Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

In writing last week about Octavian Nothing I mentioned my nostalgia for the time when I equated the U.S. with liberty and believed this country stood as a shining model of freedom for the world to emulate. That book explores the hypocrisy of the founding fathers demanding freedom for themselves while owning slaves. Lest we think such abuses happen only in the distant past, Dave Eggers comes along with this nonfiction book to remind us that they are all too current.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced ZAY-toon) and his wife Kathy run a flourishing, if demanding, contracting business in New Orleans. Anyone who has owned a home knows that a contractor who shows up when he says he will and does good work is more valuable than gold. Zeitoun's customers trust him. When he works on one house, soon he has crews working on other houses on the street.

Born in Syria, Zeitoun becomes an American, proud to contribute to his community. Kathy grew up in Baton Rouge and converted to Islam before she met Zeitoun. The two are a responsible, hard-working couple with two daughters, well-known and respected in their community.

Then comes Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun persuades Kathy to leave with the children, but stays behind himself to watch over their properties. Also, many current and former customers have entrusted him with their keys to keep an eye on their properties too. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans fills up with guns and law enforcement personnel, the few professionals supplemented by contractors from companies like Blackwater. One of their first actions is to construct an emergency prison similar to the one in Guantanamo Bay.

Eggers tells the story of the Zeitouns in straight-forward prose, engrossing and alarming in its simplicity. Such a story—unbelievable to someone who hasn't seen her middle-eastern friend repeatedly told with a straight face that the men's room is out of order—needs no embellishment. Its very plainness is its strength. The lack of adjectives and adverbs, of metaphors and complex phrases, reflects the baffled shock of the Zeitouns at their treatment. Faced with such abuse, abuse that goes against everything you think you know about a country, your mind stutters to a halt. You go back to the basics, aware only of your immediate experience, absent the comforting context your mind normally wraps around events.

While the book is shocking, the closeness of the bond between Zeitoun and Kathy and with their friends and family reassures me that hope remains. Social psychologists have long known that people will pull together when faced with a common enemy. Positive use may be made of this principle, such as by Churchill during the Blitz. But more commonly, bullies and oligarchs use it to muster followers, whether it is Hitler blaming the Jews for Germany's problems, or right-wing politicians demonising poor people or unions.

I hate to see Muslims, the vast majority of whom I'm sure are peace-loving, hard-working members of their communities, tarred with the brush of a small number of terrorists. Eggers offers an alternative narrative. I hope many people in the U.S. read this book.

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