'Zeitoun' man's inhumanity toward man

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 6, 2011

Editor’s note: “Zeitoun” was Catawba College’s common reading program book this year. It has remained on bestseller lists since its original publication.
“Zeitoun,” by Dave Eggers. Vintage Press. 2010. 325 pp. $15.95.
By John Whitfield
For the Salisbury Post
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, known to one and all by his last name, was living in New Orleans when news began to come about an approaching hurricane named Katrina.
As the situation deteriorated into a calamity, Zeitoun took steps to prepare for it, boarding up houses, stocking up on food and planning for his family’s safety. Unfortunately, he was totally unprepared for the catastrophic turn, mostly manmade, that his life would take.
This book is a gripping, angering, almost unbelievable recounting of the events which occurred.
A Syrian by birth, Zeitoun was raised by the sea and longed to be a sailor, much to the displeasure of his father. The family was prosperous and accomplished, including a brother who was an international champion long-distance swimmer.
The sea finally called Zeitoun away from his idyllic life and for 10 years he worked on ships, traveling to all parts of the world. After these years, however, he decided to settle down and chose New Orleans as his new home.
Zeitoun wished to marry and, as a Muslim, he put out the word that he sought a Muslim wife. Through friends he meets Kathy, a convert to Islam, and after a two-year courtship they marry and raise four children. He prospered as a building contractor and property owner and life was good.
Kathy herself is an important part of the book. Raised as a Christian, she felt a void in her life which that religion did not fill. After a period of study, she converted to Islam to the dismay of her parents.
She insists on wearing a hijab, the traditional head scarf of Islamic women. This leads to further conflict with her parents and to occasional harassment on the street. The author writes with more empathy for Kathy, making her later distress feel very real. He seems more objective and descriptive of Zeitoun’s experiences with less warmth.
As Katrina gets closer, the decision is made for Kathy to take the children and leave the city, ultimately ending up in Phoenix. Zeitoun insists on staying to look after his several properties, believing that Katrina really will not cause much damage.
When the levees fail and water becomes several feet deep, he drags out an old canoe and spends his days paddling around the city, helping people who are trapped, feeding animals, living on the upper floor of a rental property near his home and getting along fairly well. Fortunately the telephone still works and he maintains daily contact with Kathy.
Zeitoun’s life changes abruptly and drastically several days after the flooding when six armed people in military garb arrive and arrest him.
He and three of his friends are put on a boat and transported to a passenger terminal used by train and bus traffic. There they are placed into one of several makeshift wire cages scattered about the terminal, then interrogated, strip searched, humiliated and abused. They remain in the cage for the next three days, where Zeitoun feels like an animal on exhibit.
During this time food is minimal, often pork or ham which he does not eat. Any attempt to get information is rebuffed. Hundreds of other people are brought in and many protest their treatment. This often is met with a thorough spraying from a tank of pepper spray, resulting in intense pain. There are no legal formalities, and telephone calls are not permitted.
After three days in the cage, Zeitoun and his friends are bused to a state prison compound. Here he remains for 20 days, living in squalor in a crowded cell. He is denied medical treatment by a disinterested nurse and is threatened with abuse for asking questions. His only hope is a missionary who walks by and accepts a paper with Kathy’s telephone number on it.
Meanwhile, Kathy is nearly out of her mind with worry. She has not heard from Zeitoun in more than three weeks and she is unable to reach anyone who knows anything about him. Then comes the brief call from the missionary saying he is alive and in prison.
Kathy contacts an attorney who initiates a series of complicated legal steps which ultimately result in Zeitoun’s release. He has lost 28 pounds, is in poor health and his money was stolen. He is required to post a very large amount of bail despite being charged only with looting his own home.
The book ends happily enough but leaves the reader wondering how this could happen in America. There are several theories put forth: that FEMA paid for prison care and unscrupulous officers arrested people indiscriminately for the fee; that Zeitoun’s Muslim connection led to fears of terrorism; that in the crisis the system was overwhelmed and functioned dreadfully; or that once again, absolute power led to absolute corruption.
None of these really explain the incredible cruelty Zeitoun encountered, the total dearth of human kindness, the abysmal insensitivity to the pain others felt.
Perhaps later readers will be able to comprehend and explain this behavior.