SUR, Oman—I didn’t need anything more to convince me of the hypocrisy of my nation of citizenship, but I got it anyway by reading Zeitoun (2009), the disturbing tale of the abuse of a Syrian-American and his family orchestrated by the inept and paranoid Federal Emergency Management Assistance agency in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.
FEMA, the once functioning bureaucracy, became synonymous with incompetence during its trial by fire in the late summer of 2005 and has since come to represent the indifference shown by the Bush administration at the time and the U.S. elite in general toward average Americans.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Muslim protagonist, and his American-born wife, Kathy are portrayed by writer Dave Eggers as possessing all of the qualities valorized in American popular culture: hard-working, honest, tolerant, principled and devoted to their family and friends. Zeitoun, who is widely known by only his surname, stays behind to protect his construction and property management business after Kathy and their four children leave New Orleans for safety with family in Baton Rouge and later with friends in Phoenix. Paddling a canoe through the city he has come to love, Zeitoun helps and rescues his neighbors and clients, feeds abandoned dogs, and begins to feel he has been called by his God to be of assistance to others during this disaster. His reward is to be arrested without charge and warehoused and ignored for 23 days in inhumane conditions that recall Guantanamo Bay. In the end, his virtues are miraculously intact, though they failed to protect him from being victimized by sadistic security forces, a criminal justice system that disregarded all safeguards to protect basic civil liberties, and a political environment ruled by fear and bigotry.
Perhaps my response to this engaging story would not have been quite so visceral had I not encountered it while traveling in the Arab Middle East in which the long suppressed cries for democracy from largely Muslim people are being met with violent repression as the United States does its duplicitous dance of balancing its rhetorical goals with its national security interests. The Obama administration jumped into the Libyan civil war by enforcing a no-fly zone ostensibly designed to protect civilians from being killed by their dictatorial government, yet it continues to look their other way while U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain brutally suppress their own citizens’ calls for greater freedom. It’s almost enough to make a grown man wretch.