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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Zeitouns: From Jableh to Post-deluvian New Orleans

(This article is co-written by Abu Kareem of Levantine Dreamhouse and Abufares and posted simultaneously on both blogs)

By Abufares

There's a tomb at the far end of the Corniche in Jableh, Syria. It is the resting place of 23 year old Mohamad Zeitoun (1941-1964), by far the most accomplished Syrian athlete of all times. Mohamad died in a car accident while on his way to the Suez Canal in Egypt to participate in the International Canal Swimming Race.

The Zeitoun family came from Arwad, a small island off the coast of Tartous and the only inhabited one in Syria. The father, Haj Ahmad, was a master sailboat builder. He had witnessed family and friends perish in the treacherous waves of the unforgiving sea and wanted to offer his offspring an alternative life. Accordingly he moved to Jableh where he worked hard as a mason and brought up his sons into the business. The main concern of this simple man was to keep his family safe and away from the sea but fate, as it is often inclined to, had other ideas up its sleeve.

Mohamad Zeitoun, Syrian long distance swimmer, went on to become an international legend as 3 times World Champion (1960, 1961 and 1964). In 1959 his winning of the 40 km Nile Race in Egypt was nothing short of historic as he completed the final 10 km using one arm only due to injury. His 1961 world record in the Capri-Napoli International Swimming Marathon remained unbroken for many years as he swam the 38 km in 8 hours and 45 minutes, one full hour ahead of his nearest competitor. He crossed the 50 km Suez Canal Race in 12 hours and 3 minutes in 1963. Mohamad, who never had a coach, went on to win every single international event he participated in during his short-lived career. His brother Abdulwahab, a retired general, recalls how his father sent Mohamad to work as an apprentice blacksmith at 16. His boss had to make a custom 15 kg sledgehammer for him with a steel handle because he invariably kept breaking those made of wood. He was a powerful man who ultimately defied his father's will and couldn't keep away from the water. All of Jableh, including the father, gathered around the radio when Mohamad was racing and waited for the good news. A huge celebration would erupt upon the announcement of the expected result and the proud father would delightfully cry: Abaday, Allah Ywaf'o in his provincial Arwadi accent.

In 2005, 41 years later and halfway across the world, Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, Louisiana. Another son of Haj Ahmad Zeitoun makes the headlines and becomes an American Legend. Heroism runs in the family evidently but why not continue reading about this fascinating story through the words of my friend Abu Kareem of Levantine Dreamhouse.

By Abu Kareem

Few books published in the United States since 9/11 have sought to understand those on the receiving end of the war on terror. Always on prominent display at bookstores are books with sensational titles written by self appointed Middle East "experts" with ulterior motives or an axe to grind. Such books fed the national paranoia and along with the popular media provided cover for the Bush-Cheney years.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers shatters that mold.  The book is a biography of a Syrian immigrant, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, living in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina devastated the city.  Abdulrahman, a native of Arwad and Jableh, steps onto dry land in Houston after a ten-year wanderlust sailing the seven seas on commercial ships.  He makes his way to New Orleans where he settles down, marries an American woman and establishes a thriving business as a painting contractor.  A couple of days before Katrina strikes New Orleans, Abdulrahman sends his family away to safety and stays behind to look after his properties and his business. After Katrina's passage over New Orleans, the levies break and Abdulrahman's neighborhood is flooded. He retreats to the second floor of his house and retrieves an old canoe from the garage. Setting out by canoe intending to check on his business and properties, he instead finds himself rescuing elderly people trapped in their houses and feeding dogs abandoned by their owners. His wife's pleas to leave the city go unheeded as he feels duty bound to stay behind to help out. As Abdulrahman's American story unfolds, Eggers weaves in anecdotes from his past in Arwad and Jableh.  We learn much about his family of seafarers, his childhood in Arwad, the moonless nights he spent sardine fishing off the coast of Jableh and his attachment to his older, now deceased, brother, a world champion swimmer.  These anecdotes help the reader understand Abdulrahman's character, his inner strength and resolve bordering on stubbornness, his gentle piety, his devotion to his family, his dreams and ambitions and his deep sense of fairness. One cannot help but like this man.

The first half of the book recounting Abdulrahman's history is hopeful and heartwarming: an honest and hardworking immigrant thriving in his adoptive land.  Even in the midst of New Orleans' apocalyptic floods, our spirits are lifted by Abdulrahman's good deeds.  Soon, however, this American dream turns into a nightmare.

Instead of mounting a campaign to rescue the stranded citizens of New Orleans, the Bush administration, in true war-on-terror style, sets up a military siege of the city.  Thousands of heavily armed soldiers and private security guards -mercenaries in effect- are sent in.  As hundreds of citizens perish, the soldiers' first priority was to build a makeshift prison at the city's train station. Abdulrahman and three companions, two Americans and a Syrian, all of whom stayed behind hoping to ride out the storm, are arrested on suspicion of looting by overzealous soldiers armed to the teeth.  The Syrians are singled out as possible terrorists and all are detained in conditions that are a cross between Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.  Claustrophobic and nightmarish, the second half of the book is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration and the militaristic attitude that permeated everything it did and where national security paranoia trumped even the most basic civil rights of its own citizens. Perhaps what is most shocking about Zeitoun is how the horrific treatment of detainees in post-Katrina New Orleans went completely unreported by the national media at the time.

Eggers is a compelling storyteller and a careful journalist.  He researched and cross checked all the facts of the events described in the book.  He even traveled to Syria several times to meet the Zeitoun clan and learn about the coastal towns of Syria.  As a good journalist should, he avoids sentimentality, though his admiration for Abdulrahman, his wife Kathy and the whole Zeitoun clan is hard to hide. Abdulrahman comes across as an admirable human being, fair and idealistic, almost to a fault.  Even after his arrest and mistreatment, he stubbornly refuses to think ill of his fellow human beings, assuming that it is all a misunderstanding that will soon be resolved.  It is perhaps this quality that also made him so liked among his neighbors and why so many New Orleanians were ready to come to his defense.

Even after Bush's departure, the perception of a "clash of civilizations" lingers and ignorance and suspicion of Arabs and Muslims remains an issue in the United States. I therefore take it as a hopeful sign that Zeitoun, a book with a fairly narrow focus, made it to the New York Times best seller list last year.


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (English)
Lecture Abdulwahab Zeitoun 2008 (Arabic)
The Guardian: The Amazing True Story of Zeitoun 2010 (English)
Nass MBC Net 2010 (Arabic)


Gabriela said...

Your are becoming an expert in delightful cowritings, my dear Abufares...
About the post, I've never heard anything about those wonderful men before reading your post. I've got some reflections about what I've just read.
I guess prejudice is a horrible thing that affects everything. Luckily, there are many wonderful and brave people that can overcome prejudice and keep on giving away the best they have: themselves.
I loved both parts of the story.

Unknown said...

True!!! I'm enjoying co-writing although I have to admit that Mariyah is much prettier than Abu Kareem. I don't think he'll mind knowing that. As a matter of fact he will probably be much relieved :-)

The reviews I read about the book, including that of Abu Kareem, suggest that it's great reading material. Luckily I will have my hand on a copy soon as he was kind enough to send it to me.

The Bush years, more than being a scar on the face of America are a wart on her butt. It will take a lot of undoing to negate the damage done all over the world. The hard feelings, the suspicion and the injustice, but eventually this period in modern history will be looked at as one of the lowest points of human folly.

Isobel said...

Abufares and Abu Kareem, this story sounds fantastic. Although I know the second part of it will make me crazy, I will buy it, certainly. This is precisely the type of literature I like to support, not only because of excellent writing, and unbiased journalism, but because, as you said, it "shatters that mold". Thank you so much for this wonderfully collaborated review and for bringing the important book to our attention.

Joseph said...

Dear Abufares & Abukarim, thank you for this rather beautiful and insightful account of the Zeitouns. Abufares, the further you delve into the Levant's recent and far off past, you dig pure gold.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

I read the book and the Zeitouns' love of the sea reminded me immediately of Abu Fares especially that they are from our neighborhood (the Syrian coast). When I mentioned the story to Abu Fares he recognized the Zeitouns immediately. And thus, our collaborative post was born...despite the fact that I am NOT as pretty as Mariyah.

Glad you liked it. I said in my review that the story is narrow in focus but what it says about the Bush years is immense. We all know what they did abroad, what is talked about much less is how that attitude extended to the treatment of its own citizens.

You are so right. The Zeitouns are one such example but hardly the only example. Us levantines, spend too much time in self-deprication or groveling at the feet of the powerful when we should be celebrating the true heroes (a much overused word) among our brethren.

Unknown said...

The first impression I had after Abu Kareem sent me his part was that I needed to get that book and start reading it immediately. He was, however, generous enough to send me a copy by mail and which I'm waiting eagerly to get my hands on.
Last night while having a few beers with a couple of friends I brought up the Zeitouns to our conversation. Both of them knew of Mohamad Zeitoun of course but I smoothly made the transition from one brother to the other in my oral account of this very post.
We had a fantastic and memorable evening. This is not bad for 3 drinking buddies. Who said drinking beer makes one invariably talk about women or sports?
Thank you Isobel for being here. I love the smell of your words :-)

Unknown said...

What I like most about "Zeitoun" the man is his sheer humanity. What I like most about the book (through Abu Kareem's review) is the journalistic and literary breaking of the mold as Isobel puts it.

Unknown said...

@Abu Kareem
I've very grateful Zeitoun reminded you of me, or at least made you think of me in a way.
Mohamad Zeitoun is a Syrian legend. I was 4 when he passed away and I have no recollection of him prior to his death whatsoever except what I've heard about him in the long years since.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Syrian immigrant and the proud New Orleanian has paddled his way into becoming an American legend. Very few people have heard about him here in Syria and I hope this changes soon.
It's a great story. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Very interesting brief history on a National Athlete and his family. The accounts of Zeitoun at New Orleans brings to light all issues about narrow minded, fear infected Americans, particularly after Sept-11.

I must say Sept.-11 hit my family very close. My Sister is flight attendant based in NYC, and her husband a Firefighter. First we were worried that my sister's plane was one of the hijacked ones. Then we had to sit and wait, to now that her husband had made it out alive from the fire. Many of his close friends died in the event. He now has lung problems due to all the pollutants inhaled during his job on that terrible date.

All this said and done, it would be very misguided to forget that every Country has good and bad people. That we are hoping for the goodness to prevail over all those rotten potatoes, and make the world better. I worry that the human race always will be so, but I have become very cynic with age...

Better to keep Hope burning...

w.b. yeats

Unknown said...

@w.b. yeats
I'm glad you enjoyed this post and I happen to agree with your evaluation and with the objective perspective you're smart enough to adopt despite being personally involved.
If it were not for the hope we have in our hearts life would be very bleak.

Karin said...

GREAT stories Abufares and Abu Kareem!! A deep sense of humanity becomes most apparent, of putting the lives of others before the own (referring in particular to the second story!), of selfless heroism and greatness - of HOPE!

Thanks so much to BOTH of you!!

Nancy Reyes said...

Let me fill you and your friend in on some basic lessons on how the US works.

The reporter might be good, but he doesn't understand US law or culture. In emergencies, local communities care for themselves, and then the states, and only in major emergencies is the Federal gov't involved.

New Orleans is a corrupt city. Right now, there are court cases against local police etc. for their overzealous treatment (arrest and beatings) of "looters"...but this is again a Louisiana problem, not a Federal one.

After Katrina, the Governor of Lousiana refused to let Bush send in troops: instead she waited for the local National Guardsmen to restore the peace.

The press hyped reports of looting and crime, so many private aid workers refused to come in to help. For example, reports of snipers prevented dying patients from being helicoptered out of local hospitals...

It wasn't until five days later that Bush was allowed to send in help...and most of those criticized his "slow response" ignored that his hands were tied because the governor refused to let him send in troops with aid supplied.

US law doesn't allow military troops to be sent into states.

The difference? I was "national guard": our training to provide help in riots, floods, and other disasters. National Guard are in "support services" e.g. water supply, street policing, food, medicine.

a good apolitical study on the huge rescue operation after Katrina can be found at Popular Mechanics (a magazine which is apolitical, but tends to be "blue collar" not elitist in it's reporting).

Unknown said...


Dave Eggers is an American best-seller author, editor and publisher born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts so I really fail to see how he does not understand US law and culture. Abu Kareem is an American neurologist living and working in New York so I doubt that he needs any lessons on how the US works. I am, admittedly, the weakest chain in the link. I only went to college in the US and lived for eight years not very far from New Orleans. I am well versed in US law and culture, however, and I do not doubt some of the facts you listed.
Eggers book is about the negative impact of the Bush years on US law and culture in particular. The damages the Bush administration inflicted on the entire world are indisputable but what "Zeitoun" brings to focus is the social and political catastrophe Bush brought to the very country he thought he is defending.
The book is a study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of an American family. It might be narrow but it's damn poignant and extremely well written (and documented).
Thank you for you comment.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...


Having lived in the US for more than 28 years, I really don't need any lessons in the way the US works.

Dave Eggers' factual description of post Katrina NO is nassailable. Clearly the looting and violence was hyped by the media and the politicians and Eggers made that clear. Yes, it was the National Guards not the US military but this distinction is somewhat irrelevant given the fact that the Guards are now being used as regular military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is that in addition to the National Guard, there were many private security contractors that were employed and their first priority seems to have been to build a prison before rescuing the people of NO. The way the common folks (not the elites)were mistreated in NO is the major point of the book and Zeitoun's story is only one of many.

KJ said...

The years are wearing you down, old man, now that you employ not one but two great writes in the blogger's sphere to write on your blog.

I will not make this easy for you. If you want to read my comment, go read it on Abu Kareem's blog :P

Exercise those fingers. Say no to arthritis!

Unknown said...

YES :-)
And not only I had free rides but they were very enjoyable too.
Going to Abu Kareem's Blog is always a pleasure.

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