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Zeitoun, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1746

Essay

The Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle claimed, “Nature does nothing uselessly”. Hurricanes are one of the most destructive natural disasters and have devastating impact on the victims. Hurricane Katrina landed in Louisiana in late August 2005 as a powerful Category 3 storm and led to loss of over 1800 precious lives. Katrina was costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, causing almost three times the amount of property damage as that caused by the notorious Hurricane Andrew in 1992. However, hurricanes do not only cause loss of lives and property but also impose other hidden costs on the society. In his nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers — an American writer, editor, and publisher — tells the story of Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a painting contractor in New Orleans, who chose to stay in the city despite the incoming storm and observed the evolution of racism and criminal justice system before, during, and after Katrina. Zeitoun’s story also reminds us that stereotypes and biases in the society often become more alive during difficult times and instead of uniting people, only create rifts among different ethnic, cultural, or social groups.

Part I of the books shows racism is still alive. It is not only Abdulrahman who faces discrimination but also his Muslim-convert wife Kathy who wears hijab. Kathy is subjected to discrimination on the basis of her attire everywhere from grocery store to DMV. When Kathy met an old woman who wanted white people to work on her house, Kathy was speechless before the old woman, “He would begin with a defense of Muslims in America and expand his thesis from there. Since the attacks in New York, he would say, every time a crime was committed by a Muslim, that person’s faith was mentioned, regardless of its relevance” (Zeitoun 37). This part reminds us how Americans think about Muslims after 9/11. Even when people would deny the presence of racism against Muslims, they would still have stereotypes of Muslims deep in their minds. “Though many of the stereotypes and incorrect assumptions people had while I was growing up still prevail (that Muslim equals backwards/ oppressed/ fundamentalist/ terrorist), current events have pedestrians describing their secondhand “expertise” of Islam — the history of Wahhabi Islam the export of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas — or trying to argue that the Quranic requirements for modesty don’t include veiling” (Haydar 406). This also makes us realize the power of labels in creating an individual’s identity. No one took the effort to time to understand or get to know Zeitoun and his wife and instead simply assumed on the basis of their religious label that the couple could not be trusted. We also note that Part I also explains Zeitoun’s background and his personality. Zeitoun is denegative stereotypes are often more powerful than positive stereotypes. Like any other religious group, Muslims must also have certain positive traits such as caring for the communities in which they live but everyone will judge Zeitoun and his wife not through the positive traits associated with Muslims but through negative stereotypes. They assumed that negative traits exhibited by the perpetrators of 9/11 were characteristic of every Muslim. Zeitoun is described as a strong person, someone who may be described by Bordo as “face-off masculinity”. It seems Zeitoun’s wife was aware of the power of these negative stereotypes which is why she tried to persuade Zeitoun to leave the city. Zeitoun resisted his wife’s demand to leave home and never paid attention to her advices.

Part II is all about during Hurricane Katrina. Dave focuses on the meaning of canoe to Zeitoun. His family used to live by the sea and their job was fishery. The symbol of canoe is Zeitoun’s faith. He may have dreams of adventures in the sea. Even canoe is useless which Zeitoun kept in the garage. This shows Zeitoun’s dream is still alive and one day he expects to use a secondhand canoe. After the hurricane, Zeitoun began to explore the flooded city by using a canoe, distributing whatever supplies he had, rescuing neighbors, taking care of abandoned pets, and checking up on his tenants. He believed there were reasons for staying in the city. “His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will” (Zeitoun 110). When Zeitoun paddled up Claiborne, he met soldiers. He tried to ask them for help but the soldiers said they cannot help. Foucault said “The organization of a centralized police had long been regarded, even by contemporaries, as the most direct expression of royal absolutism; the sovereign had wished to have his own magistrate to whom he might directly entrust his orders, his commissions, intentions, and who was entrusted with the execution of orders and orders under the King’s private seal” (Foucault 298). Here we are reminded of the vast distance between the subjects of the city and those who rule over those subjects. The relationship is often driven not be ethics or principles but by rules. Soldiers came to New Orleans to help people or bring order to a chaotic city. However, they were not helping evacuate people. It means that soldiers could be ordered not to help anyone.

Part III focuses on Kathy’s story. She could not reach Zeitoun and continued to believe Zeitoun was alive. When she watched news that at least five different organizations had sent soldiers-for-hire into the city, she realized Zeitoun might have died. “Including Israeli mercenaries from a firm called Instinctive Shooting International. Kathy took in a quick breath. Israeli commandos in New Orleans? That was it, she realized. Her husband was an Arab, and there were Israeli paramilitaries on the ground in the city. She leapt to conclusions” (Zeitoun 194).  Kathy once again demonstrate she understood the power of stereotypes in the society and feared that Zeitoun would be judged on the basis of not who he is but on religious and ethnic background. She knew that even the greatest disasters such as Hurricane Katrina do little to revive the humanity within us. These were genuine reasons behind Kathy’s worries, “The inhabitants of Judea and Samaria. Non-Jews. Terrorists. Troublemakers. DPs” (Said 553). Arab and Israeli conflict, the political tension and military conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, have also affected relationship between Arab and Israeli.

Part IV is the most important part in Zeitoun. Soon after the storm, Zeitoun was arrested without reason or explanation by a mixed group of U.S. Army National Guard soldiers and local policemen. They judged Zeitoun as a terrorist and Taliban without investigating. “One guard was assigned to them. He sat on a folding chair about ten feet in front of the cage. He stared at Zeitoun and Todd, his face curious and disdainful” (Zeitoun 220). “The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analyzing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them” (Foucault 291). We are again reminded of the distrust for Muslims in this part. The unfortunate fact is that not only the inhabitants of the society engage in racism and enforcing stereotypes but even the state machinery becomes an accomplice. The justice system even chose to ignore its standard procedures out of lack of trust for anyone wearing the Muslim label. The cage described as a Panopticon. The guard was watching Zeitoun and Todd for analyzing or obtaining information whether they are terrorists or not. Zeitoun was not immediately charged with a crime but was imprisoned for 23 days. During that time he was accused of terrorist activity presumably because of his religion Islam. He was treated inhumanely and even refused medical attention as well as the use of a phone to alert his family. When Zeitoun asked the guards to call Kathy, he was rejected. And when Kathy knew Zeitoun was in prison, the guards didn’t allow her to visit him. The justice system should have allowed Zeitoun to use a phone but he was never given one. Post 9/11 was an unfair time for people from the Middle East. “The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” For the NSA, overflowing with tens of billions of dollars in post 9/11 budget awards, the cryptanalysis breakthrough came at a time of explosive growth” (Bamford 1). They were discriminated against and suspected for almost anything anywhere.

Part V shows that Kathy struggled with amnesia due to unfair treatment of her family. Zeitoun was back to his work and looking for people who put Zeitoun into jail. “I saw him. Is that complicated? Is that an act of great heroism in the United States of America?” (Zeitoun 319). The justice system would treat them unfairly like Zeitoun. Innocent people can be thrown in jail. They can be punished for deeds they don’t commit because of their membership in persecuted groups.

Conclusion

            This book is a stark reminded of the power, though negative, of stereotypes and prejudices in the society. It reminds us that negative stereotypes are often far more powerful than positive stereotypes and these negative stereotypes often emerge as even more powerful during times of crisis. People are defined on the basis of memberships in groups rather than their personal characteristics and deeds. In addition, even the state machinery enforces these stereotypes and become a participant in the racial and ethnic discrimination. Zeitoun’s only crime was being a Muslim and an Arab. It didn’t matter that he was loyal to the city, chose to remain in it despite an impending trouble, and even tried to help his fellow residents as much as possible. When he was caught, the justice system denied him an access to his basic rights and judged him guilty even before he was given the opportunity to stand a trial and defend himself.

Similarly, the book also reminds us that state machinery is often too dependent upon rules to do the right thing. The soldiers refused to help Zeitoun even though it would have been the right thing to do given the situation but the soldiers chose to follow rules instead of doing the right thing. But the justice system conveniently ignored the rules when it came to acting upon their own stereotypes. They didn’t only arrest Zeitoun for no reason but also denied him his due rights. We are also reminded of the fact that Kathy understood the role of stereotypes in the society better than Zeitoun who was idealistic and stayed in the city out of sense of obligation to the community.

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