zeitoun-dave eggers

i know that this is a true story, and that is the reason that i didn’t read up on it before i read this account. i put it on hold because the folks at the seattle public library hipped me to it via their biblio cafe podcast. i mistakenly thought (and the cover conforms to the notion) that it was a graphic novel, but really, it’s a graphic reality. i have much respect for dave eggers, for his projects from might to mcsweeney’s to the 826, and this one has made me want to try again with his other books.

in case there remain doubters of the evolution from slavery into the prison industrial complex, please allow this passage to “inconvenient truth” the fuck out of that:

“Angola, the country’s largest prison, was built on an eighteen-thousand-acre former plantation once used for the breeding of slaves. Meant to hold those convicted of the most serious crimes, it has long been considered the most dangerous, most hopeless prison in the United States. Among the five thousand men held there, the average sentence is 89.9 years. Historically the inmates were required to do backbreaking labor, including picking cotton, for about four cents an hour. In a mass protest decades ago, thirty-one prisoners cut their Achilles tendons, lest they be sent again to work.

At the time of the hurricane, Marlin Gusman, sheriff of Orleans parish, knew that there was a chance that the Orleans Parish Prison, where most offenders were kept while awaiting trial, would flood. So he called Burl Cain, warden of Angola. An arrangement was made to build an impromptu prison on high ground in New Orleans. Warden Cain rounded up fences and portable toilets, all of which he had available at the Angola campus, and sent the materials on trucks to New Orleans. They arrived two days after the hurricane struck the city.

Cain also sent dozens of prisoners, many of them convicted of murder and rape, and tasked them with building cages for new prisoners and those forced out of Orleans Parish Prison. The Angola prisoners completed the network of outdoor jails in two days, sleeping at night next door to the Greyhound station. Cain also sent guards. When the cages were finished, the Angola prisoners were sent back north, and the guards remained. These were the men who guarded Zeitoun’s cage.” (320-1)

 

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3 thoughts on “zeitoun-dave eggers

  1. the sense of calm of the story is so overarching that i forgot how there must’ve been conflict coming. i guess that’s why they call it the calm of the storm.

    “But Zeitoun barely gave it a thought. It would cost a lot of money, he said-about twenty signs had been made, not to mention all the business cards and stationary-and besides, all the new clients were paying their bills. It wasn’t much more complicated than that.
    “Think about it,” Zeitoun laughed. “We’re a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such a good idea to turn away clients.” Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.
    So the rainbow remained.” (22)

    “He had gotten used to it after all these years, but still, there were times when the waste got to him. The disposability of just about everything. Growing up in Syria he had often heard the expression, “If your hand doesn’t work for it, your heart doesn’t feel sorry for it.” But in the U.S., it wasn’t just the prosperity-because New Orleans was not uniformly prosperous, to be sure-there was a sense that everything could be replaced, on a whim. In his children he was trying to instill a sense of the value of work, the value of whatever came into their house, but he knew that much would be lost in the context, the waste and excess of the culture at large. He had been brought up to know that what God hates as much as anything is waste. It was, he had been told, one of the three things God /most/ hated: murder, divorce, and waste. It destroyed a society.” (58)

    “The sky was a child’s fingerpainting, blue and black hastily mixed.” (82)

    “He paddled down Dart Street, the water flat and clear. And strangely, almost immediately, Zeitoun felt at peace. The damage to the neighborhood was extraordinary, but there was an odd calm in his heart. So much had been lost, but there was a stillness to the city that was almost hypnotic.” (105)

    “As he paddled, he noticed that the water was growing more contaminated. It was darker now, opaque, streaked with oil and gasoline, polluted with debris, food, garbage, clothing, pieces of homes. But Zeitoun was in high spirits. He felt invigorated by what he’d been able to do for the dogs, that he was there for those animals, and four dogs that almost certainly would have starved would now live because he had stayed behind, and because he bought that old canoe. He couldn’t wait to tell Kathy.” (133)

    “Charlie didn’t, but said he might soon. Zeitoun promised to check in with him again, and paddled off, curious about how many people had remained in the city. If Frank stayed, and Todd and Charlie had weathered the storm, surely there were tens of thousands more. He was not alone in his defiance.” (135)

  2. and just as quickly, things change:

    “Rattled, they paddled silently to the Claiborne house. Zeitoun had never imagined that the day would come that he might see such a thing, a body floating in filthy water, less than a mile from his home. He could not find a place for the sight in the categories of his mind. The image was from another time, a radically different world. It brought to mind photographs of war, bodies decaying on forgotten battlefields. /Who was that man?/ Zeitoun though, /Could we have saved him?/ Zeitoun could only think that perhaps the body had traveled far, that the man had been swept from closer to the lake all the way to Uptown. Nothing else seemed to make sense. He did not want to contemplate the possibility that the man needed help and had not gotten it.” (158)

    “Zeitoun was in disbelief. It had been a dizzying series of events-arrest at gunpoint in a home he owned, brought to an impromptu military base built inside a bus station, accused of terrorism, and locked in an outdoor cage. It surpassed the most surreal accounts he’d heard of third-world law enforcement.” (228)

    “Zeitoun had been brought into the station on September 6, seven and a half days after the hurricane passed through the city. Even under the best of circumstances, building a prison like this would have taken four or five days. That meant that within a day of the storm’s eye passing over the region, officials were making plans for the building of a makeshift outdoor prison. Fencing and razor wire would have had to be located or ordered. The toilets and floodlights and all other equipment would have had to be borrowed or requisitioned.
    It was a vast amount of planning and execution. A regular contractor would have wanted weeks to complete the task, and would have used heavy machinery. Without machines, dozens of men would be needed. To do it as quickly as they had, fifty men would be needed. Maybe more. And who were these men? Who did this work? Were there contractors and laborers working around the clock on a prison days after the hurricane? It was mind-boggling. It was all the more remarkable given that while the construction was taking place, on September 2, 3, and 4, thousands of residents were being plucked from rooftops, were being discovered alive and dead in attics.” (236-7)

    “FEMA was footing the bill for his incarceration, they said, and that of all the other prisoners from New Orleans. The Elayn Hunt Correctional Center was renting space to warehouse these men, but otherwise made no claims to their welfare or rights.” (253)

    “Zeitoun had a sudden and strange thought, that the pain in his side could be caused not by infection or injury, but by sorrow. Maybe there wasn’t a medical reason for it. Maybe it was just the manifestation of his anger and sadness and helplessness. He did not want any of this to be true. He did not want it to be true that his home and his city were underwater. He did not want it to be true that his wife and children were fifteen hundred miles away and might by now presume him to be dead. He did not want it to be true that he was now and might always be a man in a cage, hidden away, no longer part of the world.” (266)

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