ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers is well-worth reading as a reminder of how easily one tragedy can beget another. Abdulrahmun Zeitoun was born in Syria and settled in Louisiana in 1988. He married Kathy, a native of Baton Rouge and a convert to Islam. With their 4 children, Zeitoun and Kathy settled in New Orleans and began a very successful contracting business. Zeitoun’s father had been a sailor and he did not want that life for his children. Abdulrahmun and his brothers were taught as many of the building trades as they could find teachers willing to take them on. With enough skills to do any job a home owner would need, it was not long before he had many trucks with the Zeitoun logo moving around the city of New Orleans and its vicinity. As the business became increasingly successful, Zeitoun and Kathy bought property, remodeled it if necessary, and in that way, becoming a part of the different neighborhoods of New Orleans. Having worked on so many homes from the Garden District to the French Quarter and on the other side of the river, Zeitoun had a commitment to the city and to the people who had accepted him and helped him to achieve success. He belonged to the city and the city belonged to him.
In August, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached, Zeitoun and Kathy did what they had done before when New Orleans was threatened by a hurricane. Kathy packed up the kids, the dog, and supplies for two or three days and drove north to Baton Rouge to stay with her family until the storm was over. Zeitoun, as usual, remained in the city to take care of their home as well as the properties he owned. As Eggers describes Zeitoun’s experience during the storm, the reader gets a very real sense of how frightening it was to be in New Orleans not just during the storm but after, when the levees broke, and it became very clear that the city would never be the same.
In the days after the storm, with the streets filled with water, Zeitoun became a rescue unit of one. Paddling a canoe through the city to check on his properties, he was astonished by the silence of the city. But it was that silence that enabled him to hear the cries for help coming from some of the houses. The most harrowing of the stories was that of a woman who had floated to the top of her living room and had stayed alive by holding onto a bookcase. Were it not for Zeitoun in his canoe, listening as he looked for people who needed help, the police would not have known about her and she would have died. For a few days Zeitoun traveled around the city, asking people who were still in their homes what they needed. He brought water and food to some, and he took others from their homes and brought them to staging areas so they could leave the city. He brought food and water to pets who had to be left behind when their families fled to safer ground.
One day, as he talked to some friends on the porch of an apartment house he owned, the men were challenged by a mixed group of National Guard soldiers and New Orleans police. One of Zeitoun’s friends, concerned about the unsettled atmosphere of the city, had withdrawn his life savings from the bank, a total of $10,000.00. The money, their accents, and their religion branded them as terrorists. Although not charged with any crimes, they were thrown into cages at a makeshift jail set up in a Greyhound Bus station where they were held for three days without being charged. Then, after being denied a phone call to family or an attorney, they were transferred to a prison outside of New Orleans
Kathy’s struggle to get information about her husband and the treatment he and his friends received is a frightening story. As an act of nature, Katrina left disaster in her wake, but the storm also led to a breakdown in civility and in civil rights. Katrina became a synonym for the absolute ineptitude of the state and national governments. Zeitoun’s brother, living in Spain, had more information about the storm as it formed than did the people living along the track of the hurricane.
The best summary of what happened to Zeitoun is from a Huffington Post article written by Harry Shearer on August 17, 2010:
Zeitoun. “It’ll ultimately be categorized as a ‘Katrina book’, but Dave Eggers’ spare, slowly dawning nightmare story is an “America book”, as in, “this is what America has become”. Had it appeared in, say, 1999, it would have been dismissed as an overly dystopian speculation about a future US of A. But this sobering tale of a Syrian-American painting contractor and his family weathering the Katrina flood, and what happened to him when he decided to stay in the city, is proof that, though ‘everything’ didn’t change after 9/11, some important things did. Like liberty.”
In the aftermath of the storm, the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution, freedom from search and seizure, freedom of religion, were abrogated when normal life was turned on its head. Abdulrahmun Zeitoun was held for twenty days at Hunt prison. His wife did not know where he was; he was refused medical treatment and that one phone call. He did not commit a crime, he did not stand trial. His rights were denied because he was a Muslim.