Scandal after the storm
CURRENT AFFAIRS: MOLLY McCLOSKEYreviews ZeitounBy Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 335pp, £18.99
IF YOU TYPE “Hurricane Katrina” into Amazon.com you will get more than 2,000 results: books on the disaster written by public-health officials, storm chasers, journalists, urban planners, crisis counsellors, black intellectuals, those who found God, mitigation and preparedness experts, emergency responders, poets. There is a book of post-Katrina recipes. There is a memoir by a dog. My favourite – though I didn’t make it through all the titles – is called Nice Try, Katrina!Now the American writer Dave Eggers has added Zeitoun, a non-fiction account of events as seen through the eyes of a Syrian-American living in New Orleans, to the list.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his American wife, Kathy, run a busy painting and property-management business. They are devoted parents to four children, hard working, conscientious. They are good neighbours and devout Muslims. (Kathy converted to Islam from Christianity some years before meeting her husband.) As the storm gathers force during the last week of August 2005, Kathy takes the kids to Baton Rouge. Zeitoun, even as a mandatory evacuation order is issued, opts to stay. As well as his own home, he has a handful of properties he wants to keep an eye on.
The hurricane hits early on the morning of August 29th. By that evening the water in the streets around Zeitoun’s house has receded. The damage outside is extensive, but nothing worse than he’s seen after a handful of other storms. So that’s that, he thinks. But the nightmare has only begun. The next morning he wakes to a rapidly rising river outside his door. The levees have been breached. By nightfall his neighbourhood is under three metres of water.
Zeitoun, a physically strong man with a freezer full of food, plenty of water and an aluminium canoe, decides to paddle out to check on one of his properties. Almost immediately he comes upon an elderly woman trapped in her flooded home. He arranges a rescue. By day’s end he has assisted in the rescue of four more elderly people. He spends the next few days looking for opportunities to help, transporting people from their ruined houses and feeding trapped, abandoned dogs. Kathy, by now in Phoenix with the kids, is begging him to leave the city – the news is full of reports of armed gangs, looting and lawlessness. But Zeitoun has never felt such a sense of purpose; he’ll hold out a little longer.
Eggers is good at depicting the increasingly surreal sights Zeitoun encounters and the post-apocalyptic stillness of the submerged city. When Zeitoun comes upon a group of dead puppies on the interstate overpass, some of them shot several times, he begins to think maybe Kathy is right. Maybe it’s time he got out.
By now the city is full of armed forces: private security firms (including one called Instinctive Shooting International), state and local police, National Guard, Swat teams, Border Patrol tactical units, FBI agents, US Marshals special-ops teams, snipers. Seven days after Katrina, as Zeitoun is making a phone call from one of his houses – he phones Kathy every day at noon – six people in uniforms carrying M-16s show up. It will be 13 days before Kathy receives any news of her husband, by which time she has concluded, quite logically, that he is dead.
What happened to Zeitoun following his arrest – along with three other men at the house – comprises the second half of Eggers’s narrative, a Kafkaesque tale for the post-9/11 age. Good samaritan Zeitoun was held for 23 days without charge – first at “Camp Greyhound” (a series of wire cages erected in the parking lot of the New Orleans bus station), then at a nearby maximum-security prison. He was never read his rights and never allowed a phone call. Plastic bullets, pepper spray, rectal searches – all in a day’s work for the guards at Camp Greyhound.
The temporary jail had been constructed in the days immediately following Katrina to house inmates from a nearby prison that was expected to flood. But responsibility for prisoners from New Orleans fell to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, following 9/11, had been folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Zeitoun was an innocent victim of this union. Though his arrest apparently resulted from confusion and carelessness, and not because he was Syrian, once his nationality was known he was regarded as a possible terrorist. Those he was arrested with (two of them white Americans, the other Syrian) fared worse, spending between five and eight months in prison before charges against them were dropped. Between them they had more than $12,000 confiscated upon their arrest, none of which they ever recovered.
Dave Eggers’s debut work was the best-selling A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a wonderful memoir about raising his younger brother following their parents’ deaths from cancer. He has since written novels, screenplays and children’s books, and is the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house. He co-founded 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing centre for inner-city kids in San Francisco (and the inspiration for Fighting Words, a similar venture in Dublin established by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love). He is donating all his proceeds from Zeitounto the Zeitoun Foundation, which funds projects aimed at rebuilding New Orleans and promoting respect for human rights.
The Katrina disaster exposed the US government to charges of racism (if it had been white Americans trapped and homeless, federal assistance would presumably have been quicker to arrive) and of having failed to make investments that could have mitigated the disaster: more than 25 years ago authorities were advised that the levees in New Orleans would not survive a storm of Katrina’s force.
Dave Eggers has highlighted another dark twist to the story. Although he depicts Zeitoun and Kathy as so spotlessly good they can occasionally feel a tad unreal, and though his lessons on Islam can read like simplistic correctives to American prejudices, he has produced a gripping, provocative and necessary work whose heart is most definitely in the right place.
Molly McCloskey is a novelist, essayist and short-story writer, and is currently the writer fellow at Trinity College