Neighbor in a Strange Land

August 25, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 5 min read

In July, a crowd gathered in the atrium outside of Garden St. Bookshop in New Orleans for an appearance by Dave Eggers. Four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and books and movies about Katrina started flooding the media, a new Katrina narrative may seem uncalled for, but this one is not. You may not expect a guy who had the audacity to write a memoir of his twenties and call it A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to be humble, but when he when he entered the room followed by a short, round-faced woman wearing a brown-swirled hijab and her husband, a handsome Syrian man, the humility Eggers exuded rang genuine.

coverEggers, addressing a room of around two hundred people, introduced Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. In his new book, Zeitoun, Eggers chronicles the experience of Abdulrahman, a Syrian immigrant, and his family as they face not only the worst natural disaster in American history but a justice system in which Abdulrahman becomes stranded, rendered helpless and stripped of his identity “as a neighbor, as a countryman, as a human”.

Eggers, rather than reading, held a panel discussion with the couple. With the three of them sitting, Eggers realized, most people in the room would be unable to see them. So, for a good part of the time, the three of them stood. Eggers spoke for a moment before turning the talk over to Kathy, who addressed the room with warmth and confidence. One of the first things out of her mouth was a defense of Islam against “what you might see on TV. It’s a very peaceful religion.” Zeitoun (Zey-toon), as people call him because they can’t pronounce his first name, speaks English well, but Kathy did most of the talking as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, casting his eyes between the floor, the listeners and his wife. As she spoke, Kathy and Zeitoun exchanged looks, and the love between them, the parents of five children, was visible.

Kathy is from Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam when she was nineteen and searching for a religion. “I wanted to be Catholic,” she joked, “but it takes too long.” Kathy said that by converting to Islam, “you’re not changing your beliefs, just your religion. Through Islam, I found God.” While Kathy’s journey led her to Islam, Zeitoun’s led him to New Orleans, and where the two met they built their life as a couple committed to their family and working hard to raise their children and run a business: Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor, LLC. In their community, they were loved for their generosity and respected for their honesty and reliability.

Like Eggers’ previous novel, What is the What, this third person narrative is an epic of survival and the challenges of the immigrant, illuminating the flaws of the American dream even as they are met with optimism and persistence. But Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not a stranger. He is a New Orleanian. His wife begs him to leave the city before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, but he insists on staying behind to help his neighbors, rescuing people trapped in their houses and feeding abandoned dogs. “This is my family, too,” he says. Zeitoun paddles his canoe around post-Katrina New Orleans, a world made new by flood, accompanied by memories of his childhood in Syria and invigorated by a sense of freedom and purpose. Zeitoun’s odyssey through his own city is paralleled by Kathy’s vigil over the family, not as Penelope in the family home but as a vagabond in a Honda Odyssey, roaming west in search of shelter while she waits for her husband to leave New Orleans.

“The dissonance woke him.” This is the last line of Part I, as Zeitoun wakes to the sound of floodwaters rushing past his house from Lake Pontchartrain. In this story, the word dissonance looms large. Zeitoun, although not an outsider, retains the innocence of an immigrant expecting something different from this country. His home becomes strange and the behavior of others sometimes confounds him. “Why had he said he would come if he did not plan to come?… He had promised help and he had not kept that promise.” Bewilderment gives way to shock when he is arrested a house he owns and, incredibly, locked in a cell that is more like a cage, surrounded by men with guns and treated as not only a stranger but as an enemy. In a place that he recognizes but that is no longer his home, he is stripped, literally, and then figuratively, of his pride and his rights.

Across the world in Istanbul, where I was living and teaching English when the storm hit New Orleans, my students expressed shock at the images they were seeing on television.” The dissonance woke them, too. They said to me “We can’t believe this is America.” In the atrium, I asked Zeitoun if his experience changed his perception of America. He replied that when he saw so many people left helpless by their government and when he sat in prison being treated worse than a criminal, not knowing why he was being held and denied contact with his family, “I said to myself, this is not America.”

Speaking to the crowd in the atrium, Kathy recounted the ordeal in the weeks after the storm when she could not find her husband or any information about him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. She laughed and gestured with animated hands and face as she conveyed the frustration of explaining to his panicked family in Syria and Spain that she did not know where he was. “It was like I had lost someone else’s pet.” Billy Sothern, a Louisiana attorney and anti-death penalty advocate, briefly explained the series of legal breakdowns, before and after the storm, that held Zeitoun in prison for weeks without a hearing, without charges and with no way to contact his wife and children. “Even after we knew where he was,” Kathy said, “he didn’t know we were looking for him. He thought we had just forgotten about him.” At this comment, Zeitoun cast a sheepish glance at his wife then hung his head for a moment.

When outsiders write about New Orleans, we denizens often find ourselves cringing at things like “gumbo parties.” But New Orleans rendered by Eggers through Zeitoun’s eyes is the New Orleans we know. Zeitoun’s is not the view of an outsider. Through Zeitoun’s eyes, in scenes that alternate beauty and despair, Eggers portrays encounters and events that I recognize as the idiosyncrasies of my city–the kind of place where neighbors know each other, where a prostitute hitches a ride to work in a canoe in the middle of a flood, where people make a party on the roof in a city of apocalyptic destruction.

There was one disappointment, however. Towards the end, Eggers gives a one-paragraph history of the state prison in Angola in which, among thousands of facts and stories, he picks a few that offer a narrow and demonized picture of a complex subject. Why was it necessary to point out that one of the crops grown at Angola was cotton? It wasn’t. Such facts, presented in isolation, play on social stereotypes and racial sensitivities to unnecessarily inflame and prejudice a reader. As a person who has actually been inside the gates of Angola (as a guest), I wish that Eggers had looked more deeply into the subject before coloring it with such a wide stroke of ignominy.

Despite this misstep, this love story and adventure tale is a great read, rendered beautifully in simple prose with a pace that will keep you reading. Heartbreaking at times, the tale of Zeitoun leaves the reader with a hopeful view of a world in which people like the Zeitouns respond to its imperfections not with bitterness but with a desire and an effort to build a better one.

is the associate non-fiction editor of Bayou Magazine, published by the University of New Orleans, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. She has a B.A. in English from Boston University.

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