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.