Sunday, August 23, 2009

Zeitoun: a fascinating look at an Arab American experience during Hurricane Katrina

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During the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I recall writing about the Muslims living in New Orleans who were among those devasted by the conflict. No one really wrote about them. The only time anyone writes about Arabs and Muslims is when there is some negative controversy and we are being attacked and criticized.

Recently, I picked up a copy of the book by Dave Eggers called "Zeitoun," the story of one American Arab from Syria married to an American wife and their experience during Hurricane Katrina. I am working through it -- it's a bit labored in the bigeninning but the writing is starting to loosen up with the story.

The most disturbing part fot he book is not Egger's fault, but a fault of American society and the media that covers American Arabs. The mainstream news media does not "see" American Arabs any more as a community. Rather, we have been morphed into the larger community of Muslims. All Arabs are Muslims. Christian Arabs don't exist or create a blimp on the radar screen. Although Eggers approaches it from the narrative of a writer documenting the life of a family, the Muslim character of the story's protagonists seem to trump the Arab side of the experience.

Despite some issues I have with the way we in America approach stories about American Arabs -- wanting to cast them as Muslims in a religious conflict between Islam and the West rather than as a more natural relationship between Americans, the West and the Arab World -- this is a must read book. Well written. And one of the only efforts to document an aspect of Hurricane Katrina that impacted many American Arabs that was ignored by most of the media.

I urge you to buy it and read it. I am finishing it now.

Here is an interview with the author published in the Pittsvurgh Post Gazette on why he wrote the book and some background. Click to read the full interview.

Excerpt from interview:

"Zeitoun" is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American Muslim
living in New Orleans who was incarcerated with no due process in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina. But the majority of folks affected by Katrina were
African-American. Why did you choose this story?

A: Before Katrina, there were 10,000 Muslims in New Orleans, so it's not so
rare. Coverage of Katrina has rightfully focused on the effect of negligence and
inaction and the latent effects of systemic neglect and racism that gave rise to
what happened to the largely black population of New Orleans, (but) I hope that
there are dozens more (books) that represent the city and its mosaic.

-- Ray Hanania

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