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

Cover: August 2009

August 2009

From the front page

Illustration

Seven monuments to Coranderrk

The art project marking the boundaries of the Yarra Valley’s historic Aboriginal station

The PM’s talking points

An accidental email sets out the government’s threadbare agenda

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Litmus test

The US withdrawal from Syria is a turning point for Australian foreign policy


In This Issue

Looking west

Australia and the Indian Ocean
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Cafe clairvoyants

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Croakers

‘Tom Is Dead’ by Marie Darrieussecq


More in Arts & Letters

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’

Margaret Simons’ biography of one of the country’s most admired politicians

Patricia Cornelius

Patricia Cornelius: No going gently

‘Anthem’ marks the return of the Australian playwright’s working-class theatre

East Melbourne liturgy


More in Noted

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

Image of ‘The Godmother’

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre

A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word


Read on

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing

We will not be complete

The time for convenient denial of Australia’s brutal history is past

Image of Scott Morrison and Donald Trump

Mateship at what cost?

It is not in Australia’s national interest to become involved in Trump’s vendettas


×
×