By Dave Eggers, Penguin $32.95
Zeitoun is the true story of one man, his family and the tragedy which besets them in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Many are familiar with the predicted consequences of runaway climate change—rising sea levels, abrupt weather changes, rising temperatures. But their real human cost, in a world divided by inequality and racism, is less talked about. Dave Eggers’s book sets off warning bells about what to expect.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, his wife Kathy and their five children are Muslims in post 9/11 America. Telling the story through these eyes reveals a hidden side of the consequences of Katrina.
Media reports at the time, accompanied by images of poor African Americans, talked of a society in an “animalistic state”. But stories of residents firing at National Guard helicopters, of tourists being robbed and raped, and of murderous rampages were just that—stories.
What has emerged since is a story of gross human tragedy compounded by social and racial inequality—subsequently exploited for financial and political gain. Abdulrahman, known by his last name, Zeitoun, was one of many whose life was torn apart in the process.
While the storm brews, and the Zeitouns argue about whether to stay or go, we learn about their life in New Orleans. Eggers lays down challenges to some of the dominant racist myths about Muslims and shows how racism affects their lives. Kathy is her husband’s equal, and refuses to cower in the face of intimidation. Seeing many Muslim women take off their headscarves in response to 9/11 only increases Kathy’s resolve to continue wearing it. When a young girl in the supermarket attempts to grab her headscarf, Kathy fights her off.
Zeitoun decides to stay at home to take care of the family’s rental properties and small painting business. When the levees break, Zeitoun leaves the roof of his house in an old steel canoe, surveying the damage in the area. He spends the next few days rescuing people stranded in the deluge with the help of one of his tenants, Todd, and feeding the many pets left stranded. As the days progress, Zeitoun sees troops, National Guardsmen and police. But his many requests for assistance with helping residents to safety go ignored.
Alive to the stories of mass looting and violence, Zeitoun stays on the lookout: but he only ever sees one group of looters. Even when five, unidentified, heavily armed soldiers barge into his property to arrest him and three others, Zeitoun reasons: perhaps it is only an enforced evacuation?
It is only when they take him to a makeshift police station and subject him to a humiliating strip search that Zeitoun starts to feel that something may be amiss. And when he hears a police officer mutter “Taliban” as he passes a handcuffed Zeitoun, reality sets in.
Zeitoun spends the next few days at Camp Greyhound: an outdoor jail built by prison labour within hours of the hurricane. Similar to Guantanamo, Greyhound was effectively a kennel. Runs of wire fencing and concrete flooring, nothing to sit or sleep on, “toilets” inside the enclosures. Zeitoun is never told why he has been detained or what for.
Brigadier Gen. Gary Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told The New York Times ten days after the storm: “This place is 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 same article describes a city that was calm and free of looting. Eggers detailed in an interview with Salon how “Zeitoun was among thousands of people who were doing ‘Katrina Time’ after the storm. There was a complete suspension of all legal processes and there were no hearings, no courts for months and months and not enough folks in the judicial system really seemed all that concerned about it.”
We cannot say with total certainty that single weather events like Katrina are products of climate change—but what we can know is that climate change will produce many, many cases like this one.
They will ruin lives on a mass scale—and create immense social and political tensions. Governments will likely react in similar ways as the US ruling class did to Katrina. The frantic effort to protect property—and political capital—saw the demonisation of the victims of the disaster. The wall that India has built on its border with Bangladesh—stretching 4000 kilometres and costing US$1.2 billion—is a small example of their likely response.
Fighting for a different outcome starts now. And if you need to be reminded of the urgent need, Zeitoun is necessary reading.
By Amy Thomas