A highly disturbed reader takes a look at a highly disturbing book: Zeitoun!

Fridays with Robynn

Zeitoun Dave Eggers(McSweeney’s Books: San Fransisco, 2009.)

I just finished a book that’s left me shaken to the core. Zeitoun  is a non-fiction account of one family’s experience during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun (pronounced zay-toon) run a professional painting business. Abdulrahman is a sympathetic immigrant from Syria. He is a devout Muslim. He works hard and contributes to his community. He is well-respected and liked.  Kathy, his wife, grew up Southern Baptist and is a convert to Islam. At the time of the Hurricane they had 4 children, one son Zachary and three daughters:  Nademah, Aisha and Safiya. They were tracking the storm’s arrival and decided that Kathy and the children would leave town while Abdulrahman stayed back to take care of their house, monitor their rental properties, business office and equipment. What follows is the story of Abdulrahman’s experiences after the hurricane hit. Using his canoe to paddle around neighbourhoods that he used to frequent, he rescues several elderly residents, discovers and begins to feed dogs that were left behind and happens upon friends that also stayed. The story takes a horrendous turn when Abdulrahman and three friends were forcibly arrested and taken to a makeshift prison at the Greyhound bus station. They were not told why they were being arrested, they were not allowed to phone their families or their lawyers, and they were held in inhumane cages and conditions before being transferred to other nearby facilities.

Abdulrahman’s story is absolutely unbelievable. And yet the author goes to great effort to show the research he did to verify the Zeitoun’s family story. It is certainly true.

By all accounts the agencies in charge of law and order and rescue during the days immediately after the hurricane went rogue. Rumours of terrorist organizations capitalizing on natural disasters, the prevailing chaos, the sheer horrors and numbers of the victims and the displaced distorted the judgment and discernment of normally rational individuals.  The New Orleans police department, the Army Corp of Engineers, the Mayor of New Orleans, FEMA –any of these might have stabilized the situation and brought calm and hope to what was a devastating reality. But they didn’t. They rose up with fear and they abused the power with which they had been entrusted. They bullied, they tortured, they neglected care, they mistreated. They fixated on minor infractions while largely neglecting to rescue innocent victims.

It’s very hard to imagine how all of it could happen in modern-day, 2005, here in the United States of America. What went wrong? How did this happen?

As a Canadian, who grew up in Pakistan,  I remember vividly an encounter I had with a US Immigration Officer in Ontario. I was applying, at that time for an R-1 visa. We were hoping to stay in the US for two years. I needed that visa to be able to temporarily live here.  The officer was looking through my records on her computer screen, “It says here that you said you’d be leaving to return to India in three months time.” I had never said that. I wouldn’t have said it. It wasn’t true. The officer completely shrugged me off. The recorded memo of my earlier conversation with a previous immigration officer was considered the truth about me. My word against theirs. And they were right. I was wrong. Accepting their word though meant that I had lied and over stayed my welcome. I was powerless to defend myself. She didn’t believe me. I was in the wrong.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was in a far worse situation. He was completely vulnerable. Completely at the mercy of those in authority over him. They were authorities that at that time were not to be trusted.

Here in the U.S. we pride ourselves in our systems of justice and defense. We are innocent until we are proven guilty. Justice rules. She is not influenced by money or by power…but only by truth and proof. In other countries these things seem so tenuous, so fragile, so impressionable….but here justice is solid and sure. It’s what, in our minds, separates us from all that is “uncivilized”. It sets us apart. It gives us voice and confidence.

Reading the Zeitoun’s story leaves you wondering though.

Now seven years later, Kathy Zeitoun suffers with Post Traumatic Stress disorder. She will never be the same again.

“She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmad sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us? It could have been avoided, she thinks. So many little things could have been done. So many people let it happen. So many looked away. And it only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.” (p 329)

It happened here.

And it could happen again.

It takes all of us committed to justice to preserve it. Justice, when left unchecked, uncared for, unguarded, untethered, spoils. We all need to protect it.

It’s a precious commodity.

Thankfully a hero rises up in Abdulrahman’s story. A simple black preacher delivering Bibles to the inmates hears Abdulrahman’s plea and is true to his word. He called Kathy and let her know where Abdulrahman was being held. Admittedly this doesn’t sound very heroic. But he was a man who was willing to listen to his conscience. He was willing to be the messenger.

Kathy goes on to say,

                “But did he risk so much? Not really. Usually you needn’t risk so much to right a wrong.  It’s not so complicated. It’s the opposite of complicated. To dial a number given to you by a man in a cage, to tell the voice on the other end, ‘I saw him.’ Is that complicated? Is that an act of great heroism in the United States of America? It should not be so.” (p 329)

I want to be like that preacher. I want to be “one person” who doesn’t look away, who steps from the dark to the light, who defends those who aren’t being defended, who stands up against injustice. Like Kathy Zeitoun said, “It’s not that complicated.”

Note from Robynn:  

A response to Abdulraham Zeitoun and Kathy Zeitoun’s ongoing story.

I was horrified to discover in a quick web search that Abdulraham and Kathy Zeitoun were divorced in early 2011. More recently Abdulrahman has been arrested for violently attacking Kathy on July 20, 2012. He remains imprisoned at this time.

My heart breaks for this family. They deserve our deep sympathy and our compassion filled prayers. At the time of Dave Egger’s book their marriage was described as solid and happy. They were sweet to one another. There was humour and kindness, deep loyalty and respect. One can only wonder, considering the extent of the trauma they endured, how much of their current situation is in part to blame on the injustices they experienced.

It further grieves me that this type of violent behavior is what the media expects of Muslim men. Abdulraham Zeitoun is now who everyone expected him to be. Yet – he was as Muslim before the hurricane as he is now. And yet now thousands will knowingly nod their heads – “We expected as much” they will say. It makes me angry. We will never know the depth of the damage to this one man’s psyche, to his (now ex) wife’s sanity, to his children’s sense of security that occurred when the raw horror of injustice and cruelty was served.

A man now sits in prison. A family is destroyed. A marriage wounded.

Certainly Abdulraham is responsible for hitting his wife. There’s no doubt he’s responsible for his fierce anger and his uncontrollable reactions.

But what happened inside to turn on that rage? When did he break?

Perhaps those responsible for his post-hurricane Katrina treatment should join him in his jail cell. Perhaps they, in part, share some of the blame for the way Kathy Zeitoun and her children were treated.

17 thoughts on “A highly disturbed reader takes a look at a highly disturbing book: Zeitoun!

  1. I have come to this discussion (and your blog) very late – after finishing Zeitoun the book this morning. I have no axe to grind with any faith, after all, faith is all in the interpretation of belief, and whilst I could point my finger at the current events in the middle east, I should always remember “brave” Richard the Lionhart, who rode out from England to kill those who were not Christians. And who persuaded the children in the Children’s Crusade to follow in Richard’s footsteps? We do fear that which we do not know, but that really should not be the case, although it’s human nature to do so.

    I was so sad to find that things had escalated in the Zeitoun story, but not unexpectedly. PTD seems to be the problem for both the man and his (ex) wife but who will ever help them?

    The madness that followed Katrina in and around New Orleans had to be told, and it is this family’s story that helps with the understanding. What everyone needs is to understand how it affected them, for it is clear by the end of the book that Kathy Zeivon was suffering badly from the trauma even before the ink was dry in the book. We may have expected a different outcome for them, we may wish for a happy ending, but sometimes it just is not like that.

    Thank you for writing your peice on the book, and your comments about the afterwards. What I found out about the events following Katrina were priceless, even without the Zeivons.


  2. I understand your feelings. But pleas note how you are looking for excuses. “Well the Muslim man beat up his wife, but probably it’s the fault of American Society!”. Kathie has since detailed that she was hit and punched before Katrina; that she divorced Zeitoun after he beat up their teen daughter for not wearing a hijjab, and that he has violated restraining orders and repeatedly put her in fear of her life. Additionally she notes that her Muslim community (where she thought she was loved and respectsd) pressured her to silently accept his abuse – then turned their backs on her when she would not.

    At what point are you going to admit this is, yes, a Muslim problem? Yes there are others at fault – but they are the ummah who defend wife-beating, the teachings that command females to cover their hair, submit, and obey OR ELSE be punished by the men of the house, and the ethos that says the man’s reputation matters and the woman… Is just a mere female; how dare she go to the secular court and “make Muslim men look bad.”

    By the way: I am a Jewish american woman who married a man from Zeitoun’s hometown of Jableh. Guess what? Same outcome. And my ex husband is a rich man with no. Ague “victimhood” to blame his mysogyny on.


  3. I just read “Zeitoun” this morning, and I felt so drained and angry. I Googled Zeitoun to see how the family is doing, and I am so shocked and saddened at what I found. This is such a tragedy.


    1. So glad you found this piece. It is disturbing. It is so sad. The power of assumption in moving us toward wrong conclusions both personally and politically cannot be underestimated.


  4. Dear Marilyn, thank you for this post, for speaking so truthfully and with such compassion of people whose lives have been so deeply affected by actions and non-actions of their fellow humans. It takes the courage to do so.


  5. What a sad story and with no happy ending. How we need not only grace, but mercy! In German the word for mercy is Barmherzigkeit. Barm is an old word, still used in Scotland and North of England for “yeast”. Mercy is the yeast of the heart, what makes it rise in compassion and love. The bad guys need it as much as the good ones!!


  6. Robynn, thank you for your final comments. As I began my journey learning about Islam back in Brooklyn, you were the one who urged me to not allow myself to hate Muslim men. As we watched “Not without my daughter” and heard horror story after horror story, you were the one who told us all that this was not the complete picture. Then I met many young women in Pakistan who dearly loved the men in their lives and felt protected and loved by them. The bad must not be ignored, (especially when it involves laws that favor abuse by men in Muslim countries), but it should never be used to stigmatize an entire people group. The sin that was committed against this man and the sin he later committed are two separate issues.


    1. I love how you said it Anne, “the bad must not be….used to stigmatize an entire people group” — I think that’s so true. Not just of the community but also of the individual. Let’s us marvel at Abdulraham’s good deeds after the hurricane, let’s be horrified by how he was treated at that time… .and now let’s grieve the sin he has committed and the pain he is in and has caused.


  7. Thank you so much for this post, Marilyn. As I read it I was filled with indignation, then anger, then sorrow at that family’s situation. If there’s anything that makes me angry, it’s the racism and prejudice displayed across my country against the international community – and particularly, against Muslims. Surely, that man is totally responsible for his actions, and he deserves what he has received as a result. But I wonder if the pressure and unjust treatment didn’t help lead to the place he and his wife were at before?


  8. I think about this a lot after one of my favorite ministers from 5th Ave Presbyterian in NYC had an affair and was ousted from the church. I hope his whole ministry and all the good he had done were not abolished because he messed up.


    1. The fact that you remember and are blessed by the good your former minister did means that his good deeds are still at work bearing fruit….


  9. Robynn – I appreciate the post note and update but it got me thinking….Regardless of his being in prison now – he was grossly wronged and we can learn from that. Our heros rise and when they fall – we dismiss everything. Is it because we want better than who we can be? They have brought us hope in the better parts of humanity and we are shaken? We blame them for shaking our faith in humanity. We do it with Christian leaders all the time – they quickly rise…..and when they fall we’re done. I’m not sure where grace is supposed to be in all this – but I do know it’s supposed to be here. Thoughts?


    1. Lowell likes to say, “Do not judge the man by the moment!” I think that’s true of our heroes and of our villains. We tend to reduce people to the sum total of their greatest mistake! I want to be elevated above my own mistakes… I want grace, I want people to extend the benefit of the doubt, to give me a second and a third chance. We owe that to each other too.


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