By Chet Yarbrough
By: Dave Eggers
Narrated by: Firdous Bamji
“Zeitoun” is a return to Katrina. It reminds one of the horror, the destruction, and the ineptitude of government. It is also a story about injustice and prejudice in America. Dave Eggers tells a story that speaks to America’s conscience—its idealism, and its reality.
America is not perfect; like all humanity, it is good and bad; both politically involved and politically apathetic. American’ government is sometimes representative and sometimes ruled by voter fiat, but America–the good and bad, is loved by its citizens like a parent loves a child. The ideal of American’ democracy is based on individual freedom and equality of opportunity; however, idealism represents an imaginary human perfection while reality builds on human nature’s fallibility; i.e. tragedies like Katrina bring out the best and worst in human beings–the Zeitoun family’ story exemplifies human nature and its inherent conflict with the American’ ideal.
Zeitoun is a Syrian’ American, living in New Orleans; making his way as a small business man with a wife and three children when Katrina turns his world upside down. Eggers research reveals that Zeitoun is a devout Muslim, married to a white Louisiana native that converted to the Muslim religion before meeting her future husband. Eggers assures the reader that the facts of Zeitoun’s story have been independently verified, with some name changes to protect personal privacy.
Zeitoun represents an American immigrant story that reminds one of idealized early American history. He comes to America, adopts America’s capitalist system, works hard, protects his family, creates middle-class wealth, and raises his children to respect American’ belief in freedom and equal opportunity.
Like in all small businesses, every job is important; Zeitoun knows customers are the life blood of his financial success. Zeitoun builds his business with a reputation for getting things done, whether painting a house or re-building a deteriorating historic building. Zeitoun uses his skill as a general contractor to gain wealth, property, and the respect of his community; then Katrina slams into his life.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN’S STORY (IN HIS OWN WORDS): http://www.youtube.com/embed/jOgLqUWnn5k” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Zeitoun chooses to stay in New Orleans to protect his business and property. His wife, Kathy, and their children flee to Baton Rough and, later, Arizona to escape the devastation. As the storm progresses, Zeitoun improvises to protect furniture, electronic equipment, and personal property by stacking it above the rising flood waters. In the calm, after the storm when flood levels are at their peak, Zeitoun takes a used canoe, purchased before Katrina existed, to survey the destruction in his neighborhood. In his journey, he inspects some of his rental properties and views neighborhood’ houses he has worked on. He greets neighbors, renters, and former clients that have been stranded. He uses his canoe to find help for those who wish to leave. He helps rescue some of the stranded that are unable help themselves. Zeitoun thanks Allah for making him useful in the chaos of Katrina’s aftermath.
Then Zeitoun’s story turns. He and three neighbors are arrested by a gaggle of disparate law enforcement personnel—a local police officer is leading several National Guard personnel and an out-of-state officer that has come to help. This law enforcement task force is responsible for arresting any looters that are taking advantage of Katrina’s devastation. They choose to arrest Zeitoun and his companions in his own house because there is a pile of electronics on the table that had been put there by Zeitoun to keep dry. The law enforcement task force refuses to listen to any explanation or evidence for ownership of the house or merchandise. The enforcement mob fails to gather any forensic evidence. They fail to secure the residence. They refuse any phone calls to the arrested. (In listening to this horrific incident, it is inherently unfair to judge law enforcement personnel charged with maintaining order. Imagine the fear and confusion of the time. So many stories were being told of looting, raping, and murder throughout the city, everyone in New Orleans would, at the least, be nervous about, if not suspicious of, any civilians in the area.)
However, even in that atmosphere, the continuing story of Zeitoun’s incarceration begins to turn one’s stomach because injustice mounts to the point of Zeitoun’s despair and a reader’s disgust; i.e. the human capacity for cruelty is overwhelming. That cruelty is compounded by government bureaucracy’s failure to adequately respond to a natural disaster when help is most critically needed.
Zeitoun’s life in America had been a fulfillment of the American Dream but the dream became a nightmare because of Katrina and America’s bureaucratic response to disaster. Prejudice rises as control of nature declines. Because Zeitoun is unknown to his captors, the color of his skin became more important than who he is or what he does. He became “other” rather than “one of us”. He was no longer an American to his captors; i.e. he was a “Syrian terrorist”, a “Muslim cultist”, an “Other”.
Listening to a Zeitoun’ interview in August of 2010, one believes Zeitoun still believes in the American Dream. However, in August of 2012, Zeitoun is arrested for battery and accused of contracting to have his now ex-wife, Kathy, murdered. One wonders if the trauma of the Katrina disaster is to blame for the destruction of his marriage and his spiral into spousal abuse. Tragedy seems to be following Zeitoun like Katrina’s hurricane with rising water that may still consume him. ZEITOUN’S COURT CASE NEWS COVERAGE AVAILABLE AT TIMES PICAYUNE: CLICK THE FOLLOWING AND ENTER “ZEITOUN” IN THE SEARCH BOX FOR AN ARTICLE ABOUT THE ZEITOUN’S FATE. http://connect.nola.com/user/jsimerman/posts.html