Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Last night on the evening news I listened to two Muslim girls who had grown up in England talk about how their own identities were threatened by terrorists groups like ISIS and others. Peaceloving themselves, they nevertheless are regarded with suspicion by non-Muslims, due to being associated with violent extremists. I found myself sympathizing with both the girls and the English people who are afraid of them. In these times when dangerous fanatics seduce children into horrific acts, it is harder than ever to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Of course, this sort of dilemma is nothing new. We are all aware by now of how during World War II innocent Americans of Japanese and German descent were incarcerated or persecuted by their neighbors. On a much less dramatic scale, I myself, as a Christian, have sometimes been embarrassed by some of the posturing and rhetoric of some people who call themselves by my same name. All of us experience some discomfort about the cultural stereotypes projected about us, whatever they may be. It is therefore to all our benefits to have reciprocal dialogues that are respectful and non-coercive, however loyal we may feel to our own point of view. We are also much more likely to influence people if we are honestly open to seeing their side of things as well.

One of the best ways to have this kind of dialogue is by reading books. A reader can respond honestly in his or her own mind without that reaction alienating anyone, but the reader is also able to be completely immersed in another perspective. A good book for Americans to read regarding the Muslim population among us is “Zeitoun”, by Dave Eggers. Eggers writes about the real life experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, beginning with an excerpt from his youth in his native Syria and moving on to his experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  Zeitoun is married to Kathy, and runs a company, Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC.

A good book for Americans to read regarding the Muslim population among us is “Zeitoun”, by Dave Eggers. Eggers writes about the real life experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, beginning with an excerpt from his youth in his native Syria and moving on to his experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

When the residents of New Orleans were ordered to evacuate, Kathy traveled with their four children to her sister’s house in Baton Rouge. Zeitoun, who is called by his last name because it is easier for Americans to pronounce, stayed behind to finish helping clients board up their homes and to look after his own properties. He moved everything that he could move upstairs, put it all in sealed plastic bags, caught the rainwater in garbage cans and stopped the many leaks. He tied his aluminum canoe to the house. When he was eventually forced onto the roof by the flood after the levees gave way, he put a tent and provisions up there, and he went out exploring in the canoe. The water was over thirteen feet deep, and he was instrumental in saving the lives of five people the first day. He soon realized that the quietness of his canoe enabled him to hear the cries of people who could not be heard by the rescuers in the fan boats.

Zeitoun’s wife, who was watching the news reports of the chaos in the wake of the storm, urged him to leave. But Zeitoun felt certain that he had been called to stay, “that God knew he would be of service if he remained. His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will”(p. 120). Zeitoun continued to rescue people and animals until he was arrested and imprisoned by the National Guard. In their desperate attempt to restore law and order, the authorities made the mistake of taking prisoner many innocent people, even heroic people who had stayed behind to help. A sanitation worker who was part of a company that had been contracted to clean up after the storm was a cellmate of Zetoun’s. So was a firefighter, who had been asked to stay to help, but who was picked up and charged with looting.

Zeitoun learned that most of the occupants of Camp Greyhound had been arraigned in a makeshift court, and offered a very poor deal, to contest the charges and be contained, or to be given a misdemeanor conviction and allowed to start community service. The blot on one’s permanent record was bad enough. But because of Zeitoun’s country of origin, he was held without contact, charges, bail or trial. It was only four years after the bombing of the Twin Towers, and people were jumpy. What followed is a story of bullying, poor treatment, indignity, and extended exposure to very poor living conditions, not only for Zeitoun, but for a number of other individuals. This is a must-read for anyone who doubts that even a government with good intentions can grievously overreach in the interest of national security.

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