Dave Eggers discusses Zeitoun
Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun will attend
8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 6
The NOCCA Institute, 2800 Chartres St., 940-2900; www.noccainstitute.com
In his nonfiction book, Zeitoun, Dave Eggers tells the story of a hardworking Muslim-American family living in New Orleans and their experience in the aftermath of the levee failures. Eggers also sees the poor federal response as a reflection of George W. Bush-era values and operations.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American, owned a painting and contracting company as well as several properties in the city, and he decided to stay when Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans in August 2005. His wife Kathy, a Muslim convert originally from Baton Rouge, packed up her kids and evacuated to her hometown. After the levees breached, Zeitoun spent his days paddling through the flooded part of Uptown rescuing neighbors and strangers alike.
In early September, a group of unidentified police and soldiers arrested Zeitoun and two friends and transported them to Camp Greyhound, a temporary jail located outside of the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. He was thrown into a cell but never charged. Zeitoun and the others begged to make a phone call. "Phones don't work," a guard told them. "You guys are terrorists. You're Taliban."
With no word from her husband for more than a week and an ongoing barrage of media reports describing New Orleans as a war zone, Kathy faced a possible future as a single mother. At the same time, Zeitoun was trying to survive his prison nightmare and get word to his wife that he was alive.
Eggers is best known for his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and he also co-authored the script for Where the Wild Things Are, but returned to his journalistic roots for this book. He attempts to "disappear completely in terms of authorial voice," he says, and strictly report the events through the eyes of the Zeitouns. He succeeds, and Zeitoun is a vital book in the growing library of what really occurred when the levees broke in New Orleans.
Eggers' publishing company, McSweeney's, published the book, and proceeds benefit the Zeitoun Foundation, which will provide funds to a number of local nonprofit organizations. In an interview with Gambit, Eggers discusses the government's lack of a response plan to the crisis and how authorities viewed the manmade disaster and its survivors.
You first heard about the Zeitouns through your nonprofit book series Voice of Witness, which chronicles individual stories of human rights abuses. Most Americans don't think about human rights abuses when it comes to Hurricane Katrina. Should they?
It depends on their level of information, and I guess their opinion on the competency of the government — local, state and national — in the wake of the storm. I think that slowly but surely information about some of the private contractors that were in town, some of the abuses from the police, too, and even some of the soldiers, all of these things have been trickling out. What happened to the Zeitouns is one of hundreds of stories that need to be told, and some of them have been told by your paper and The Times-Picayune. For me, Voices From The Storm, our book of oral histories, was eye-opening because I wasn't aware of any of these things ... these first-person accounts of grandmothers having guns pointed at their heads by unmarked soldiers and people from private contractors. There was such an array of human rights abuses, whether passive or active, and Abdulraham Zeitoun was just one of so many stories.
When Zeitoun is arrested, he's brought to Camp Greyhound. The jail was constructed after the storm and was a fairly extensive project. What does this tell you about the government's priorities after the levee failures?
I started doing a lot of research into [Camp Greyhound] and it had been fairly well documented in those weeks after the hurricane, but it wasn't widely known outside of New Orleans. (Zeitoun) had figured out some math when he was locked up there about just how quickly they had assembled this outdoor prison in the wake of the storm. It has been confirmed that while people were dying in attics, struggling to eat or find water, yearning for help on rooftops and the government couldn't get anything right on a national level and was still bungling in so many ways, at the same time, there was a very efficient operation happening at the Greyhound Station. [Prisoners from Dixon Correctional Institute] and trustees from Angola were bused down along with a vast amount of materials to erect a very shiny and well-built prison. That contrast struck me and it felt very emblematic of Bush-era priorities, where it's command and control over any sort of humanitarian concerns.
What prompted this collapse of the criminal justice system, where people were arrested with little or no provocation, no investigations were made and then suspects weren't allowed to contact anyone on the outside?
It was very hard to have land lines working at Greyhound, or so they say — and if we grant them that it would be very difficult to make calls, but in lieu of that, there has to be other systems in place. It also doesn't excuse the fact that after they evacuated from Greyhound (to) Hunt (Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, La.), they were still not given phone calls. But there was a lot of that left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, because once a prisoner was processed through Greyhound and sent to one of the many longer-term prisons throughout the state, they were lost in the system for weeks, if not months, when no one really knew where they were. Records weren't being kept. Lawyers and human rights advocates think that what was done was an evacuation via incarceration — where they wanted to clear out the city, so anybody found within it was accused of looting or some other trumped-up charge and thrown in prison.
Before undertaking the book, how familiar were you with Islam?
I grew up in Illinois and had no Muslim neighbors or very few (Muslim) students in my school and college. Like a lot of people, it was foreign to me. After 9/11, we as a country grew to know more, or at least people in my generation, about Islam. I learned so much during the process of writing the book, researching it and reading the Quran in various editions and asking questions of Kathy. I was careful not to assume much of the reader. That's why even explaining that Islam is just a branch of one of Abraham's faiths, that Allah is the same God that we recognize from the Bible and that some of these same characters appear in the Quran and the Old Testament, is surprising to people.
Zeitoun's account of the days in New Orleans immediately following the levee breaches relates the eerie silence of his surroundings, but little of the violent chaos reported by the media. As a journalist, what do you think the media could have done differently to better portray Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures?
Obviously, there was a lot of reporting done without checking facts, and — given the 24-hour news cycle and the endless hunger to be first, or to present something new — there was a lot of repeating of rumors and lies that greatly hurt response and enforced a lot of stereotypes and did great damage to people who had already suffered. Unfortunately, so much of that misinformation was coming from officials like (former New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie) Compass and (former Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie) Jordan, and you can't blame (the media) for taking some of these officials at their word.
This will be a difficult book for New Orleanians to read. Why should they take the journey?
I would never urge it on anyone who would find it difficult to read. Going back to my memoir, I have never read a book about cancer. I can't do it. I have that kind of avoidance of subject matter that is too painful for me. I've gotten so many notes and things from New Orleanians who read (Zeitoun), and I've had so many friends (from New Orleans) make sure it was as accurate as it could be. So I guess it depends on the individual. I understand wholeheartedly if someone doesn't feel like reliving it, but I do think it's one of what I hope becomes a growing mosaic of voices we hear from the city, from every neighborhood and every different experience. There are hundreds of books that I hope appear of stories that haven't been told yet. Every person I meet tells me a story.