I want to tell you a New Orleans story of one man’s experience of the collision of 2 egregious events - the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the War on Terror. It is a gut wrenching story and in the end, an example of the redemptive power of hope and faith in your God. When I read the psalms for this week, it was right there - Zeitoun’s story, pure and simple. To You O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you, let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian Muslim, emigrated to the US in the late 70‘s after working at sea. A practical and skilled artisan, he settled in New Orleans and along the way, married an American lady, Cathy, who earlier in her life had converted to Islam. Together they worked hard to get their painting and contractor company established. Indeed, The Zeitoun Company was well regarded and known as the go to company for painting in the wealthy garden district.. They had woven themselves into the fabric of their community oriented city - with friends on every block in many neighborhoods - Neighborhoods that now, after my 3 trips, I begin to know and recognize . Committed to excellence in their work , their Muslim faith and their lives - so blessed with 4 beautiful children, you could say that they were the shining example of the successful American immigrant experience.
As the spectre of Katrina bore down on them, they knew the routine of hurricane readiness. As she had done many times before, Kathy evacuated with the children, He stayed. So many responsibilites - this time 9 sites with painting equipment to be tied down, and skeptical as usual, of the potential danger . We all know that Katrina itself did not cause the real disaster. It was, as before, manageable damage but as the horror began to unfold and the waters came, Zeitoun resorted to checking on his properties in his yard sale canoe,, but increasingly, that changed to helping and rescuing people from their homes,feeding stranded dogs, paddling & delivering them to temporary hospital sites and checking in with a make shift National Guard Stations in the area for help and assistnace, that in hindsight would be a problem. To give you a sense of how deep the water was, in the same neighborhood, that we drove through on our way to the grocery store, car antennas were scraping the bottom of his canoe..
As New Orleans descended into chaos, Cathy lost her daily cell phone contact as Abdulrahman vanished without a trace, no contact - leaving this family traumatized, crazed and in the dark for almost a month.
By delivering the stranded victims to those make shift Nat Guard stations, Zeitoun made himself visible to the hurridly deputized mercenaries brought in from security companies around the country and yes, Blackwater was one of them. Through some unfortunate circumstances, he fit the profile of a terrorist, authorized under the FEMA merged into The Homeland Security Act. What unfolds over the next month is a story that makes one ashamed to be an American. Zeitoun was roughed up and removed from his own home at gun point, and delivered to an impromptu military base built inside the downtown Gray Hound Bus Station, if you can believe it - assembled 2 days after the storm. They took his driver’s license, allowed no phone calls , branded him a member of Al Kaida and the Taliban. All suspected terrorists were thrown into open air wire cages on the pavement of the bus depot’s parking lot. At gunpoint with guard dogs, these and 1500 Louisiana State prisoners endured three days, of standing and sleeping on bare pavement with no blankets, being roughed up and the only food was MRE’s of ham and pork ribs - no substitutions for Zeitoun.
It gets worse - much worse.
Zeitoun was transferred to a LA state prison outside of the city. Because of the suspected terrorist classification, authorities were afforded the unchecked power to detain indefinitely, dening all the constitutional rights afforded to a regular prisoner. -no contact, no charges, no bail,no trial., Zeitoun prayed, even though he knew that praying 5 times a day would raise further suspicion. In the name of God, the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful: You alone we ask for help; Guide us to the straight way; the way or those whom you have blessed, not of those who are astray. From our own psalms : Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.
Even the story of how he is finally - after a month of secret captivity - released and eventually exonerated is amazing but I don’t have 2 hours to tell the story that is so rich. I have touched on 1/10th of what happened. He lost 20 lbs and his hair turned white. Read the book!
Zeitoun was tested beyond limits and came out at the other end. A dark time passed over his land, but now there is something like light. Zeitoun booms “every person who was forgotten by God or country is now louder, more defiant and more determined.. His answer is to restore and build. “ What is building and rebuilding in LA but an act of faith! He knows that God is watching over the work and he tells his crews, “ it must be done with soul”. Progress is being made, which is the joy that we mission people see but he envisions a city not just as it was, but better, far better. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.
No good deed goes unpunished. The Zeitoun Foundation was created in 2009 , to aid in the rebuilding of and on going health of the city of New Orleans and to help insure the human rights of all Americans. To date, over $250K from the sale of the Dave Eggers book as been donated to 17 non profits.
And finally, in the middle of the trip, Marilyn, Judy and I took a late afternoon constitutional - to unwind from a long day of painting and moving ladders. It was our southern architectural eye candy walk admiring everything beautiful, blooming, tattered historic, funky about our neighborhood. We stopped to admire a house being painted - glad that I wasn’t the one doing it - when I spotted the advertising sign stuck into the grass. I shouted with delight - “Guys, the sign says Zeitoun Painting & Contracting,” standing there pointing to the sign. That sign was validation that the story was - really - real. I gotta get a picture of that for the blog. Some people have read Zeitoun - it’s a national bestseller.”
For a second, I looked at the men on the ladders, secretly hoping that one of them was Zeitoun. Oh, don’t be silly. As I turned around, the door opened, to some commercial van parked across the street - the one with the ladders on top - the one I hadn’t noticed - the door opened with it’s owner walking straight to me.... “Mr. Zeitoun, “ as I reached to shake his hand, “I read your book.”