Thursday, January 7, 2010


Zeitoun, Dave Eggers. As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun (ZAY-toon) considered their options. Proprietors of a successful and well-known contracting and house painting business, they also owned several rental properties and were reluctant to abandon them. Beyond that, though, was the safety of their four children and of the family unity both held dear. Abdulrahman's instinct was to remain in New Orleans and ride out the hurricane. He didn't like the idea of leaving their contracts and properties to the mercies of the elements and looters. By staying, he could watch over them and immediately address any problems that might arise. Besides, New Orleans had had hurricane scares before and the storm had always veered off in one direction or another or had dissipated by the time it reached the Louisiana mainland.

Kathy took Abdulrahman's point, but worried about their children. As Katrina neared and the calls to evacuate the city mounted, she decided to leave with the children and stay with her family in Baton Rouge. Zeitoun, Abdulrahman, decided to remain behind. At first, his decision seemed correct. Although Katrina knocked out New Orleans' electricity, actual destruction appeared minimal and he had plenty of food and water. After the levees broke and the city flooded, Zeitoun patrolled the areas around his home in a canoe, checking on his properties, rowing stranded people to debarkation areas, feeding abandoned pets, and ferrying friends to one of the rental properties. If such a thing could be said about the situation, Zeitoun was actually enjoying himself and went about his days with a sense of divinely inspired purpose.

Kathy, meanwhile, arrived safely in Baton Rouge to a family who questioned her marriage and mistrusted her Muslim faith. (She had converted prior to meeting Zeitoun.) As the house was crowded and her family largely unsympathetic, she got in touch with a Muslim friend in Phoenix, who invited her and the children to join them. Zeitoun had discovered a working phone trunk in one of their New Orleans properties, so they remained in touch even as his cell phone batteries died. Thus, although the situation was stressful it seemed under control. While Kathy departed for Phoenix without much of a handle on even the immediate future, she hardly expected what came next: Zeitoun disappeared without a word of warning.

Devout, practicing Muslims, the Zeitouns were hardly fanatics. Kathy has a strong voice in family matters and needles her husband when the occasion calls for it. He is a quiet, stoic man (and this quality would be sorely tested in the weeks after Katrina) who loves and respects his wife and children. They bear no ill will towards non-Muslims and do not think of nonbelievers as infidels. The Zeitouns had many friends and acquaintances not of the Muslim faith and had built a successful family business in the Afro-Caribbean polyglot of New Orleans. But, that didn't matter much to the Homeland Security minions of the Bush Administration.

A few days after the levees broke and New Orleans flooded, a squad of law enforcement officers acting on a tip sailed to one of Zeitoun's rental properties, broke in, and arrested Zeitoun and three other men (one of whom was a Muslim) for looting. Two of the men were tenants and neighbors; the third was a Muslim friend whom Zeitoun had discovered taking refuge at Tulane University during one of his canoe outings.

The men had moved all of the electronic equipment in the house onto a table to keep it from getting wet. Police would later cite that as visual confirmation of looting. However, they did not give the equipment even a cursory inspection, which would have revealed that the equipment was well-used and unlikely to have been looted. Nor did they heed Zeitoun's protestations that he owned the property. Instead, the four men were handcuffed and taken to an emergency holding facility at New Orleans Greyhound bus station, called Camp Greyhound by guards and inmates alike.

At some point after Zeitoun's arrival, the powers-that-be decided to sequester Zeitoun and his three friends in a separate cage (for that's what it was). Instead of being held as looters, the four were -- unbeknownst to themselves -- being held as suspected terrorists. At no time, however, were they informed of this. At one point, a fifth prisoner joined the four men, a genial type critical of the Bush Administration whose palaver with the men was dotted with seemingly sympathetic questions about their attitude towards the United States and its leaders. The two Muslims held their tongues, although the other two men conversed expansively with the newcomer. After a few days, he disappeared from the cage and was not seen again.

The cage itself was barely tall enough to stand in. Zeitoun's contractor's eye told him that it was both well- and newly-constructed. (It turned out to have been built by prison labor.) Guards did not permit the men to wander near the sides of the cage, and the foul, toxic ground upon with the cage rested did not permit the men to lie down and sleep. Moreover, the MRE's (Meal, Ready to Eat) provided as sustenance often contained pork, which the two Muslims could not eat. The displaced sense of priorities that would provide for a perfectly built cage for humans and deliver plentiful, inedible MRE's amidst the terror and chaos of the drowned city did not escape Zeitoun.

Nor were any of the men permitted phone calls, communications with family and lawyers that may well have resulted in their release. Instead all of the prisoners were removed to the maximum security wing of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center near Gonzales between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Although the prison appeared tranquil from the outside with its manicured lawns and freshly painted buildings, Zeitoun quickly discovered that life as a maximum security prisoner was an unending terror.

Although he repeatedly invoked his right to a phone call, prison authorities responded that as a FEMA prisoner, he had to go through that organization. And FEMA held him incommunicado as a suspected terrorist without rights. A desperate Zeitoun finally prevailed on a prison volunteer to call Kathy and let her know that he lived.

Meanwhile, an increasingly frantic Kathy had begun to accept the possibility that her husband had perished, somehow lost in the flood. Under great pressure from Zeitoun's family to return to New Orleans and find him (this was impossible), she avoided contact with all but one of them. Unsure of whether to brace the children for the possibility of their father's death, she hung on grimly with hope fading. Just as she was about to give up, the volunteer called to tell her that her husband was alive and being held in prison.

Kathy contacted the family attorney, who had evacuated to Baton Rouge. His initial assumption was that he could quickly obtain Zeitoun's release, but FEMA set forth such demands that this was not possible. Eventually, FEMA decided to accept some of the Zeitoun's property as bond, which required Kathy and Zeitoun's brother Ahmad to go the wrecked business office in New Orleans search desperately among the debris for a property deed.

After 23 days at Hunt, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was released on bond. He was no longer a Homeland Security person of interest. Weight down drastically, hair graying, and psychologically broken, Zeitoun and his family nonetheless returned to New Orleans where they live today, their business reestablished. In some respects, he was lucky: His companions all spent 4-8 months in Hunt. His Muslim friend lost his life savings, $10,000 in cash which was confiscated and never returned.

Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What?) tells Zeitoun's story with simple, sympathetic prose worthy of the man and his travails. Through vignettes deployed throughout the book, we learn his and Kathy's story and follow the path that led them to each other and New Orleans. This helps us understand Zeitoun's decision to stay: He saw staying as in the best interests of his family, who were everything to him.

Zeitoun is especially strong on the absurdities of Zeitoun's and New Orleans' circumstances. The surreal calm of Zeitoun's neighborhood contrasts with the hysterical and unfounded rumors of raped babies in the Superdome. The brutal efficiency of Camp Greyhound stands in bold relief to what we now know was the general ineptitude of the federal government's initial relief effort. Most striking of all is a memo uncovered by Eggers in which government officials predict ways in which terrorists might take advantage of a disaster-stricken American city. The glaring absurdity of the memo is that predicted chaos sown by terrorists would be an obvious function of any disaster. Why would terrorists invest time and resources when they couldn't make the situation any worse than it already was?

As part of rebuilding their lives, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun have established the Zeitoun Foundation, which was "created in 2009 to aid in the rebuilding of and ongoing health of the city of New Orleans, and to help insure the human rights of all Americans." It says something good about this remarkable couple that despite everything that befell them they have been able to maintain a larger sense of community and country. Oh, and all proceeds from this memorable book go to the foundation...

St. Clare's Monastery, Henry Clay Avenue...

Nate Silver's initial take on the 2010 Senate races is here. The situation isn't as bleak for Democrats as the MSM makes it out to be. In fact, Silver can imagine (unlikely, he admits) scenario in which the D's actually gain Senate seats...

The Nation argues that progressive legislators must continue to battle hard to move the health care bill to the left. Although they agree that there is much good in the bill, it's a bonanza to the insurance companies who won big when shills like Holy Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson took "principled" stands to block a public option. The bill as it is, write the editors, barely merits support from progressives. The problem -- which they don't address -- is that pulling the plug on this bill, flawed as it is, means that Congress will be unlikely take up the cause of health care for another generation. It means that insurance companies will continue to deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, that they can pull coverage for any reason whatsoever, and that they can deny claims based on technicalities. Moreover, failure of the bill will be a political bonanza for the right and -- fairly or not -- a Waterloo for progressives. Maybe these arguments aren't enough to merit support of the legislation. But they are big part of the bill's context and must be considered...


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Been waiting on this from you, K.
Well worth it.

Steven said...

re: Zeitoun

I'm holding my head in my hands and shaking. How can this happen? But wait...I do know how it happens and I'm scared. For us all.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

loved eggers book heartbreaking....

zeitoun sounds powerful and will have to remember come september as it sounds as if it would be a great book to read with my bookgroup!

Annette said...

Powerful story.. and it does bear telling over and over.. I hope for a huge success for the book and continued success for the family. That these kind of things could and did happen in our country is just awful. How many were never found? How many didn't have families and attorney's to fight for them and just disappeared?

It is so sad.. Thanks for telling it K.. I will look for it and read it.

Foxessa said...

The account of what happened to this New Orleanian and U.S. citizen is part of the ICE story that the Nation is also giving room too. A lot of people are unaware that part of the acts of Homeland Security established via the excuse of 9/11 was getting rid of the federal government's Immigration and Naturalization Dept., and putting immigration under the all-encompassing, non-transparent, secret umbrella of Homeland Security.

d Schultz has never stopped carrying water for the public option.

A lot of people believe he's "a fathead and blowhard" the big cheezy in different clothes. And sometimes he is bullheaded WRONG, I will admit.

Still, he's a fighter. Progressives being polite and nice and not fighting has only made things worse, it seems.

Love, C.

sussah said...

It is news to me that FEMA was in any way engaged in Louisiana that month. They were nowhere to be found by rescued survivors, except as a rumored theoretical mythical source of future help. thanks as always, sp, n.o.

K. said...

Zeitoun is a fine book and I hope that everyone here reads it. E-Til, thanks for the link on The Ladder. Cliff and I are riding high!

One of the nice things about reviewing a book on a blog is that when you think of something you wish you had included, you can add it in a comment. Zeitoun is especially strong at conveying the difficulties that evacuees and the rest of the world had in discerning exactly what was going on in New Orleans in the days following the flood. Kathy Zeitoun was fairly certain that many of the reports were hyperbole, but she didn't which ones exaggerated and which ones didn't. There's a terrific passage in Zeitoun when she calculates exactly how many new guns have been brought into the city by outside law enforcement and the National Guard. It was a telling example of how good FEMA was at establishing a police/military presence in NOLA at the same time that it abdicated its humanitarian responsibilities.

Roy said...

This is a chilling story, but unfortunately not a surprising one. Thanks for the review; I'll definitely have to look this one up!

sussah said...

Dear K., To elaborate on my earlier comment, I honestly think that FEMA itself had nothing to do with any sort of action on the ground, for better or for worse, so to speak. The Louisiana National Guard was on duty during Katrina. But the way it played out is that the Commander-in-Chief eventually sent the U.S. Army to New Orleans. I'm sure we would all be amazed at how quickly the U.S. military can accomplish something. However, they were not ordered to do anything until most of the Katrina week had passed. The failure was at the VERY highest level of the executive branch. I do hope this book is widely read. Thanks, sp, n.o.

K. said...

Sussah: All I know is that the men were told almost from the get-go that they were "FEMAs." That may well have shorthand for Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. Also, Eggers makes it pretty clear that the police presence in the fairly immediate aftermath -- and I use the term broadly -- included NOLA police offers, National Guardsmen, police officers from other cities who had volunteered to come to NOLA, and mercenaries. In fact, one of the officers who arrested Zeitoun was from Albuquerque.

It was combustible situation, to say the least. These men and women were stressed, tired, untrained in disaster relief, and overarmed. I'd say that it's a miracle that worse didn't happen except that it's impossible to image matters being worse.

RobinB said...

So glad you liked the book, Paul--it changed my life. I was out of the country during Katrina and never saw the images on tv or heard the stories. After reading this book I read everything I could get my hands on and am planning to visit NO in the near future.

Ima Wizer said...

The Zeitouns, what a story! Who knows how many other untold stories like it are out, my.