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Friday, November 6, 2009

Unadulterated Eggers

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 3:24 PM

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My first impression of Dave Eggers during our recent interview was how much he cared about the Abdulraham and Kathy Zeitoun and their children, the New Orleans family and subject of Egger's book, Zeitoun. He had spent a lot of time talking on the phone with Zeitouns, and made numerous trips to New Orleans to learn more about their experience following the levee failures. He said he had learned quite a bit from these visits, and he looked at Abdulraham and Kathy as teachers.

This evening at 8 p.m. at the NOCCA Institute, 2800 Chartres St. (940-2900), Eggers will be discussing the book, and he'll be joined onstage by the Zeitouns. Just as he did in the book, Eggers says he'll try to stay in the background and let the Zeitouns tell their story. Call the above number for ticket info.
Below is the full transcript of the interview with Eggers.
You first heard about the Zeitouns through your nonprofit book series Voice of Witness, which chronicles individual stories of human rights abuses. Human rights abuses aren’t what most Americans think about when it comes to Hurricane Katrina, is it?
“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 also though 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 are being told and 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 until 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.”

Zeitoun is arrested in early September 2005 and taken to Camp Greyhound, a makeshift jail that was built outside the New Orleans train station and bus terminal near the Super Dome. 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?

“That was one of the things that interested me when I first read the Zeitouns’ struggles after the storm in Voices From the Storm. I started doing a lot of research into it (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. I kept digging into it and talking to Abdulraham about it. He 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, (but) 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 do you think prompted this collapse of the criminal justice system, where people were arrested with little or no provocation, no investigation were made and then suspects weren’t allowed to contact anyone on the outside?

“It was very hard to have land lines working at Grey Hound, 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 Grey Hound (to) Hunt (Correctional Facility, 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 Grey Hound 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. I attribute a lot of what happened, and certainly what happened to Zeitoun, to the political climate of the time, where the Bush philosophies had ill regard for human rights or due process. Those policies and disregard trickled down to prison guards, soldiers and those running the prison. They presumed guilt for anyone who was brought to the station. The fact that there could even be an idea entertained in the minds of any of the soldiers or guards that there were terrorists operating in the waters of New Orleans after the storm, is really indicative of the mindset that seemed only possible in those years 2003(-2006). The first book in the series Voice of Witness was Surviving Justice. It was about the wrongly convicted and incarcerated, so it’s a subject that I’m passionate about.”

Besides providing new information and tearing down a few popular Hurricane Katrina myths, you tell the story of a hardworking American family, but again, it’s not what most people would view as the typical American family, right?

“Yes and no. Everything on the list of all American values — hard work, self-reliance, faith, dedication to family, owing one’s home, doing right by one’s employees, caring for the elderly, being deeply involved in one’s community and being a good neighbor — all of these things, if those are the boxes, the Zeitouns would have every box checked for them. They are exemplars of these traits, so in a way, they are the ultimate, all-American family, and bedrock members of their community. If you walk around with the Zeitouns in the neighborhood, they know everybody, how old every kid is, how old every adult is, who needs help on Tuesdays, who needs a ride to the doctor, elderly neighbors, you name it. Only a fraction of it made into the book about how much they do for everyone around them. But then at the same time, they are a Muslim/American family. There are thousands of Muslims in New Orleans, but it’s not a well-known segment of the city, just like the Vietnamese population became better known after the storm. I thought it was an interesting element of this story to say that ‘could it be that the ultimate, American family was Muslim too?’ Are these values unique to the U.S.? Abdulraham grew up in Jableh, Syria and these are the same values there and throughout the Arab world, so it ideally prompts some thinking about assumptions and what our ideas are about other countries in the Middle East. I think 99.8 percent of our values are identical, and people around the world want the same things and care about the same things. We were able to see Islam through Kathy’s eyes and walk with her through her conversion. Given that she’s from Baton Rouge, that makes Islam easier to understand.”

During Abdulrahman’s darkest hours of incarceration, his faith sustains him. Before undertaking the book, how familiar were you with Islam?

“I was a pretty average American reader. I would have a pretty mainstream, average knowledge. I grew up in Illinois and had no Muslim neighbors or very few (Muslim) students in my school and college. I think, like a lot of people, it was foreign to me after 911, when 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 Qu’ran in various editions and asking questions of Kathy and Ahman in Spain. Given how much I was able to learn from the starting point I was at, 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 Qu’ran and the Old Testament, is surprising to people. We don’t get enough of just basic knowledge and explanation in the mainstream media I fear. The misinformation about Islam is absolutely startling.”

In a way, the book gives the Zeitouns a chance to explain their religion, and demystify it.

“It was never long in any given visit with the Zeitouns, that we’d talk a lot about Islam. I’ve been to a lot of Arab-American events since the book was published, and there’s such pain threaded throughout Arab-American and Muslim-American community about this perception and about prejudice. It’s very difficult to get through conversations without this being brought up. It’s always on people’s minds; it’s in every speech you hear that they’ll talk about correcting people’s presumptions and improving the image of Islam in this country. It’s just this deep, deep hurt that so many people in particular, maybe even a majority of people, do assume that terrorism is embedded into the basic tenets of Islam, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just about a week and half ago there was an event in San Francisco that Arab American Cultural Center had an event at City Hall and it was beautiful, full of speeches and awards and music, but there such an undercurrent of hurt. It even hurt to me to see all these folks just struggling with this everyday. It’s just so wrong and unfair. Through the Zeitouns, I’ve been getting hundreds of emails, notes and letters from people, who have learned either a little, or have learned a lot, and that’s gratifying.”

You’re best known for your memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,

although the movie script, Where the Wild Things Are, you co-wrote may change that. In Zeitoun, you return to your journalistic roots, and your voice isn’t really detectable in the book.

“I tried hard to disappear completely in terms of authorial voice. I started out as a journalist and that’s my training from the University of Illinois. I worked at a lot of weeklies. I worked at SF Weekly, and did that and a lot of feature writing for a long time. The book before this was What is the What, and in that I tried to disappear and sublimate my writing into Valentino’s voice and the voice on the page. With this, because it was in third person, I thought there was no reason I need to be present. Nobody needs to know my take on Katrina, or my take on what happened to the Zeitouns. It was enough to tell the story in the way of the narrative, that was the goal. It’s the least ornate, or stylistically the most straightforward thing I’ve ever written. If I inserted myself too much, or started getting on a soapbox about what I felt had been done or had been outraged about the injustice, that would have gotten in the way. The facts of the story speak for themselves.”

The Zeitouns’ accounts of the days following the levee breaches — the eerie silence and little of the violent chaos reported by the media. As a journalist, what could the media have done differently to better portray Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures?

“Wow. 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, as we know, 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) Jordan and you can’t blame (the media) for taking some of these officials at their word. Why wouldn’t they believe the chief of police when he’s talking about mass rapes and children being killed? Why would they raise doubt about what he’s supposedly seen? The Uptown neighborhood wasn’t something they were talking about, where Zeitoun was paddling. It was comparatively quiet and eerie and peaceful in a way, and a kind of apocalyptic landscape. I thought that too needed to be another reason to tell the story. So much of coverage focused on a few neighborhoods and a few buildings, or at least the coverage that reached the rest of the country, focused on the most sensational."

You mention the 24-hour news cycle, do you think the media could have done better considering this need to always be filling time?

“Who knows? I never worked at a TV station, and I’ve never been under that kind of deadline. I have time to pause. It was an unfortunate situation. I think our willingness to believe some of these outlandish stories brought about, are some of our deep-seeded assumptions and prejudices. Our willingness to believe there were hundreds of bodies in the Convention Center and the Dome. I’m not the first to wonder if these stories were told about a stadium in Salt Lake City, if we would still believe all these things. And because of these stories, it weakened the response greatly. The Red Cross wasn’t allowed to come in, and the cops, including the two I interviewed, Ralph Gonzales from New Mexico and Donald Lima from the city (New Orleans). But Gonzales, it’s fascinating talking to him, because he came in really expecting a war zone, shot at constantly and going at it head-to-head against roving, armed gangs. This is wasn’t what they found. They thought they would do mostly command and control, and they almost exclusively search and rescue.”

This is a difficult book for New Orleanians to read — for many, it takes us back to the nightmare that few want to revisit —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 never read a book about cancer. I can’t do it. I have that kind of avoidance of subject matter that’s too painful for me. I’ve gotten so many notes and things from New Orleanians who read it, 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 more books that I hope appear of stories that haven’t been told yet. Every person I meet tells me a story.” They should take as much time as they need to heal. I can never begin to understand, or know what it is like to be from New Orleans, lived in New Orleans, to have suffered through it and I give anyone as much time, and with whatever means it takes, to heal.”

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