Monday, February 27, 2012

I feel like I'm supposed to be here

I didn't mean to read Dave Egger's Zeitoun. I mean I've wanted to read it for awhile. I've even picked it up a few times but I always put it back and grabbed something else. I was planning on reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. And then I forgot it. I went to visit my mom for the holiday weekend and I realized I had left the book on the table but figured I never actually get any reading done when I'm visiting. We're always out running around or talking. It wasn't until we were too far to turn around that I realized while I may not get to read the book at my mom's, I did have about 2 hours of train travel. Can't do that without a book so I went to a bookstore and Zeitoun jumped out at me. I'm so glad it did.

I can't remember the last time a book made me so angry. Not at the book. I loved the book. But at what happens. I'm going to warn you now that this is going to be all kinds of spoilery. As spoilery as you can make a non-fiction book I suppose. If you don't want to read on, just know that I loved this and you should read it.

I only knew the basics of the of the book when I picked it up: it's about Hurricane Katrina, it focuses on a single Muslim family, there is some unfair prison time. So when I started the book I was surprised at how happy it is, how much hope there is, how absurd and surreal things got in New Orleans during the flooding. Kathy and the kids evacuated the city while Zeitoun (it's his last name but people had trouble with his name Abdulrahman so he typically went by this) stayed behind to watch over the family painting company and check-in on their several rental properties. There's some tense scenes in the first part of the book while you find out exactly what sort of damage the hurricane and then flood caused to the Zeitoun home and Kathy's worry for her husband. But Zeitoun was fine. He had brought out a canoe and was spending his days paddling around his adopted city helping anyone he could. He rescued neighbors, kept some dogs fed, and generally made himself useful. He even found a working phone at one of their rental properties and made sure to call his wife daily. Whenever Kathy would beg him to come home he would tell her he felt like God had a plan for him, and he was supposed to be there helping people.

There are scary moments, as the relief workers don't seem to be very helpful in actually offering relief and he does see a few gangs of looters, although they leave him alone. Really, the most upsetting thing in the first half was around Kathy. She was raised Southern Baptist but had converted to Islam before meeting Zeitoun and her family seemed to think of it as a phase (even several years later). That and Kathy's legitimate worry for Zeitoun. She's watching all of these awful things on the news about the conditions in New Orleans. And as she says, it's unfair that Zeitoun has the comfort of knowing his family is safe. Kathy and the kids don't have the same luxury. But really these are small things compared to what happens in the second half.

I was started to get lulled into the idea that things weren't so bad. And that they wouldn't get bad. That it was a good thing Zeitoun hung around. I mean, he was doing so much good. But then came that unfair prison time.

Zeitoun a few friends that had stayed in the city were at one of the rental properties when the police busted in and arrested everyone. No one was told what they were being arrested for, no one was read any rights, they weren't given any phone calls. They were just taken away. And then they were put in a jail for days. Weeks. In deplorable conditions. And still they never knew what they were being held for. Not officially anyway, although they were kept separate from all of the other prisoners and guards would mumble (or yell) Taliban and Al-Qaeda at the men. Two of the men were Muslim-Americans and two were white local boys. But apparently talking to Muslims was enough to count as being a terrorist in New Orleans after the hurricane.

There is no excuse for what happened to Zeitoun and the other men and women who were unlawfully detained. No matter how bad conditions were during the flooding in New Orleans, there is no excuse for what these people went through. The fact that the Zeitoun family decided to go back to New Orleans speaks volumes of their character. I don't know if I could forgive the city if I had been in their shoes.

There was one sort of funny scene during the prison time. Not so much funny-haha but more like "are you kidding me?" funny. The guards have put the suspected terrorists in one section, far from the other prisoners. Then one day they add a new guy to the cell named Jerry who is there to apparently get terrorist information from the guys. And he does it with all the subtly of: "Oh man you guys, American sucks the big one, amirite? We should totally go all jihad on this place. Death to America, what what." Since Zeitoun and company are a) not terrorists and b) not idiots, they just ignore the guy until he's eventually removed from their group.

This is going to be another book I start shoving into everyone's hands. I've already started telling some of my non-reader friends "Look I know, you're not a big reader, but just shut up and read this one right now. Right now. Why are you still talking to me when you could be picking up a copy of this book?"

Title quote from page 124

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. Vintage Books, 2009.