book report: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)


A new friend this year, a Muslim international student, bought me Zeitoun for my birthday, and I am very grateful. The last time I read about post-Katrina New Orleans was Douglas Brinkley's book, The Great Deluge in 2006, book report here. But this story did not start with equally destructive force called FEMA. Instead, the book starts with the young boy Abdulraham Zeitoun fishing off the coast of Syria. With frequent flashbacks we learn of his amazing life, his adventures around the world, and his settling down with his wife Kathy in New Orleans and the successful contracting business he founded there. Incidentally, they are Muslim, she an adult convert before meeting him. I appreciate so much how normally Eggers treats their faith. If only everyone's faith could be treated so respectfully, yet causally. Faith pervades so many Americans' lives, yet typically seems ignored or exagerrated, read the Get Religion journalism blog to see what I'm talking about.

I really enjoy biographies. No fiction author can come up with the crazy twists and turns of real life, by our ultimate author. Zeitoun's oldest brother was a world champion open-water distance swimmer who made Syria proud, but died young and has a statue memorializing him in his hometown. Kathy is one of nine children, Zeitoun one of 10 or so. The incident that finally compelled her conversion to Islam, of embarassment by a pastor in front of a large congregation for investigating Islam is tragic. Why would a presumed representative of God think public humiliation would help someone who was honest as she struggled with her understanding of God? That does make me so mad, but that injustice is smaller to what Zeitoun faced as a consequence of riding out the storm and staying in his neighborhood which resulted in his ability to protect his properties, his tenants, his clients' properties, his elderly neighbors and some abandoned pets. A week after the storm, Zeitoun, a Muslim friend, a tenant, and a new friend were all picked up by a heavily armed police team, assumed to be looters, (we learn that even a lady in her 70's was arrested for the same charge, as well as contractors hired to do clean up), and treated like animals, under the auspices of FEMA. Why does this organization still exist? His story is just one of many whose constitutional rights as well as human rights were violated in the name of order. At some points, I couldn't tell the difference between Zeitoun's experience and Victor Herman's in Communist Russia in his book, Coming Out of the Ice. These things are not supposed to happen in the USA, but they do, all too often. It was worse than the hurricane, according to his wife Kathy.
Doctors have asked Kathy what she thinks the most traumatic part of the Katrina experience was. She surprised herself and the doctors when she realized that it was after she knew Zeitoun was alive, and had been told he was at Hunt Correctional Center, but wasn't allowed to see him or even know where a court hearing might be held. It was that moment, being told by the woman on the phone that the hearing's location was "private information," that did the most damage.
"I felt cracked open," she says.
That this woman, a stranger, could know her despair and desperation, and simply deny her. That there could be trials without witnesses that her government could make people disappear.
"It broke me." p.319
It breaks me too. For all the political clamoring about the Constitution in the news these days, it only matters when people with power care about it. That Bill of Rights is intended to protect us from the absolute power of those with better weapons and training, intended for out protection, that we employ through our taxes. All I can say is I am glad my hope is not in this world. One unnamed hero in the story is an anonymous prison minister who passed on word from Zeitoun to his wife that he had not died, but was not communicating with her due to incarceration. Mercy changes everything.
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