Friday, February 11, 2011
Narrated by Firdous Bamji
I think people will still be reading this excellent Katrina story 100 years from now.
I was excited to listen to Zeitoun for two reasons – first Dave Eggers, I am still haunted by the story of the lost boys of Sudan so well told by Eggers in What is the What and second because Zeitoun was billed as a Katrina story. Having done a stint as a disaster relief volunteer in Louisiana after the storm I have continued interest in all things Katrina.
Zeitoun centers on one family – the Zeitouns – and their storm story. Abdulrachman Zeitoun is a respected Syrian American contractor who has built a successful business in New Orleans. His wife Kathy is a Muslim convert and they have four children. Eggers slowly sets the stage as the hurricane is approaching. He alternates telling their back-story with the reports on the approaching storm. Eggers allows us to really know these people in telling about Kathy’s conversion to Islam and Zeitoun’s upbringing in a large family in coastal Syria. The details about their family life reveal a couple deeply in love, working hard to realize the American dream for themselves and their children. Eggers has a real talent for drawing you in to the lives of his subjects and making you feel part of the woodwork as their life unfolds. By the end of the first third of this book you really care about what happens to these hard working, decent people.
As the storm approaches Kathy leaves New Orleans for family in Baton Rouge and then on to friends in Phoenix. Zeitoun decides to stay and oversee the properties the family owns in the city. He is a well prepared man, with food, water and the ability to take care of himself. Zeitoun successfully rides out the storm and on day one after the hurricane has hit uneventfully secures their property. On the evening of day two the levees fail and the city is drowned in 10-15 feet of water. Zeitoun has an aluminum canoe and tranquilly moves about the city. He participates in a heroic rescue of an elderly woman trapped in her home, assists in evacuating other neighbors, feeds abandoned dogs and generally supports the distressed citizenry remaining in the drowned city. He finds one of his properties with a working land line and is able to stay in touch with his wife every day. His descriptions of flooded New Orleans are almost surreal. He sleeps in a tent on a flat roof of his house, and remains in the city for several days despite various family members urging him to evacuate. One day he fails to call Kathy and she hears nothing from him for two weeks. Her fear, pain and angst are palatable and she finally comes to the conclusion that he is dead. It is a heartbreaking scenario.
As Zeitoun prepared to leave the city he was unfairly arrested in his own home for looting. What follows left me enraged! He is held for two weeks first in a hastily constructed out door prison at the bus station in New Orleans (Camp Greyhound) and then in a maximum security prison inland in Louisiana. He received none of the legal protections we all take for granted – no phone calls, no lawyers, no bail hearings, nothing. His family unable to get in touch with him is convinced he is dead. Eggers constructs this story with just the right amount of suspense and drama. The naïve reader (me) also assumes that he is dead, why else would he not contact his family. In excruciating detail Eggers lays out the inhumanity of his treatment, no medical support, strip and cavity searches and continued isolation from friends, family and legal support. Finally Zeitoun is able to convince a prison volunteer to call his wife in Phoenix which starts the steps for his release.
While I don’t think Zeitoun’s treatment post Katrina was due to the fact he was a Muslim (other white Americans were arrested and imprisoned with him) I do think the government’s approach to all things Katrina was deeply flawed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formerly a standalone government relief agency, was folded into the Department of Homeland Security and became a quasi military organization losing its primary mission in the process. Eggers lays out all of this in a way that is so understated. He never assigns blame directly to any agency. This low key approach only added to my outrage. The one fact that will stick with me is that FEMA was building a large, outdoor prison in downtown New Orleans 24 hours after the storm struck while many New Orleanians were on their roofs begging for assistance and evacuation. The paranoid government leadership that got us into a meaningless war in Iraq was well in evidence in post Katrina New Orleans. What happened to Zeitoun could happen to any of us if we allow leadership that tramples basic legal rights the way this one did. I think people will still be reading this excellent Katrina story 100 years from now.
My Katrina memories are much more positive – people from all walks of life coming to Louisiana to provide basic food, shelter and comfort to New Orleanians displaced by this horrific storm. While I witnessed some incompetency on the part of FEMA staff, I witnessed no experiences like Zeitoun’s. I can only hope but probably not believe his treatment was the exception not the rule.
Firdous Bamji narrated this story;he was excellent in differentiating the voices. His understated delivery style was just perfect. While I listened to this book I think it would also be a superb read.
I listened to AudioCDs borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia