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Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: Zeitoun

The danger in not traveling for a long time is that you forget some of the tricks of the trade, and end up making costly rookie mistakes.  In my former life, I traveled a lot for work and could pack myself for days of depositions, client dinners, and travel comforts in less time than it now takes me to put out breakfast.  In preparing for this week's trip, I needed an Excel spreadsheet and a life coach to walk me through the process.  And even after that investment, I made the worst packing mistake I could have:

I brought only one book.  A book I was already halfway through by the time the taxi picked me up to head to the airport.

Silly, silly girl.  Know thyself.  Plan ahead.  Prepare for all possibilities. 

Including the possibility that no entertainment is offered on your flights, your iPod doesn't work and you forgot your earbuds anyway, you can't sleep, and the television in your hotel room (or "den," as the case may be) only offers "hotel channels" where you can see pictures of kids doing things you just saw kids doing when you entered the lobby and sprinted to the elevators. 

I've had to monitor and conserve the pages remaining to me like deer tracker protecting his beef jerky reserves.  I've scoured the surrounding territory for a place that will sell me another book, but unless I'm ready to cuddle up with "100 Ways to Rope Steer," I'm out of luck.  So I've read paragraphs here, sentences there, and the list of Guest Services in between to pass the time.

But today is travel day, and that means I'm headed to an airport.  If there's one thing I can count on an airport to provide, other than time-sucking and discomfort, its a bookstore.  I threw caution to the wind and finished the five pages remaining to me, and now I can report back to you on the book that got me through the past week.

That book is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian-American who lives in New Orleans with his Louisiana-born wife Kathy and their children.  Together, the husband and wife team run a successful general contractor/property management company.  August 2005 finds them living their lives -- business is going well, their children are beginning the school year, and Kathy's biggest concern is Zeitoun's grueling schedule. 

Then they start hearing news reports about a tame hurricane traveling up the Florida panhandle.  Accustomed to hurricanes and the manufactured hysteria that often accompanies an approaching storm, the two only half-monitor this hurricane's approach.  Soon, though, Hurricane Katrina becomes a force they can no longer ignore -- they listen to reports of its Category 5 strength and the brewing concerns about a storm surge and the strength of the levees.  Finally, Kathy decides to take the kids to weather the storm with her family in Baton Rouge.  Zeitoun decides to stay behind to take care of their house and the other properties they own and have projects at.

Eggers manages to portray the horrors that follow with simple prose and a direct story-line.  That feat is all the more impressive given the many layers of tragedy embodied in Hurricane Katrina.  There are the human triumphs, most notably Zeitoun's rescuing of strangers and neighbors who are stranded in their water-logged homes.  There is the human panic thanks to a disorganized evacuation process and misinformation about the scope of the storm.  And there are illusions to the mind-boggling atrocities at the Superdome that were broadcasted across the news.

For me, perhaps the most remarkable part of Zeitoun's story was his arrest in the days following the storm. A combination of local police and National Guards stormed a house Zeitoun and fellow survivors had taken refuge in (it had a working shower and telephone) and arrested all four men on the spot.  They were brutally treated, refused access to an attorney and a phone call, and jailed in make-shift cages set up outside a local Greyhound station.  The four men spent anywhere from weeks to months in an actual prison they were eventually transferred to, still without ever being charged with a crime, and continuously denied medical treatment, legal counsel, and even time outside of their packed jail cells.

This aspect of the book shed light on even more levels of corruption and failure that Hurricane Katrina managed to put in stark relief.  Police armed to the hilt who are themselves looting gas stations and stores arrest men who "look suspicious."  The false priorities of city officials, who managed to construct the cage system of jails in days while New Orleanians were starving, thirsty, and stranded just neighborhoods away.  A complete breakdown in the basic rights and preservation of human dignity that Americans provide themselves on championing and protecting above all else.

The book speaks on so many levels, and each will resonate on different levels for different readers.  It is a book we all owe the Zeitouns of the world to read.

Eggers also wrote a book called What Is The What, which I read a while ago.  While Zeitoun's story is compelling, I thought Eggers' writing made for a moving depiction in What Is The What.  So have yourself an Eggers weekend and read both.

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