the city in the absence of established order. I didn’t expect that it was at the hands of established order that Zeitoun would find himself arrested without a warrant, held without charges, not allowed a phone call, strip-searched, placed in a fenced cell, given food his religion forbade him from eating, and then eventually taken to a prison near Baton Rouge. Only when a Christian missionary smuggled out a message did Kathy find out where he was.
Dave Eggers, who writes non-fiction like Tracy Kidder (House; Soul of a New Machine; Strength in What Remains), tells the story of one family’s experience with Katrina, yes, much like it was the story of thousands of other families, except with a difference – this family was Muslim, and Abdulrahman was de facto suspected by the “police authorities” of being a terrorist.
It says much about the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans and the surrounding region, and the interim order that was restored by the federal government, that his incarceration lasted for weeks. All you really need to know to explain so much of what happened is that this was done under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.
FEMA couldn’t get food or water to thousands at the Superdome or New Orleans Convention Center. But within three days of the storm hitting the city, FEMA managed to have a temporary prison erected at the New Orleans Amtrak station, a prison that would eventually house more than 1,200 people, with food, water and supplies for guards and prisoners alike. The Superdome is two blocks – two blocks! – from the train station; the convention center is about 10 blocks away.
This is America, an America with a government so frightened that innocent citizens were vacuumed into an anti-terrorist machine while others were dying in attics and on the streets because that machine couldn’t figure out how to rescue them.
The charges against Abdulrahman were eventually dropped. He and Kathy eventually filed a lawsuit, which will wait in line for years with the other lawsuits filed against incompetence, stupidity and fear.
Eggers has told an important story, the story of what can happen when a government charged with protecting its citizens instead turns on them.
And this was our government. This is our government.
I don’t know what to say. No story is ever all black and white, and Eggers doesn’t tell this one that way. I can understand mistakes being made in the chaos that followed Katrina; what I can’t understand is why the mistakes couldn’t have been admitted and rectified. Innocent American citizens and residents were jailed without benefit of having charges made, without a court hearing, without bail being set for weeks, without even being allowed a phone call, and subjected to humiliation, degradation and brutality.
Perhaps Eggers should have borrowed the title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s short novel about the Soviet Union, We Never Make Mistakes.