Thursday, June 21, 2012


I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. I spotted this in a bookstore in May and as soon as I got home, reserved myself a copy at the library. Luckily it didn't take long to come in. This was one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time!

This book is essentially a biography of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who apparently usually goes by his last name even with family and friends (pronounced "Zay-toon"). Zeitoun had immigrated to the United States about 15 years earlier from Syria and was living with his American wife and their four children in New Orleans at the time Hurricane Katrina struck.

Zeitoun elected to remain in New Orleans while his wife and children evacuated. It seems like he didn't believe the hurricane would be as serious as predicted. He and his wife owned a construction business, so there were materials at job sites that had to be secured so they didn't cause damage to the property where they were located. They also owned some rental properties and he wanted to be there to respond to issues raised by the tenants and to make sure those units were closed up. The description of how he tried to prepare, and how he tried to resolve problems that arose after the hurricane struck, is truly fascinating.

Before the water had receded, Zeitoun was arrested with three other men: one other Muslim and two white men. The story of what happens to them after their arrest is deeply troubling. It appears the police thought that these men, who had banded together to try to save their neighbors from drowning and share one working telephone line, were part of an al-Qaeda cell. They were taken to an outdoor prison that had been constructed at a Greyhound Depot. They were treated in a way that is reprehensible, not receiving appropriate due process and receiving only food that contained pork (which a Muslim would object to eating on religious grounds).

Everything about this book was fascinating. The descriptions of the steps people took to prepare for the hurricane. The impending doom about its arrival. The stories of people surviving. The overwhelming quiet that would prevail in a city filled with water. There is also this sense of "What's going to happen to our hero?" when Zeitoun is arrested, though the tone of the book makes it clear he was released before the book was written, so we don't have to worry that he remained in jail forever.

The most interesting and troubling point the book makes is one I'll leave you with. After Zeitoun's release, the author began doing some research about why he had been arrested. He learned that before Hurricane Katrina occurred, FEMA had been administratively reorganized into the Department of Homeland Security. This makes some sense, but it also means that FEMA's mission now has a counter-terrorism angle, which may be fundamentally in conflict with its other goal of helping save lives. Officials in the government considered the possibility that terrorists might try to attack in the wake of a natural disaster, a time when defenses might be down. I completely understand this line of thinking, and agree with these officials that there isn't much we can do to prepare for that. However, when Zeitoun was jailed at "Camp Greyhound" - the converted outdoor bus station - he spent some time examining his surroundings. Given his background in construction, he surmised that it would have taken a large crew at least a few days to create the jail, though it was not there before the hurricane struck. The author then discovered that in the immediate aftermath of the storm, FEMA concentrated its resources on bringing in prisoners from a state penitentiary in Louisiana to build the jail. Thinking of all the people who died while FEMA was focusing on building a jail is heart-breaking.

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