One stroke of luck during my trip to the USA was that my visit coincided with the publication of Dave Eggers wonderful new non-fiction book ‘Zeitoun’.  I snapped this up at Powell’s in Portland and it helped enormously to ease the boredom of long trips (and frequent delays) on Amtrak.

It is a marvellous piece of journalism, expanding on the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their family  that first came to light in  ‘Voices From The Storm’ – a book of experiences from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina  published by McSweeneys Voice of Witness in 2005 .

What Eggers has done here is quite remarkable. Writing simply and with great humanity he ensures that what might have been a depressing tale of misery, hardship and injustice is actually an inspiring story of the triumph of hope over adversity.

Zetoun is an upstanding citizen of impeccable character whose only ‘crime’ was his stubborn refusal to leave the flooded city. He defied the evacuation in order to protect his properties and because in his canoe he felt he was uniquely placed to feed dogs and save people. At first you can see his reasoning but ultimately it is clear that his persistent refusal to leave when food supplies were dwindling and the level of pollution was increasing was foolhardy.

Zeitoun uses a term ‘bycatch’ to explain how he came to arrested on suspicion of looting. This word is used by fishermen to describe anything which gets caught in their nets which they don’t need.  Zeitoun recalls a catch of sardines he witnessed which inadvertently trapped and killed a large dolphin.

Nothing, however, can justify  the barbaric treatment he has to endure after his arrest . He was given no bedding or adequate toilet facilities, denied medical attention and the food he was served frequently included pork or ham which as a Muslim his captors knew he couldn’t eat. In addition his frequent demands to make a phone call to his wife fell on deaf ears and he was subjected to regular and humiliating strip searches.

It is all the more incredible then, that when he was finally released he did not return a broken man. On the contrary, he was determined to stay in the City which had welcomed him and had allowed him to establish a flourishing building and decorating business. Moreover, his faith in the wisdom of God was undiminished.

The purpose built prison (Camp Greyhound) where he was  literally caged like an animal was constructed with the help of prisoners from Dixon Correctional Institude in Jackson and the Lousiana State Penitentiary in Angola.   Speed was of the essence given the number of arrests being made.  Eggers writes: “The complex and exceedingly efficient government operation was completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses”.  This sentence is typical of Eggers’s style.  The details do not need to be embellished when the facts speak for themselves so vividly  and Eggers resists the temptation to score political points or take the moral high ground.

It could be argued that in doing so  he is overly generous towards the authorities. In his notes at the end he stresses that his intention is not to denounce the operation of the prison but  suggests that the inhuman and unacceptable treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun was due in large part to the overwhelming pressure they were under.

Certainly, the unprecedented damage and chaos that followed in the wake of Katrina was something no amount of pre-planning could prepare for. Eggers unwillingness to rush to judge those in charge of welfare and security is ultimately one of the strengths of the book. He resists the easy course of cataloguing  the inadequacies and failures after the hurricane struck.

Zeitoun is accused of being part of a Taliban plot and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see the unlikelihood that terrorists would have capitalised on this natural disaster. The Bush administration’s measures were a telling illustration of the climate of fear that beset the nation under the auspice of the so-called the war on terror. It is now evident that the claims of lootings, rapes and breakdown of social order in New Orleans were grossly exaggerated in order to justify the heavy handed military response. The level of paranoia was such that a display of Government forces was needed to show to the world that they were not vulnerable.

By giving us such a vivid  insight into the plight of this individual it requires no leap of imagination to conclude that Zeitoun’s story may be extraordinary but by no means unique. For this reason, all proceeds of the book go to The Zeitoun Foundation to aid the rebuilding of New Orleans and to promote respect for human rights in the U.S.A and around the world.

By buying the book, you’ll not only be guaranteed a great read but you’ll also be supporting this worthy cause.

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