The full horror of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, feels like something distant – a whole ocean away, someone else’s problem. Dave Eggers’s brilliant new book brings us the sounds, sights and heartache of these dark days through the experience of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family.
Zeitoun, Syrian born, respected local painter and decorator, decides to remain in the city as his wife Kathy and their three children seek refuge with her family. In the early days after the levees break Zeitoun finds an odd calm. The world we live in has a relentless rhythm. When this is broken it can fill us with a sense of strangeness and wonder, just like when volcanic ash stops planes flying.
Zeitoun’s neighbourhood is under 10 to 15 feet of water; he uses a canoe to get about this transformed architecture and assists his neighbours in the storm aftermath. He is an experienced sailor and doesn’t fear this watery world; he actually finds something magical in it. He feels purposeful, invigorated.
But these early days give way to something more sinister. It becomes clear that the canoeist and his friends’ efforts to rescue and help people are disproportionately attentive when compared to those of the local and national government.
The police and National Guard don’t have canoes. They have powerful fan boats, a state apparatus with the capacity, but not a willingness, to rescue people. Hysteria about gangs of armed thieves looting becomes the media focus. Then suddenly one morning Zeitoun and three of his friends are arrested at gunpoint. They are thrown into a nightmare. They are held in the city’s bus station which has been converted into a makeshift Guantanamo-style prison.
They are held under anti-terrorism legislation for more than 20 days, and prevented from making calls to their distraught families who assume them dead. Zeitoun’s story recalls a Kafkaesque dystopia where someone who should be treated as a hero of the floods becomes the enemy. What’s worse is this is all true. The family at the centre of this story are Muslim and the author admirably spends time looking at the racism experienced by Muslims in contemporary America.
The impact of Katrina feels like a hidden chapter in US history already. It happened just five years ago, not in the Third World – but in the “developed” US. It is a history that exposes so much that’s wrong with the system we live in. That and the sensitive style in which Eggers writes make it a book very worthy of your time.
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