Friday, September 10, 2010

The Zeitouns and the End of the War

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and intend to read it, there are spoilers in this post.

I began this post last November, just after I finished reading Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. It is a non-fiction account of one New Orleans family's experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina. The book is beautifully written, a moving account of misfortune, love for humanity, faith, betrayal, and perseverance. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Muslim Syrian-American, is married to Kathy, who converted to Islam before meeting her husband. Eggers tells the story of the Zeitouns and their children, when Abdulrahman decides to stay behind after the hurricane to take care of their home and help those who need it.

In the story, Mr. Zeitoun and three others are taken into custody by National Guardsmen and New Orleans police. Though he was not informed of any charges, he was transferred from a makeshift facility at a local Greyhound station to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, where he spent 20 days without trial. Before his transfer he met many others who were in a similar situation: incarcerated with no understanding of why and no one telling them what their charges were. Eggers does an excellent job of giving the reader a "there but for the grace of God" feeling, and the lack of clear charges has both Mr. Zeitoun and the reader guessing at why this could be happening.

Throughout the book, which takes place 4 years after September 11, 2001, I couldn't help but wonder what is going on that a citizen of this country would be incarcerated without any sort of arraignment for 20 days, simply for staying in his home city to help people during a natural disaster. The communications he has with his wife are heartbreaking, and we don't know what is going to happen. Will he ever see his wife and children again? As the book goes on this prospect seems bleaker and bleaker.

As I finished the book, I kept thinking about the wars we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and feeling very strongly that we must end these wars. I couldn't put my finger on why, though. What did the wars have to do with Hurricane Katrina and the Zeitoun family? They're Muslim, but one is not led to believe that Mr. Zeitoun's treatment is necessarily because of that, although he and one of his friends who is also Muslim are repeatedly served pork and left with very little to eat. And though the response to the hurricane by both local and federal authorities is certainly lackluster and even perhaps incompetent, this doesn't necessarily seem a result of the war. But there is a definite parallel with ideas and images of Guantanamo in the transitional jail at the Greyhound station, and what is happening to Mr. Zeitoun feels much more like a war than a natural disaster.

Finally I realized what seemed to be going on, that this man, only staying behind to help friends and clients and protect his property, would be imprisoned and treated like a criminal, without anyone intervening on his behalf. Our country had been at war four years by then, two of those years in two countries. But it isn't only soldiers or guardsmen who go to war. It is all of us. When we send our people to make war in another country, a little of each of us goes too. Right now, today, we are all at war, and we are all on guard. The whole Terry Jones Koran burning furor is an example of this. We are each frightened of the enemy, wondering when the enemy will strike next. If our country is grieving September 11, we seem to be stuck in the anger stage right now. And we will be until we end these wars. As we fight these wars, our national character deteriorates. We want to move on, we want to let go, but we're stuck fighting with and fearing the enemy, and finding the enemy in one another. Living in fear, living for the next fight, is detrimental to the psyche. We all begin to create a militaristic culture here at home, to see things in light of the war, to look at life in terms of us and them. And that is when the kind of injustice that happened to the Zeitoun family becomes possible.

As the ninth anniversary of September 11th approaches, it seems appropriate that I finish this post and publish it. I intend to grieve this weekend, and to allow this time to remind me that peace begins with me, in my life, with my daily actions and how I treat those around me. May love and peace bless you and yours on this solemn weekend.

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