Sunday, January 08, 2012

"Book in Common": Katrina's aftermath


For novelist David Eggers, the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun was compelling. New Orleans residents, they had survived Hurricane Katrina, which struck in late August of 2005, but that was almost beside the point. What happened in Katrina's wake, the indignities visited upon Kathy's husband, a successful painting contractor in the city, raised disturbing questions, about due process, about the treatment of Muslim citizens, about how people respond when things fall apart.

"Zeitoun" ($15.95 in paperback from Vintage; also in Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and Google eBook formats) is told from the couple's perspective. Eggers wisely focuses on one story--how a scrupulously honest and hard-working Syrian American could be suspected of being a thief and terrorist and made to suffer for those false beliefs.

Perhaps Zeitoun (pronounced "Zay-toon") had hoped for too much. "The country he had left thirty years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there, then and now, that precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States.... But now nothing worked. Or rather, every piece of machinery--the police, the military, the prisons--that was meant to protect people like him was devouring anyone who got close."

"Zeitoun" is the Book in Common for 2011-2012, celebrated by Butte College, Chico State University, Enloe Hospital, and other organizations. Eggers is scheduled to speak at the university's Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 Premium, $17 Adult, $15 Senior and $10 Student/Child; call (530) 898-6333.

Zeitoun (he is known by his last name) stayed behind as Katrina approached. Kathy and their four children moved in uneasily with relatives in Baton Rouge (and would later spend time with friends out of state). Windows started to break in Zeitoun's two-story house. "There were unknown thumps everything. The bones of the house seemed to be moaning under the strain of it all. The house was under assault."

The neighborhood was covered in nine feet of water. Zeitoun paddled his aluminum canoe from house to house giving assistance, enlisting the aid of others. But soon another assault would come, and the lives of the Zeitouns would forever change.

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