Saturday, April 21, 2012

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun is the true story of Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, parents of four and owners of a successful contracting business in New Orleans. Both are Muslim--Kathy, a native Louisianan converted as a young adult, while Abdulrahman immigrated from Syria in his 30s, when he tired of life at sea. With Hurricane Katrina rushing toward the city, Kathy loads up the children to evacuate to Baton Rouge, but she is unable to convince her husband to accompany them. He "never" leaves the city during a storm, and he wants to be able to keep an eye on their properties, as well as the projects they are working on for clients.

In the first few days after the storm, Zeitoun (as Abdulrahman is commonly called) is happier than Kathy, who is trying to put up with relatives who insist on serving pork, urge her to take off her hijab since her husband isn't there, and generally show no respect for her religion. Zeitoun, meanwhile, is paddling his canoe around the city, checking on their properties, helping as many people as he can, feeding abandoned dogs, and generally making himself useful. Indeed, he felt a divine purpose in his daily efforts to help, feeling Allah had wanted him to stay in the city to help others.

Kathy escapes her relatives, taking the children to Phoenix to stay with close friends who are also Muslims. Kathy and Zeitoun talk daily--a phone in one of their properties is still working, and Zeitoun calls from there each day. Then the calls stop, and Kathy has no idea what has happened. As days pass with no word from her husband, she becomes more and more convinced he is dead. He isn't--instead, he and three friends have been arrested, and the ensuing events are nightmarish.

Without revealing too much of the story, let me just say that it is both terribly sad and absolutely infuriating. That the government (it matters not whether you talk about city, state, or federal--all were worse than useless) could erect a temporary jail in the city within a couple of days of the storm but could not rescue people from a variety of terrible situations is beyond comprehension. That police officers who were looting stores and siphoning gas were arresting people for allegedly doing similar things--and putting those people in prison without phone calls or access to legal assistance--is despicable. And, as you read Zeitoun and Kathy's story, you know it is just one of thousands of tales of injustice and pain.

Having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and not enjoyed the overly self-conscious irony Dave Eggers practiced in this book, I was surprised to find this an entirely different work. Eggers as the author is virtually invisible; the writing is so spare it is nearly terse. He lets the story carry itself--and it does so exceedingly well.

Favorite passages:
The country he had left thirty years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there, then and now, that precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States. Things had worked out. Difficulties had been overcome. He had worked hard and achieved success. The machinery of government functioned. Even if in New Orleans this machines was sometimes slow, or poorly engineered, generally it functioned. But now nothing worked. Or rather, every piece of machinery--the policy, the military, the prisons--that was meant to protect people like him was devouring anyone who got close.

She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmad sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us? It could have been avoided, she thinks. So many little things could have been done. So many people let it happen. So many looked away. And it only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.

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