Zeitoun – An Iron Fist Descending


Very recently I took a low-cost flight. On the evening before I left I read that the limit on hand luggage was 5 kg. and, since I didn’t want to send any luggage, I decided to wear all the clothes I was going to need and stuff as many belongings as possible into the surprising number of pockets I now had available.I checked in without any problems despite the fact that my body appeared to be a perfect square and before passing through security I re-assumed my normal identity.

I have an illogical fear of running out of reading material. Even if I am on page 32 of a 300-page book, I am always haunted by the suspicion that when I turn over I will discover that the next 268 pages are all blank. I had packed only one book and just in case it  depressurised and disappeared at 30,000 feet, I decided to look at the slim pickings in the airport book shop. One of the things I was thinking about writing was supposed to take place in a flooded city so, when I found a book which was set in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina, I picked it up thinking that at the very least I would learn something about what it is like to live in a waterlogged city.

I read the book on the flight. Then I read it that night before I went to bed. I read it on the way back, never looking up, despite being sat in the midst of class of schoolkids who were communicating every single thought passing through their brains to each other  in real time at a volume which would have dismayed the inventor of the megaphone.

I hadn’t expected much from the book when I bought it. Now I felt as if I had sat down next to a somewhat unimpressive stranger on the plane and discovered that they were one of the most interesting people I had ever met.

I went home and read till three in the morning, when I finished the book. And then I thought I must tell my friends about this. Luckily for them, I fell asleep.

But I have kept on thinking that I must tell people about the book. The title is Zeitoun and the author is Dave Eggers. Everybody I have mentioned it to has told me that “zeitoun” means “olive” in Arabic, so be ready for that.

The book tells a real story, mainly through the eyes of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant to the United States. After having spent a number of years as a sailor, Zeitoun  settles down in New Orleans where he marries Kathy, an American girl who had converted to Islam before meeting him. They have three girls in addition to  Kathy’s son from her first marriage. Zeitoun works hard and manages to set up his own painting enterprise. He prides himself on his reliability. His customers are surprised by it. His business prospers and he employs many workers. He hires men from Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Poland, Brazil, Honduras, Algeria. He tries to treat them well. He quotes the Prophet Muhammad, “Pay the labourer his wages before his sweat dries”.  

When Hurricane Katrina sweeps in, Kathy and the children leave the city, but Zeitoun stays behind so that he can repair any damage to the house before it becomes irretrievable and also to take care of the houses they have purchased and rented out. When the city floods, Zeitoun begins paddling around in an aluminium canoe which he has in the yard. Zeitoun quickly starts meeting people. He paddles up to their windows and they strike up conversations. He gives a lift to a neighbour who wants to see if his truck is still all right. They find it has moved half a block and is under five feet of water. They hear someone crying for help and find an old lady who has been hanging onto a bookcase for over 24 hours. 

Zeitoun Zeitoun continues to travel around for days. Rescue boats roar by sometimes and he realises that he can hear people they can’t because, unlike their vessels, his canoe moves silently. He has plenty of food and water at home which he distributes. He takes care of several starving dogs he has found howling inside buildings. He goes back to feed them regularly. When his supplies at home start running low, he still finds bottles and containers floating around in the water. He continues to hand out water and food. One day a woman calls him over to her window and asks him if he can take her to an address she gives him. After a while, he realises she is a prostitute. “Where are you going?” he asks. “To work,” she says.

In one of the properties he has rented out, he meets a tenant, who has migrated up from the ground floor. His telephone box is above the water level and is still working. Zeitoun’s mobile phone had exhausted its battery days earlier but now he begins to go to the building every day at midday to call his wife.

Every now and then he sees looting. A few times he turns around to avoid people who look dangerous. But he continues to help hand out water and food and taking people to evacuation points when they say they have had enough. He thinks a couple of times that God has put him there for a purpose. Later, he will come to think that perhaps he has been made to pay for that hubristic feeling.

One day he goes to his tenant’s house to phone and discovers to his surprise that the shower works. He takes a shower and then someone tells him that there are people outside who want to know whether they need water. He goes out and finds six men, some wearing police uniforms, some military uniforms. They ask for ID, which they don’t look at and they order him into their boat, together with the other three men a
t the house. They are taken to the train and bus Passenger Terminal which looks like it has been turned into a kind of military base. There are soldiers, national guardsmen, police and prison guards. Zeitoun notices that there are no medical or relief workers, unlike the staging areas he had taken people to in his canoe.

They are told not to move and one by one they are questioned. “Are we going to get a phone call ?” one of them asks. “No.” “Why are we here?” “You guys are al Qaeda,” the soldier answers. The date is 6 September

They are taken to a compound which reminds Zeitoun of the pictures he had seen of Guantanamo bay. A vast grid of chain-link fencing with few walls so that the prisoners are visible to the guards and each other. They are placed in a cage. They can sleep on the dirt floor. Ready-to-eat meals are brought. They are mostly pork. Zeitoun says he doesn’t eat pork. “Don’t eat it then,” he is told. The next day, other prisoners are brought in. Zeitoun realises that they are all from high-security prisons and that the guards seem to be trained to treat them as extremely dangerous people. Any infraction is dealt with by spraying people head to toe with pepper spray.

As the days go by, Kathy, Zeitoun’s wife, begins to panic. His brother in Spain has started to ask her for news about him. His family in Lebanon starts calling. And the news reports keep on reporting higher and higher death tolls in New Orleans. His family in Lebanon call and tell her that she must find his body so that he can be buried properly.

It’s not till 19 September that she receives any news. A missionary has seen him and was given her number to call. A few hours later she receives a call from someone from Homeland Security who tells her that they have no more interest in him and that charges will be dropped.

It takes another ten days for Zeitoun to be released. His hair has turned grey. Kathy’s hair is now streaked white. One of her little girl’s hair is coming out in clumps.

When he gets back to New Orleans, Zeitoun goes and checks on the dogs he had been feeding. They are all dead.

Zeitoun goes back to work. So much work to do after the waters recede. He tries to work even better than before.

I have read a review of this book which states that this is a fierce indictment of the Bush Administration’s policy. It’s true of course but I think it is much more than that. It shows how ideas, if not restrained by constant supervision and concern for individuals because they are people, can roll away like runaway trucks and crush anyone in their path. There is a quotation from Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The great achievement of the book is that it makes you feel things from the perspective of Zeitoun and Kathy. Eggers keeps his own feelings out of the way, when it would have been so easy to comment and draw conclusions. While reading this book I saw the world through the eyes of a Syrian with the memories of his childhood and his family and his travels around the world.  I was floating along with him around New Orleans. It was so poetic – paddling up to people’s windows to talk to them, feeling a companionship with almost everyone, the dogs recognising you as you approached, helping everyone you meet. God has put you here for a purpose. And then an iron fist descends from the sky and smashes everything. And when I had finished the book, I found that several ideas which I had thought were firmly anchored in my mind, were now floating around and that I needed to have another look at them.

23 days elapsed from Zeitoun’s almost totally unexplained arrest to his almost totally unexplained release. This was almost enough to shake his and his wife’s lives apart. Yet, if I had read in a news report that someone had been set free after 23 days, I might have thought it was a sign of a system working properly. After all, there are people who have been in situations like that for years – there are almost certainly some near where you are living, wherever that is. 



(This book is part of a project which Dave Eggers began in 2004. Called Voice of Witness, it intends to use oral history to illustrate human rights crises around the world.)


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