Zeitoun

220px-ZeitounZeitoun, Dave Eggers

Imagine, if you will, a time when the threat of terror attacks has led to a drastic curtailing of civil liberties, and discrimination and oppression of Muslims. When it comes to immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color, law enforcement seems to operate with impunity. And many key government appointments seem to be held by staggeringly incompetent people with no actual qualifications. In fact, many historians are saying that the current president will go down as possibly the worst in history.

Yes, 2005 was a different time. A time many of us miss now, but I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how frightening it really was. Zeitoun is a good reminder.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, takes place in New Orleans right before and in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The title character, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian-American immigrant, a Muslim, and a builder and general contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina is coming, while his wife evacuates with the kids, he stays behind to watch over the property. He and some friends spend the days after the hurricane boating around the streets, helping to rescue neighbors, deliver water and supplies, and help abandoned pets. Amazingly, when help finally comes, he and his friends are arrested by the National Guard and held for 23 days without notifying his family, or giving him access to a lawyer.

This is a narrative non-fiction, along the lines of What is the What, and I find that Eggers is particularly adept at this. I know it’s popular to dislike him-partly because he gets all prickly about criticism-but he is a talented writer and story teller. And his particular style does well in highlighting huge, intimidating problems in a manageable way, relating to one individual, and what abstract concepts-like civil liberties-or major news stories-like the civil war in Sudan-actually mean.

I found Zeitoun fascinating. I was and am a very politically involved, politically aware person but had actually not heard about the renditions in New Orleans after Katrina, or that this was used in another front to push what is allowable in the fight against terrorism. But wrapped up in the horror of the lack of planning pre-hurricane, the lack of effective response, the fact that a white suburb and their police force blocked black residents from entering, and law enforcement shot people looking for food, apparently the government did find time to send in the National Guard to look for terrorist. The response to Katrina was even worse than many of us knew.

I’m incredibly glad that I read this book, and was reminded of how things were, and which fights under the Trump administration are new, and which are ones that we never finished during and after Bush. It may seem that this is a book that would only be timely for a little while, and perhaps in popular view it is, but I always find it useful to read topical books much later, or popular fiction from decades ago, or historical books that go into the daily life rather than major events, to remember what we so easily forget from our history. It’s important that we don’t let such events fade into the background. Partly for when it seems we’re in a more dangerous time, so we can look back and remember that politicians and newspapers always say we’re in the most dangerous time. And partly so that we can be on the look out for real dangers—like the destruction of civil liberties—and know the warning signs and how to fight back. And so we remember what was tried before and failed, and don’t get suckered by it again. (Those last two are things that the U.S. in particular needs to work on.)

I think that in writing this review I need to also explore the controversy surrounding the book. In short, in the two years after Zeitoun was published, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, separated, with his wife citing abusive behavior. He was eventually arrested for plotting to have his wife and her son killed. This is, obviously, horrific behavior. And from what I was able to tell, Eggers refuses to seriously address these issues since writing the book. However, I do not think that they undermine the book, and, from what I can tell, other than suggesting that Zeitoun may not have been the “perfect victim” of the police state, do not dispute the main facts of the book: that he stayed behind in New Orleans, that he and his friends were helping others in the days after the hurricane, and that he was eventually arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and held for 23 days with no access to a lawyer or his family.

Kathy Zeitoun has said that the presentation of their relationship was true at the time the book was written, while at the same time saying there had always been some violence. She also said that Zeitoun became more violent and radical in his Islam after his detention. It is not unbelievable that someone who had been through such an ordeal may have seen their behavior altered dramatically. I am not defending his violence at all or trying to deny or excuse attempted murder. Only that it can be the case that the presentation in the book was mostly true, and that Zeitoun, while doing good things for others after Katrina, is not actually a great person and only deteriorated after his detention.

If that ruins the concept of the book for some people, I understand, and I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book and started looking up other reviews. If I’d known it before, it would undoubtedly have colored my opinions when reading it. However, I still recommend the book for the reasons I listed. It’s an engaging and highly readable story, and it covers a topic that we should all remember. A major American city was destroyed because of incompetence, the citizens continued to suffer because incompetence was compounded by racism, and in the midst of this we found time and resources to seek out and arrest Muslims we suspected of sneaking into a flooded city. As we find ourselves again being told to fear the others and accept leaders who know nothing of governing, told, indeed, that one of the most competent and inspiring presidents we’ve had was destroying the country simply by being other, it seems a very timely read indeed.