Criticism Is Not Attack

Each administration of George W. Bush was marked by a major disaster. 9-11 was followed four years later by Hurricane Katrina. The United States had received a one-two punch. I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a book that should be read by every American, and it wouldn’t hurt others to read it too. This account follows the lives of a New Orleans family through the aftermath of Katrina. The main character, a tradesman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a permanent resident of the United States from Syria. His wife Kathy, a convert to Islam, was American. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kathy took their kids to safety with friends while Abdulrahman (known by many as Zeitoun) stayed in the city to look after the properties they owned. When the flooding had engulfed entire sections of the city, Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe, rescuing those he could, and even feeding abandoned dogs. Family and friends urged him to evacuate, but he felt he was doing good. Until he was arrested on his own property and imprisoned for being Syrian.

In a wrenching account based on interviews with Zeitoun and Kathy, Eggers describes how the US government quickly set up Guantanamo Bay-style prisons rather than attempting to rescue those stranded in their homes. Zeitoun was arrested and never informed of the charges, although he heard paramilitary guards armed with machine guns uttering “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda” at him. He watched as a mentally disabled man was pepper-sprayed by soldiers when he clearly couldn’t understand what they were commanding him to do. Despite having government issued ID and good standing as a business owner in New Orleans, Zeitoun was presumed guilty because of his profile: “Arabic” and Muslim. As Eggers reminds us, Homeland Security is now the administrative head of FEMA, and those that Homeland Security distrusts (all of us) are potential terrorists rather than citizens in need of help during times of disaster.

I grew up in a rather monochromatic part of the country, but as I traveled I met and befriended those of differing nationalities, including Syrians. Those considered “the others” by xenophobic bureaucrats are just as kind, loving, and good as those of us born under the sign of the cross with “white” skin. Zeitoun stands as an indictment of the jingoism that has come to be recognized as the only legitimate American citizenship. Zeitoun spent nearly a month in maximum security prison before being released after a makeshift trial, when no evidence existed that he’d done anything wrong. What has happened to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’ve become the enemies of the state. I know, Katrina engendered extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances, from a “Christian” view, however, demand extraordinary sympathy. Do the nation a favor. Before November, read Zeitoun.

4 thoughts on “Criticism Is Not Attack

  1. patsiglin

    This is a great book. Eggers’ books all are. I particularly like “What is the What”. Anyway, I recall becoming enraged during the second half of Zeitoun. These types of accounts really make me question the path of our country.

    Thank you for posting about this great book.


  2. I travelled in Syria for a few weeks in 1994. Syrian people are the nicest, friendliest people you could hope to meet. The kindness I experienced from everyone we met with has never been matched anywhere else. Everywhere we went, we were offered sweets, cakes, copious amounts of sweet black tea, sumptuous meals and even places to sleep. One night was spent sleeping over the post office and telephone exchange in a little town in the north. The office manager took us down into the exchange (it really was a huge board with a spaghetti of wires he plugged and unplugged) so that we could get a telephone line back to Edinburgh. We were complete strangers but he let us into his home, fed us and gave us a place to eat and a chance to call home. How many of us would do as much for a Syrian tourist?

    Please, don’t judge people by their nationality, religion, colour, or way they dress. There are good and bad people in all walks of life. Judge only the actions of individuals, and then only after thinking what you yourself might be like in their circumstances.


  3. Steve Wiggins

    Thank you all for your comments. Jeff, I recall your trip to Syria–how I wish I could’ve gone! Britain seems much more accepting of Muslims than America does. There’s no question that we shouldn’t judge by nationality; Zeitoun brought the point up very poignantly.


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