Wednesday, September 29, 2010
WALLA WALLA -- In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and quickly overwhelmed the city's remaining occupants. Abdulrahman Zeitoun chose to ride out the storm at home rather than flee with his family, expecting much less. When water began flooding the city, the magnitude of the storm finally struck.
But it wasn't the impact of the storm, rather the human response after it, that made Abdulrahman the focus of Dave Eggers latest nonfiction work, "Zeitoun."
Zeitoun was among hundreds of people imprisoned without due process after Katrina struck five years ago. Eggers spent the last several years getting intimately acquainted with Zeitoun's story, and then writing his book.
Eggers, along with Abdulrahman and his wife, Kathy, spoke at Cordiner Hall on Tuesday before a packed auditorium of Whitman and Walla Walla community members. "Zeitoun" was the Whitman College summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen students this year.
On stage, the Zeitouns sat on a couch, while Eggers sat on a chair beside them and across from Josie Hendrickson, a professor of religion at Whitman who guided the conversation.
Eggers is an internationally bestselling author, whose fiction and nonfiction works have been met with critical acclaim. In "Zeitoun," Eggers meticulously details the moments lived by the Zeitouns after the storm, culminating with the wrongful imprisonment of Abdulrahman for theft, and finally as a suspected terrorist.
Eggers began by explaining how the conditions that arose as New Orleans was slowly pieced pack together made it possible for the calamity that befell Zeitoun to occur.
"On so many levels it was a story that had never been told," Eggers said.
Zeitoun, a Syrian-American and practicing Muslim, navigated the flooded streets in an old canoe, helping as many people as he could. He was eventually arrested, and held for nearly a month in maximum security while his family, unaware of the arrest, feared the worst.
Eggers spent about three years conducting interviews and research for "Zeitoun," becoming intimately acquainted with Abdulrahman and his wife, Kathy, and also traveling abroad and throughout the country to reach sources and put more pieces of their story together.
"Effectively, I think I just wanted to put the reader in their shoes," he said.
The book inevitably makes a statement on what it means to be Muslim, as well as an immigrant, in the U.S.
When asked by Hendrickson if he strived to portray the Zeitouns, as Muslims, in a positive light, Eggers clarified.
"I wanted to portray Muslim Americans in an accurate light," he said.
Abdulrahman agreed the vast majority of Muslims are not religious extremists, but rather everyday people -- not unlike him -- who are part of society and living their lives.
Although quiet for much of the lecture, Abdulrahman also spoke at length about his faith and his imprisonment, from the time he was detained at one of his properties to his time in "Camp Greyhound," a notorious haphazard jail set up at a bus station after Katrina struck.
Keeping the evening light, Kathy Zeitoun, who converted to Islam as a young woman, reflected on the past pain with some humor. She laughed as she explained that her husband still gets in trouble with the law, through frequent traffic tickets.
Kathy herself suffered through the experience of not just losing her home, but feeling for a few weeks that she had also lost her husband.
"Everything happened all at once," she said.
"It was too much at one time."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.