Zeitoun. Compulsary Reading.

Posted by Lou. The time is 2.15pm here in London.



This book is ... like ... simply stunning.

Though does present some logistical difficulties as it is quite hard to read a book while your jaw is dropped on the floor.

In his plainest writing yet (and I mean that in the best possible way), Dave Eggers - "Our Dave", and oh boy does he justify our affection here - gives a voice to the experience of Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun before, during and in the after-math of Hurricane Katrina. His own voice is completely absent - even more so than in What is the What - the pages given over completely to a simple retelling of the Zeitouns' story. A story of such staggering, mind-boggling, appalling, preposterous, ... well, I can't even think of the word. And perhaps finding precisely the right one would spoil the book for you a little (don't read any reviews or interviews-with-the-author - let the book tell you the story first). I think the closest I can get is insanity. Utter, complete insanity.

Syrian-American Zeitoun (his first name proved too problematic for Americans to pronounce so he goes by his last) and his American wife Kathy, both Muslim, run a building contracting business and raise four children in Uptown New Orleans. When the storm warnings worsen Kathy takes the children and leaves New Orleans, Zeitoun insistent on staying to watch over their properties and the sites on which they are currently working. The Hurricane hits. It is okay. Then the levees break. Zeitoun canoes around his and other neighbourhoods, rescuing people and feeding the dogs left behind by his neighbours. He calls Kathy every day. Then one day he stops calling - another person disappeared into the chaos. Kathy's urgency is our own as we turn the pages willing him to be okay, to get answers, to find out what has happened.

We all know that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina the federal agencies and many sections of the media failed. With a combination of a slow, inadequate and disorganised response from FEMA and other agencies that - egged on by hysterical media reports that portrayed the flooded city as a lawless zone of muderin', lootin' and rapin' - sent in too many guns, too many battle-psyched soliders, too few rescue craft and basic supplies, they failed. They failed those trapped in the Superdome and the Convention Centre, on overpasses, under motorways, in homes, in hospitals... They failed the people of New Orleans and they failed the citizens of America (and the rest of the world) who were opening their homes and their cupboards and their wardrobes and their wallets to help those in need, little realising how those tasked with helping were falling short.

But... this. This takes it beyond the general sense of It Was Done Badly to a whole new level of insanity. How has FEMA survived? How did Bush manage to stay in power for another three years? Why haven't people hung for the inhumane aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in which heroes and victims alike were stripped of the last vestiges of their dignity by the very federal agencies meant to help them? How could this happen in the wealthiest nation in the world? I could not imagine this happening in any other nation - no matter how poor, how under-the-thumb of a fascist regime, how messed-up, how unjust - in the wake of a natural disaster when the immediate concern should be to rescue. It is insane.

The book immaculately presents the story, Our Dave and his team having stringently fact-checked, cross-checked, and canvassed witnesses to make this a work of truth. He weaves through imagery and stories of Zeitoun's upbringing, conjuring the fishing village in which he grew up in Syria and the lives of his brothers and family. Though he states upfront that this is not meant to be a story that represents Hurricane Katrina, it undoubtedly - hopefully - will come to be read and retold widely, ensuring people know some of the jaw-dropping things that went on.

The only negative for me was that at 1.47am when I closed the back cover having inhaled every page I needed to know more. All the hows, whys, whats, whos... We can only hope that with time more information and detail emerges, and that people - and most importantly the agencies - are brought to account for what happened in New Orleans in August and September 2005.

You must read this book.

[Decided I should add a note to clarify that my above rants, anger and questions relate very specifically to what unfolds in this book, and very much require reading it to see what I mean (in case it passed for rants against the general incompetence of the reaction to the disaster).]

NB: All writer's proceeds go to related charitable organisations.

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