Katrina Time

Greg Grandin

  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
    Penguin, 368 pp, £8.99, ISBN 0 14 104681 3

In early September 2005, a week after Hurricane Katrina, the police and National Guard arrested Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant who worked in New Orleans as a building contractor and landlord. Zeitoun was seized on his own property; the unidentified officers refused to tell him why he’d been arrested. They took him to Union Terminal, a train and bus station that had been hastily converted into a mini supermax jail, where he was processed in the passenger lobby, below a neglected cubist fresco, a four-wall epic that gives a concentrated version in violent oranges and reds of Louisiana’s history, including the Spanish conquest of the Mississippi Valley, the torture of Native Americans, the chattel slavery that built New Orleans, the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan, oil rigs, wars and mass graves. The final panel, painted by Conrad Albrizio in 1954, depicts commerce, science and law freeing Louisiana from its past, with reason and order coming to reign. Below the fresco, Zeitoun was strip-searched and accused by heavily armed soldiers of being a member of al-Qaida and the Taliban. He was then put in a cage in the parking lot. Transferred to an isolated prison and placed in a wing filled with those arrested in the aftermath of Katrina, Zeitoun was eventually told that he was being charged with petty larceny. A judge set bail at $75,000, about a hundred times more than the standard for such an infraction, but Zeitoun still wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. ‘Why set bail when I can’t tell anyone I’m in prison?’ he asked. It was nearly a month after Katrina before his wife, Kathy, who had fled the storm with their four children, found out that he was alive. Her husband was finally granted a public hearing, but when she asked where it would be held, a court official told her this was ‘privileged information’. The hearing was then cancelled, Zeitoun was freed on bail and the case eventually dropped.

Prisoners who went through similar ordeals coined the phrase ‘Katrina Time’ to describe the period after the flood when due process went the way of the levees. The brigadier general in charge of Louisiana’s National Guard described his mission in martial, racial terms: New Orleans, he said, was ‘going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.’ The police and the military, as well as some civilian politicians, began to call the mostly poor and black stay-behinds ‘insurgents’, murderously over-reacting to false or vague reports of officers being ‘under fire’. Among those gunned down was a severely mentally disabled man called Ronald Madison: police shot the unarmed African-American in the back, kicking him as he died. The police also killed 17-year-old James Brissette and wounded four of his companions as they crossed a bridge looking for food. They too were black and were not carrying weapons. As many as 8000 people were arrested, including a Houston sanitation worker who was there to help with the clean-up and a local fireman: both were arrested for looting, the first when walking from his hotel to his truck, in uniform, carrying the keys to the truck and identification; the second in his own yard. Thousands were corralled for days in an open-air football stadium, forced to scramble for sandwiches thrown over the fence and to sleep on the marshy grass. When one man arrived at Union Terminal to protest about a beating he had received from police who had broken into his home, he was arrested. Zeitoun was released after 22 days but others languished for nearly a year.

The Bush administration’s response to Katrina was as brutal and badly botched as its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, yet in this spare, harrowing account of one family’s experience of Katrina Time, Dave Eggers does more than just capture the moment when America’s wars came home. Over the last few years, he has shed the notice-me virtuosity of his early writing, and dedicated much of his time to working with the disenfranchised, incarcerated and uprooted: he has established a national literacy and writing programme, published interviews with exonerated death-row inmates and with Sudanese refugees and collaborated with one Sudanese refugee on an embroidered ‘autobiography’, What Is the What. Zeitoun was written with the participation of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, along with their friends and family. Katrina Time can seem like a metaphor for Eggers’s method here, with its compression of history and geography – not unlike Albrizio’s mural – into a single moment, stripped of exegesis and moralistic excess, encapsulating the world not just as it is but as it could be at its best.

The eighth of 13 children, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born on Arwad Island, just off the Syrian coast, and brought up in Jableh. Over the centuries, occupation by successive empires and peripatetic peoples – the Phoenicians and Greeks, the Persians and Turks, the French and British – had created a dense mixture of food, music, art, religion, folklore and language in the area, leavened by a seafaring and mercantile cosmopolitanism; Eggers unobtrusively draws out the similarities between where Zeitoun started and where he wound up. Zeitoun’s father was a sailor, as were many of his brothers. He left home while still a teenager and spent a decade at sea, as a fisherman, crewman and engineer, before landing in 1994 in New Orleans, where he eventually established his own painting and contracting business. New Orleans’s moss-trimmed wooden buildings were different from the dusty mud-brick houses of his youth, yet Zeitoun appreciated the ‘wilful, wildly romantic attention to beauty – crumbling and fading beauty needing constant attention’. His business expanded and he eventually became something approaching a memory-keeper, a newcomer more worshipful of the city’s heritage than many of its natives. As a contractor, he was meticulous, preferring whenever possible to rescue and restore rather than to tear down and build new.

His company was successful largely because of his discipline and focus. He was, according to his wife, ‘one of those inexplicably solid, self-sufficient and never-needy men who got by on air and water, impervious to injury or disease’. But he also had a bit of luck. When he started his business he designed a logo that included a paint roller resting at the bottom of a rainbow, recognisable to many, but not to Kathy or Zeitoun, as the flag of the gay rights movement. He lost a few clients as a result but also attracted gay couples, owners of some of New Orleans’s most gloriously fragile houses. When they first became aware of the connotations of the rainbow, Kathy thought perhaps they should change the logo. Zeitoun laughed. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘We’re a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such a good idea to turn away clients.’ Besides, ‘anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.’ By the time Katrina struck, his business was thriving, he had a wife, four children, clients and friends seemingly on every block, six properties and three times as many tenants.

Zeitoun was from a family that had survived many storms. His father was once thrown from a ship’s mast by a ‘black and tortuous’ gale, floating for days on a barrel in the Mediterranean before being washed ashore. So with Katrina bearing down and his and his clients’ property to watch over, he opted to stay, while Kathy took the children to her sister’s house in Baton Rouge. The hurricane sideswiped the city on 29 August and Zeitoun went to bed thinking the worst was over. That night, though, the Middle East came to him in a dream: the ‘ceaseless shushing of the sea’ lapping at the walls surrounding Arwad Island penetrated his sleep. But the rhythm was not quite right, ‘not an ebb and flow, but instead the constant whisper of a river’. He woke to see lake water coming from the north.

He spent the next week at his house, pulling what he could above the water line, pitching a tent on his roof to escape the heat, and grilling meat from his freezer. He dug out of his garage a canoe he’d bought on a whim and began to make daily rounds. Eggers gracefully paces this section of the book, illustrating it with ethereal details from a suddenly floating world: the sound of car aerials scraping the bottom of Zeitoun’s silently coasting canoe or three perfectly groomed horses grazing on a patch of high ground, ‘luxuriating in their freedom’. Zeitoun’s first rescue was of his fish, which would not survive without filtration. Reaching into their tank, he ‘liberated’ them into the still translucent water that filled his house. Then, hearing cries while out in his canoe, he paddled to a house to find an elderly woman, holding on to a bookshelf, her ‘patterned dress … spread out on the surface of the water like a great floating flower’, her legs dangling below.

Zeitoun rescued about ten people that week, ferrying those who wanted to leave to dry land, feeding dogs trapped on the upper floors of houses, and calling Kathy from a miraculously working land-line in one of his rental properties. Kathy’s refuge at her sister’s house in Baton Rouge was filled with family members critical of her conversion. Kathy had found Islam and begun wearing the hijab before meeting Zeitoun, but her family refused to accept this chronology. Now that her husband wasn’t around, they encouraged her to ‘take that thing’ off her head and ‘go out and have a good time’. Back in the flooded streets of New Orleans, uniformed officers buzzed overhead in helicopters and whirred by in military fan boats, their motors too loud to hear Zeitoun pleading with them to stop to help those in need.

Abdulrahman and Kathy were equals in most things. She helped run their business; their long courtship was on her terms. Led to Islam by a bad marriage and an unhelpful pastor, she ‘could think of nothing she needed from a man’. She fell for Zeitoun not because he showed her the respect mandated by religion but because he treated her as an equal. That equity broke down when it came to their relations to the outside world, for Zeitoun, as a man and an immigrant, enjoyed the privilege of optimism. He had come to embrace the idea that America was a special place, where things ‘worked out’. Kathy felt it necessary occasionally to dampen his enthusiasm, reminding him once that soldiers returning from Iraq were ‘trained to kill people like you’. When news reports of the storm convinced her that she had to get the children out of the city she begged her husband to come, but Zeitoun felt ‘compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning’. Afterwards, Kathy, weighed down by family and worried by stories of mayhem, especially of violence by unaccountable security forces, was still keen for him to get out. ‘So when do you plan to leave?’ she asked in one of their phone calls. ‘I don’t,’ he said.

No explanation was given when a heavily armed joint military and police command, patrolling in one of the fan boats Zeitoun had earlier tried to flag down, arrested him. He was taken to a staging ground, where he was threatened and ill-treated, then to the detention centre at Union Terminal, clearly modelled on Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray, called Camp Greyhound. There Zeitoun was stripped, anally probed and put in a cage. He was prohibited, under the threat of water hose and pepper spray, from leaning on its walls. He was repeatedly fed pork. Camp Greyhound was powered by an excruciatingly loud Amtrak diesel-train engine that spewed fumes day and night. It ‘resembled a great furnace, moaning and ravenous’, Eggers writes, adorned with a ‘small red, white and blue logo’. Over the next three days, Zeitoun saw prisoners being beaten, pepper sprayed, hogtied and shot in their cages by guards with beanbag guns, seemingly for sport. Zeitoun remembers noticing the newness and quality of the razor wire, the toilets and the fencing. It was, he thought, ‘an impressive feat’ to build such a structure so quickly, and must have taken a ‘vast amount of planning and execution’. Later he learned that, only a few blocks away, people in the Superdome and the Convention Center had gone thirsty and hungry while his ad hoc jail had more than enough water and field rations. To fill its cages, the Department of Homeland Security contracted Blackwater USA, the private security firm that became synonymous with murder, corruption and abuse in Iraq, paying it $300 for each person brought in, no questions asked.

Zeitoun was then taken, still without being told why he was being held, to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum security prison 40 miles outside New Orleans. When he arrived, he was processed by two women whose thoughtfulness and apparent concern gave him hope that he might finally be allowed to call his wife. But random, unprovoked threats by guards and more body searches followed. His requests to see a doctor about a worsening pain in his kidney were ignored. After he had spent three weeks in captivity, two men arrived from the Department of Homeland Security to interview him. They asked him easy, friendly questions and promised to call Kathy. ‘He’s fine ma’am. We have no interest in him,’ one of them told her. Unsure what anything meant at this point, she asked if that was ‘good or bad’. ‘That’s good,’ she was told.

After his release, the Zeitouns rebuilt their life and home and expanded their business. But Kathy had become disoriented and physically ill. Zeitoun lost most of his hair while in prison, along with more than 20 pounds from an already compact frame. Feeling ‘ashamed that he had been handcuffed, stripped, caged, treated like an animal’, he wanted the experience ‘erased from their lives’ but agreed, at the urging of friends and family, to investigate the circumstances of his kidnapping and detention. He discovered no great conspiracy, no targeting of him because he was from the Middle East. What he did find was in a way worse: an initial error – Zeitoun was arrested because he was wrongly identified by a police officer as being part of a group of looters – was compounded by a society that has lost its ability to define itself except through war.

During his confinement, Zeitoun had begun to feel profound guilt for what he understood to be his own hubris. ‘He believed that that damned canoe had given him the right to serve as shepherd and saviour,’ Eggers writes. ‘He had expected too much. He had hoped too much. The country he had left 30 years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there’ that ‘precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States.’ He was wrong: ‘This country was not unique.’

Yet Zeitoun does insist on a certain kind of American uniqueness, and in tracking the misfortunes of one family, it illuminates what was at stake in the post-storm siege of New Orleans. Zeitoun’s story is simultaneously exceptional and exemplary in that his sense of mission, his belief in his chosenness, was nurtured by the city he decided to make his home. If Zeitoun was virtuous to a fault – tolerant, open, pluralistic, inquisitive, all the values the ideologues of the war on terror believed could be imposed on the Middle East with tanks and guns – then it was a fault encouraged by the Caribbean worldliness of New Orleans. The port city shares with other coastal regions – like the one where Zeitoun grew up – a vulnerability, which can encourage a liberal sensibility: one that might allow someone like Zeitoun to recognise the kinship between racism and homophobia.

After his ordeal, Zeitoun established, with Eggers, the Zeitoun Foundation, dedicated to promoting human rights and restoring New Orleans. ‘There is no faith like the faith of a builder of homes in coastal Louisiana,’ Eggers writes, and ‘no better way to prove to God and neighbour that you were there, that you are there, that you are human, than to build. Who could ever again deny he belonged here? If he needs to restore every home in this city, he will, to prove he is part of this place.’ As for Kathy, Islam allowed her to escape from inland obscurantism, to be more open to and uncertain about the world. During her conversion, she remembered thinking that the ‘Christian preachers she’d heard had spent a good amount of time talking about who would and wouldn’t go to hell, how hot it burned and for how long, but the imams she began to meet made no such pronouncements.’ If she had a question, they would ‘try to answer, but often they wouldn’t know … The doubt sewn into the faith gave her room to think, to question.’ We still don’t have a full audit of what was lost in the flood, but Zeitoun provides a survey at once intimate and comprehensive of the damage.