by BJW Nashe
Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s roller coaster ride during the past decade — through the ups and downs of running a business, surviving a hurricane disaster, enduring injustice, and achieving fame — came to a screeching halt in July 2012 when he was arrested for assaulting his ex-wife, Kathy Zeitoun, and then charged with plotting to have her murdered.
The Syrian-American painting and building contractor from New Orleans gained renown in 2009 as the subject of Dave Eggers’s award-winning book, Zeitoun, which detailed both his heroic actions and his wrongful arrest and detention as a “looter” and “possible terrorist” during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Eggers’s narrative ended on a positive note: we were left with a good deal of hope that Zeitoun and his family will continue down their own unique path of personal integrity and hard-won prosperity.
Instead, everything went to hell for Abdulrahman Zeitoun. He became abusive, and his marriage fell apart. He was arrested twice for assaulting Kathy, then serious criminal charges were filed. Zeitoun’s July 2013 trial for solicitation of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder of his ex-wife ended with him being acquitted on both counts. Yet the abusive behavior underlying the murder charges have cast a heavy shadow over his life and reputation. Most of us who first learned of Zeitoun in Eggers’s remarkable book are left wondering, what went wrong?
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun was an immigrant success story. He was born and raised in a large family of hard-working over-achievers in Jableh, a dusty fishing town on the coast of Syria. As a young man, he became accomplished in many trades, including sea-faring, fishing, and carpentry. In 1988, he traveled to the U.S. on an oil tanker bound from Saudi Arabia to Houston, Texas. He decided to stay in the States, and began working for a contractor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Due to his strong work ethic and multifarious skills, he became moderately successful. Soon he was in New Orleans managing his own team of painters and contractors. He formed his own business, Zeitoun Painting Contractors LLC.
Zeitoun met Kathy in 1988 and they were married six years later. She was raised in a Southern Baptist family in Baton Rouge, but converted to Islam soon after her first marriage ended. When she met Abdulrahman, she was a 21 year-old single mom, living with her young son, Zachary. Zeitoun was older than her, at 34, but they hit it off well. She found him to be good husband material: kind, ambitious, and devout in his faith. He found her to be more than his match in terms of smarts and savvy. She was well-read, quick-witted, and tough-minded. Eggers portrays the Zeitouns in a loving partnership — a far cry from the violence and abuse that would later come to dominate their story. By the summer of 2005, the couple is raising three young daughters in addition to Zachary, and both are working tirelessly at running the family business. They also own and manage half a dozen rental properties in New Orleans. Life is challenging, but they are getting ahead.
Everything changed with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Eggers tells us what happened to the Zeitouns in simple, straightforward prose. No literary tricks are required, because the story is so remarkable in itself. Here we have a man and a woman desperately struggling to endure two calamities: the great devastation brought by the storm, and the disastrous failures of the agencies and officials who were supposed to bring relief to the storm’s victims.
As the storm approached New Orleans in late August 2005, Kathy decided to take their four children to Baton Rouge, while Abdulrahman insisted on staying behind to guard their home. Barricaded safely inside, Zeitoun assumed he had made it through the peak of the storm unscathed. When the levees protecting the city were breached, however, Zeitoun’s neighborhood was flooded with more than ten feet of water that reached up to the second floor of most houses. Zeitoun began exploring the city in a secondhand canoe, distributing any supplies he could gather, rescuing and ferrying neighbors to higher ground, and caring for abandoned dogs.
On September 6, Zeitoun’s humanitarian efforts were shut down when he and three of his companions were arrested at one of Zeitoun’s rental houses by a group of U.S. Army National Guardsmen and police officers. Abdulrahman’s ensuing ordeal is emblematic of the government’s fundamentally flawed and inhumane response to Hurricane Katrina. Rather than focusing on storm relief for the victims, law enforcement working under the umbrella of FEMA — which after 9-11 had been folded into the Department of Homeland Security — approached the disaster zone primarily as an anti-terrorism operation. Search and rescue missions became secondary to patrolling the “war zone” to round up “suspects” and maintain “law and order.” Since they were working in a “state of emergency,” federal, state, and local officials were all too willing to set constitutional rights aside. For someone like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, New Orleans may as well have been Baghdad.
Caught up in this terrible dragnet, Zeitoun and his friends were detained for three days in a makeshift jail at a Greyhound bus station, where their cells were little more than crudely constructed cages. Then they were transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in nearby St. Gabriel, Louisiana. Here Zeitoun was held for 20 additional days without being formally charged with a crime or given a court appearance. Meanwhile he was physically and verbally abused as he was interrogated as a terrorist suspect. He witnessed other detainees being similarly mistreated. He and his friends were held in segregated cells, denied lawyers, provided no medical attention, and prohibited from using phones. Zeitoun was unable to contact his family. His wife thought he had somehow disappeared. He was unsure how many weeks, months, or even years he might be kept locked up.
Zeitoun was finally charged with looting in the amount of $500, and bail was set at $75,000, ten times the normal amount for the crime. Several officials refused to disclose to Kathy Zeitoun the location of his public hearing, telling her that the information was “private.” She was finally able to track him down, post his bail and pick him up from Hunt Correctional Center. Once there, she barely recognized her husband. He had lost 20 pounds, his hair had grown shaggy and gray, and he looked like a sad old man. Here is Eggers’s account of their reunion:
“A few minutes later he was free. He walked to her and she ran to him. They held each other for a long moment. She could feel his shoulder blades, his ribs. His neck seemed so thin and fragile, his arms skeletal. She pulled back, and his eyes were the same — green, long-lashed, touched with honey — but they were tired, defeated. She had never seen this in him. He had been broken.”
Upon his release from prison, Zeitoun returned home to find his house destroyed, with the carcasses of the family dogs rotting in an upstairs room. One of his rental properties had been looted, because police had left it unlocked after their search. It was difficult for Zeitoun to get his wallet and ID back; the authorities insisted that they be kept as “evidence.” When Kathy managed to convince an assistant DA to return the wallet, all of the cash, business cards, and credit cards were missing — or should we say, “looted.”
The three friends taken into custody with Zeitoun fared far worse. They were incarcerated for longer periods of time — five, six, and eight months — before they were eventually released. One of them, who had been carrying $10,000 in cash to evacuate New Orleans with, never saw his money again. This too was apparently “looted.” All charges against these men were eventually dropped.
Post-Katrina, the Zeitouns struggled to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. Eggers explains how they lived in seven different apartments and houses while their home was gutted, rebuilt, and expanded. The couple steadily regained control over their painting and contracting business. Yet there were problems. Abdulrahman’s return to full health was slow, and he continued to struggle with anger and shame over his arrest. He was fearful of any further encounters with police. Islamophobia had always been a factor in their lives, especially in the tense months following 9-11. After Zeitoun’s arrest, however, it was difficult not to feel unjustly persecuted. On top of all this, Kathy began experiencing digestive tract problems and cognitive difficulties. She had trouble remembering things. Sometimes she forgot how to use the computer, or couldn’t understand what people were saying to her. She was told these were most likely symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The Zeitouns wanted to put the whole hurricane episode behind them, but were unsure how to do so. Encouraged by friends, they hired a lawyer to pursue a civil suit against various local, state, and federal agencies. Then they were basically told to get in line. New Orleans was no longer literally underwater, but the city was now flooded with thousands of lawsuits just like the Zeitouns’.
In spite of these great difficulties, Eggers closes his book with a meditation on Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s hope for building a better future:
“We can only do the work, he tells Kathy, and his children, and his crew, his friends, anyone he sees. So let us get up early and stay late, and, brick by brick and block by block, let us get that work done. If he can picture it, it can be. This has been the pattern of his life: ludicrous dreams followed by hours and days and years of work and then a reality surpassing his wildest hopes and expectations. And so why should this be any different?”
Zeitoun was published in 2009 by McSweeny’s, Eggers’s own independent publishing company. It went on to win the National Book Award as well as a host of other honors, and is widely considered to be a masterpiece of nonfiction narrative, as well as a leading account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. All author proceeds of the book went to the Zeitoun Foundation, established by the Zeitoun family, Eggers, and McSweeny’s. Jonathan Demme purchased the movie rights, and planned to turn the story into an animated feature film.
Meanwhile, Abdulrahman and Kathy’s marriage came unglued. It is unclear exactly why the relationship deteriorated. In any case, the loving husband in Eggers’s book turned monstrous. In March 2011, police arrested Abdulrahman for allegedly beating Kathy and threatening to kill her in front of their four children. After that incident, Kathy asked the district attorney’s office to reduce the charges from domestic-abuse battery to negligent injuring. She has since testified that she felt a lot of “pressure from friends and family, because of the book, because of the movie, because of our business reputation.”
The couple was divorced in February 2012. Later that year, on July 25, 2012, Abdulrahman was arrested for allegedly attacking Kathy with a tire-iron on Prytania Street in New Orleans. Once Zeitoun was behind bars, more serious charges began piling up. A man named Donald Pugh, who was imprisoned with Zeitoun at Orleans Parish Prison, told authorities that Zeitoun offered him $20,000 to kill his ex-wife. The plan, according to Pugh, was simple. Pugh was soon to be released from prison. Once outside, he was to call Kathy and ask to see one of the family’s rental properties. After meeting her there, he could kill her. Pugh said Zeitoun also told him to buy a “throwaway phone” and take some pictures to confirm she was dead.
Instead of pursuing lesser charges of domestic-abuse battery or aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, prosecutors decided to charge Zeitoun with solicitation of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder of his ex-wife based primarily on Pugh’s testimony. This turned out to be a mistake. Zeitoun waved the right to a jury trial, and it was relatively easy for his defense attorneys to cast doubt on Pugh’s credibility.
As he issued his verdict of not guilty on both counts, Judge Frank Marullo criticized prosecutors for relying on the testimony of Pugh, a self-described thief who has been imprisoned in four separate states, and who lied to his child’s mother about his real name for the duration of their five year relationship. “That guy is a liar,” Judge Marullo said. “He has no credibility at all. I’m surprised the state put him on the stand at all. That’s an injustice.”
Relatives of Kathy Zeitoun reportedly stood up and rushed out of the courtroom as soon as Marullo read the verdict. “It is what it is. It’s our system,” said her brother, who asked to be identified only as Gino. He said he would try to keep his sister safe from her ex-husband with “restraining orders, whatever we need to do.”
Kathy’s own testimony pointed to a far deeper and more troubling pattern of domestic abuse than many of us who knew the Zeitouns strictly from Eggers’s book would have thought possible. Her statements indicated that she suffered abuse from the beginning of their marriage in 1994, up until the storm, and then even worse in the aftermath. “The first time he attacked me I kept everything quiet,” she said. “I felt that gave him the ability to do it again.” When Assistant District Attorney Lauren Faveret asked Kathy in court whether she would be fearful for her life if her ex-husband was released, she replied, “I’d be dead.”
The precise reasons for Zeitoun’s increasingly violent behavior remain unclear. Has he been suffering from a PTSD-related breakdown? Was he unable to accept the fact that his marriage was ending, and thus driven to escalating outbursts? Is he merely following the pattern of most domestic abusers, in which the problem only worsens over time? These are all plausible explanations, but we simply do not know for sure. Kathy has described her husband becoming more angry and violent in the years following Hurricane Katrina. She says her husband’s faith has taken on more radical overtones. Several of these factors — a prior pattern of abusive, stress, divorce, religion — may have joined together to create a potent psychological cocktail.
Dave Eggers, meanwhile, has been taking some heat during the past two years for refusing to answer any questions pertaining to Zeitoun’s legal troubles, especially in regard to how the domestic abuse allegations might conflict with his portrayal in the award-winning book. On December 9, 2012, Salon.com posted a story (originally printed in the L.A. Review of Books) by Victoria Patterson titled, “Did Dave Eggers Get ‘Zeitoun’ Wrong?” On December 20, Sara Foss at Daily Gazette.com was emphatic in her skepticism: “The criminal charges against Zeitoun make me question everything Eggers has ever written…” On September 12, 2013, The Philadelphia Review of Books demanded answers from Eggers:
“The answer to a simple question – did you know anything about the abuse while reporting your book? – might help us understand what to take from a work that claims to tell us something important about Islam and the justice system and the United States in the early 21st century. Was Zeitoun the noble man Eggers presents in his book or was that portrayal a simplistic literary perversion? Did Zeitoun suffer a post-traumatic stress reaction after his detainment so severe that he could not function as the good man he once was?
“Zeitoun, the man, is a private person, not beholden to the public. But Eggers shared his creation with the world and should care enough to help readers put his work into perspective.”
In re-reading Zeitoun, however, I find little to support the claim that Eggers presented his subject as a saint or a noble hero. In fact, Abdulrahman comes across as human-all-too-human. Granted, he’s no wife-beater. Yet, in addition to all of his virtues, Eggers plainly describes Zeitoun’s disagreements with his wife, which involved the kind of squabbling many couples are quite familiar with — probably even more heated than most. And Eggers shows us that Zeitoun is a stubborn man at times, and a steadfast workaholic. Moreover, Eggers states outright that following his arrest and detention, Zeitoun was struggling with anger and despair. He describes both Abdulrahman and Kathy as “broken.” Even though Eggers ends their story on a positive note — because he clearly cares for them — he is not asserting that their success is guaranteed, because they are such noble individuals. He might hope so, but he has shown us two imperfect beings who have been deeply scarred by their experiences.
So I think it is unfair to accuse Eggers of suppressing information or whitewashing Abdulrahman’s character, simply because he does not want to wade into a controversial legal matter. It is not that difficult to understand how Eggers could work with the Zeitouns on this project and still be unaware of any domestic abuse going on behind closed doors in the Zeitoun home. Families often hide this kind of problem for months and years at a time. Eggers was telling their hurricane story, not investigating their personal lives.
More relevant than what Eggers did or did not get right, is the way in which Zeitoun’s unfolding story forces us to acknowledge that people can be very complex. It is entirely possible for an individual to serve as a brave humanitarian in one set of circumstances, and then turn around and act like a villain or a madman in another set of circumstances. Moreover, given the traumatic nature of Zeitoun’s hurricane experiences, it is not all that surprising that he would have serious difficulties down the road. Hopefully, his pride is no longer standing in the way of him admitting that he needs help.
Rather than criticizing Dave Eggers or demonizing Zeitoun, we would do better to focus on the huge problem of domestic violence in our society. Why didn’t anybody know about the pattern of abuse Kathy had suffered? Why did she feel that she needed to put up with abuse for so long in a relationship? What was wrong with her husband? Why did he feel compelled to abuse her? How did his wrongful arrest exacerbate the problem? How does the criminal justice system in general contribute to the problem? Does religious fundamentalism play a role? How can we stop this from happening in so many American homes?
From this whole incredible saga, only one thing is certain: on a whole range of issues — immigration, extreme weather, emergency response, wrongful arrest, Islamophobia, the War on Terror, PTSD, domestic violence, and murder trials — Abdulrahman Zeitoun has left us with an awful lot to think about.
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