August 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers

By Geordie Williamson

Dave Eggers first met Abdulrahman Zeitoun during a visit to New Orleans, following the launch of Voices from the Storm, a volume of oral history published by McSweeney’s in late 2006. Zeitoun was just one of many narrators to reflect on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in that book’s pages. What made his contribution unique, however, was the sense that Zeitoun’s narrative properly began only after the storm had well and truly passed.

In Zeitoun, a work of non-fiction written by Eggers in such close consultation with its subject that it sometimes feels like an elegant piece of ghostwriting, Abdulrahman’s story is told in full. It is the account of how an innocent man – in many respects an exemplary individual – found himself trapped at the point where some of the most fraught and contentious aspects of contemporary America intersected.

The Syrian-born immigrant’s mistake was to remain in New Orleans during the hurricane that, in August of 2005, breached the city’s levees and effectively drowned the city. After days spent in an aluminium canoe, rescuing neighbours and feeding stranded dogs, he was picked up in a police sweep – while the streets were still inundated – on suspicion of looting. At the hastily constructed detention centre that came to be known as Camp Greyhound, he was processed, along with three others, and then held, without recourse to any of the usual legal rights afforded to US citizens, for almost a month in a high-security prison.

Eggers reconstructs events using extensive interviews with Abdulrahman, his American-born wife Kathy, family members, friends and law-enforcement officials, and does a fine job of it. His former tendency to ironic excess is tamed by brute fact, while dreary chronology is fashionably mussed into dramatic disorder and biographical elements are polished to an epiphanic sheen. Homeland Security’s paranoid fancies and the Kafkaesque machinery of the FEMA bureaucracy are revealed in all their daft dangerousness by the objective reporting of Zeitoun’s ordeal.

Although the work occasionally suffers from an excess of piety towards its subjects, these moments are more than compensated for by the sheer gravity of Zeitoun’s tale. We are never allowed to forget that a diligent, able, strong and kind man was broken by his experience in Katrina’s wake, simply because he was a Muslim of Middle-Eastern descent, arrested at a moment of great confusion and fear.

 

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.

@gamwilliamson

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Looking west

Australia and the Indian Ocean

Nick Cave, Futurama, Deinze, Belgium, 1986. © Yves Lorson/Flickr

The good son

Nick Cave

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Cafe clairvoyants

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Croakers


More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


More in Noted

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Cover of ‘Question 7’

Richard Flanagan's ‘Question 7’

A slim volume of big ideas that takes in H.G. Wells, chain reaction, Hiroshima and the author’s near-death experience on the Franklin River

Scene from ‘The Curse’

‘The Curse’

Nathan Fielder directs and co-stars in an erratic comedy about the performative benevolence of a couple creating a social housing reality TV show


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality