Imagine the tragedy in Japan a few days after the tsunami. Imagine the Japanese military weaving through the wreckage while survivors struggle to find food and stay safe. And then imagine the military arresting small groups of Japanese citizens for being part of a terrorist cell.
Sounds crazy, right?
Well, that’s exactly what happened in New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Several weeks before the tsunami hit Japan, I read Zeitoun (McSweeney’s, 2009), Dave Egger’s heart-wrenching narrative about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family.
Before Katrina, Zeitoun was living the American dream. A Syrian immigrant, he settled in New Orleans and built from scratch a successful contracting business. He also married an American woman named Kathy who’d converted to Islam some years earlier.
Kathy and their kids left New Orleans before Katrina hit, but Zeitoun insisted on staying, half believing the hurricane wouldn’t do any damage and half believing he’d be of better use to his city than hundreds of miles away.
And he was right about the latter–for a while. Zeitoun and a neighbor saved a dozen people, many of them elderly and disabled. He paddled around in an old canoe, heartbroken when the National Guard failed to rescue an elderly couple Zeitoun had promised relief a half day earlier. So with the help of his neighbor, he rescued this couple himself.
The next thing Zeitoun knew, he was arrested along with his neighbor, another Syrian friend, and a drifter who sought shelter at Zeitoun’s house. The four men–along with dozens of others–were strip-searched and locked away in kennel-like prison cells without so much as a cot to sleep on. They weren’t given any reason for their arrest and weren’t allowed counsel. And to add insult to injury, Zeitoun was served pork for his meals.
The story that unfolds sounds like it would happen in a third world dictatorship. I’m not sure if I’m more appalled it took place in the US or that it took place only six years ago.