Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bounce Back


"Zeitoun" is a really powerful and moving book.  A work of nonfiction from Dave Eggers, it tells the story of one family's experience with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  It manages to be gut-wrenching without feeling manipulative... the story is so compelling that it demands a response, and I'm still trying to sort through just what that response should be.

Like many Americans, I was horrified at the stories and pictures we saw of devastated New Orleans after the hurricane.  I shared in the frustration at the seeming incompetence of our government to respond to the disaster.  I suspect that I'm also like many other Americans in the way that the incident has been slowly fading for me.  I still think it was shameful, of course, but I very rarely think about it any more, and when I do it's from a more detached viewpoint.  Which isn't very helpful.  As many people rightly pointed out at the time, the biggest legacy of Katrina is not the storm itself, but the way it exposed existing problems in our own society, things that are rarely seen in the media but that profoundly affect the character of our country: the vast divide between rich and poor, the severe social isolation within cities, rampant prejudice, and so on.

Weirdly enough, though, those aren't the areas that Zeitoun mines.  The main characters in this book aren't part of the masses crammed into the Superdome that so outraged the world; they are successful middle-class people who have realized the American Dream.  I think that this book gives an unflinching and unapologetic view of three sides of America.  We see the good: the selflessness, courage, everyday decency of individual citizens that both enrich our daily lives and help see us through scenes of tragedy.  We see the individual badness, too: blind prejudice, lack of responsibility, and fearfulness that push people to make bad decisions which cut others down in small or large ways.  Finally and most damning, we see first-hand how our institutions work in stressful situations, and the sight isn't pretty.  It was stunning and depressing to read about the actions of police, the National Guard, the corrections system, the judicial system, and the political system.  The problems here rose far above the level of individual incompetence and revealed that the structural orientation of these bedrock institutions is in dire need of reform.


The book starts slowly but engagingly, after Hurricane Katrina has been named but several days before it makes landfall.  We gradually get to know the Zeitoun family.  The father Abdulrahman (usually just "Zeitoun") comes from a large Syrian family, and settled in New Orleans after working in the merchant marines for a decade.  He met Kathy, a native of Louisiana who converted to Islam.  Together they raise a loving family with one son (from Kathy's previous marriage) and four daughters.  They also run a successful painting and contracting business, known throughout New Orleans for their high quality of work and reliability.

The Islam aspect is fascinating, both getting glimpses inside the faith (through the eyes of one born to it and one who came to it), as well as seeing how Muslims felt in the post-2001 crusading years.  One of the stories that affected me most was reading about how Kathy came to leave her Christian faith after her pastor publicly humiliated her after she came to him for spiritual help.  The side of Islam we see here is the one we keep hearing about on NPR: peaceful, devout, upright, thoughtful.  Along with Kathy we see that there are a wide variety of Muslims, just as there are a wide variety of Christians: some are extremely strict in their faith, others are just occasional practicers, some are highly modernized, others remain in the past, and so on.  Of course I'm not going to convert or anything, but it was nice to see more of the faith through the eyes of the faithful.

The middle section of the book is extremely hopeful.  Kathy and the family leave the city once an evacuation order is issued.  Zeitoun remains behind to watch after the dozens of properties that the family owns.  He stays awake through two days of storm as the rain pours down, leaks spring in the roof, the wind howls, the water rises, the rain tampers down and then leaves, and the water rises.  He breathes a sigh of relief, but we remain tense, knowing that the worst is yet to come.  He wakes up to find the water improbably rising once again, and instantly realizes that the levees have been breached and the city is doomed.  He doesn't panic or flee, though.  He believes that he has remained behind for a reason: that God wants to use him to help the others who are stuck in the city.  He uses a small rowboat to paddle around his neighborhood.  He rescues some elderly shut-ins who could not or would not flee the city before, he meets up with some other people who stayed behind and are interested in helping others, and feeds neighborhood dogs who were abandoned and trapped in their owners' houses.

This section feels surreal and exciting.  The scenes Zeitoun encounters are very different from the images that we have of life after the storm.  He realizes this as it happens, too; he and Kathy have cell phones, and through her reports and reports from other Zeitoun family members he receives countless warnings about the chaos in the Superdome and roving gangs of looters.  He also receives many rumors that later will prove to be false: mass rapes of children, snipers shooting at rescue workers, and other horror stories.  These tales are so far from his experiences in Uptown New Orleans that he can't take them too seriously, and he continues on his mission of exploration and rescue.

Zeitoun only once sees looters, and never has any violent confrontations with anyone who remained behind.  No: his horror comes entirely at the hands of his own government.  He is attacked and arrested, along with three other helpers, within one of the properties he owns.  From here he swiftly falls into a legal black hole that echoes Guantanamo in every way: prisoners, American citizens, are not allowed phone calls, legal representation, medical attention; nobody is told where they are, and Kathy spends more than a week thinking that her husband might be dead.  We eventually learn that Zeitoun was arrested because a corrupt cop identified him as someone who had looted a Walgreens, but once he enters the prison system, the military justice system begins treating him as an al Qaeda member.

The book doesn't grandstand much about race, just laying out its stories about what happened, but it's still profoundly depressing.  Zeitoun and another Syrian named Nasser are grouped together in prison, eventually sharing a tiny cell built for a single prisoner.  Later, they are joined by four African-American prisoners who were also swept up after Katrina.  One of them was a volunteer firefighter from Albuquerque; he answered the call to come to New Orleans and help with the rescue effort.  He was arrested.  Another man worked for a construction company in Houston that was hired by the government to help save some structures in the city.  Even though he was wearing his uniform and had ID, the Guard accused him of stealing the tools he was using, and threw him in prison as well.  Now, to some extent we might be tempted to excuse these wrongful incarcerations as the result of the chaos of the moment, but is it really a coincidence that these men were black and Arab?  If not, what does that say about our society?  When we're stressed, will we always assume the worst of people who don't look like us?

Eventually a Christian missionary talks with Zeitoun; Zeitoun convinces him to break the rules and let Kathy know that he is alive.  From this time on, things begin to move forward, but Zeitoun is still in a weird, Kafka-esque state.  Kathy is told that she should come to his hearing, but will not be told where the hearing is.  Bail is set absurdly high with no chance to demonstrate that it is unnecessary.  Kathy has survived the stress of the storm, deteriorating relationships with her family, a flight across the country to Arizona, dealing with the possible death of her husband, and restarting her childrens' lives in a new school, but it's her encounter with the justice system that finally breaks her.  She suffers a nervous collapse, and to this day she isn't as mentally sharp as she used to be.  It's a really heartbreaking thought.

Overall, you're left with mixed feelings at the end of the book.  Things are better; Zeitoun wasn't permanently vanished, he didn't die in prison, and he and Kathy have restarted their business and had a son.  And yet, in the broader picture, it's hard to believe that much has changed.  Since that time the Democrats have taken over Congress and we have a new President, and I don't want to diminish the importance of those events, but Obama won't be the first person on the ground when the next disaster strikes.  Our institutions are ultimately made of people; those people, in turn, are shaped by the institutions to which they belong.  Fundamental reform and better planning are urgently necessary, and there's little reason to believe that they have learned the right lessons from Katrina.


The most powerful aspect of the book may be its narrow focus.  When you're confronted with a huge tragedy, your mind kind of reels and shuts down.  I can hear that millions of people were displaced, and it sounds awful, but I just have no sense of comprehension about what that means.  However, when you hear one person's story, that becomes something that you can wrap your mind around and react to.  It becomes a gateway that you can use to begin appreciating the magnitude of the tragedy.  It's why Anne Frank's diary is so incredibly powerful: through her personal story, the horror of the Holocaust becomes real.  Similarly, Zeitoun helps move past the headlines and show the reality of Katrina.  It isn't, and doesn't pretend to be, a complete record of everything that happened during the storm, but it's a full story, a necessary one, a chance to find out what went wrong.

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