Hurricane Katrina from one families perspective. “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers.

Image result for zeitoun book cover

This was one of many books that I bought during my trip to San Francisco back in April/May this year. I finally got around to reading it a couple of days ago and once I had started I couldn’t put it down. What a great read! Eggers spent 3 years researching the book and interviewing the Zeitoun family (and countless others) about their harrowing experiences during and after Katrina hit New Orleans – not only related to the storm its self, but also in the way that the main character in the story Abdulrahman Zeitoun was treat by the authorities.

Obviously I don’t want to give away too much of the story as I would rather you read it for yourselves, but just to set the scene…. The Zeitoun family consist of Abdulrahman, who is a Muslim of Syrian origin, who is married to Kathy, a white American woman who had already converted to Islam prior to meeting her husband to be. She had one child from a previous relationship and 3 more with Abdulrahman, They work as a team running a painting and decorating business…also doing building repairs….they are well known and well respected in the area. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy makes the decision to evacuate, with the kids, to her sisters home which is outside of the predicted disaster zone. Her husband decided to stay put and keep an eye on the multiple properties that they own in New Orleans and to help other people install plywood boards to protect their homes.

The day after the storm, with streets flooded, Abdulrahman sets out in his old canoe to assess damage and along the route to check his various premises, makes a number of rescues of people trapped in their homes. After this, he goes out every day seeking out people who need help, or deserted pets that need feeding. He feels that Allah has given him a purpose, justifying his decision to stay in storm ravaged New Orleans. He keeps in touch by phone, every day, with family members in Syria and in Spain, and of course with his wife who is safely out of the way being sheltered by friends and family. Until one day….when there are no phone calls from him. What has happened? Is he safe? has the phone system failed or has some ill wind blown the way of Zeitoun?

It’s most certainly worth reading the book to find out. Eggers writes extremely well. The story moves along smoothly and it really is a page turner. I personally rate the book very highly – it would easily be in my top ten of all time reads…..and I have been reading for over 50 years.

Katrina hit in 2005, the book came out in 2009, but more recently a cloud has been cast over the Zeitoun family. There are a lot of accusations of wrong doing in the last few years and the family has broken up, but this should not detract from the book or the story of how this family were treated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After reading the book you will never look at “Officialdom”, in the USA, the same again.

Good read’s gives it 4.1 out of 5. I’d rate it much closer to 5 – it’s not prefect, but it’s damn close.

Looking at reviews of the book, of which there are many I’ll share this one with you as the reader who wrote the review shared my reaction to the book.

“I’ve got to give it to Dave Eggers in that there was no Dave Eggers in here. The reason this book succeeded was that he was able to step aside and let Zeitoun and Kathy tell their stories, using the plainest style possible to convey the most heartbreaking, sickening, and devastating episodes.

I don’t know how much of the story I should reveal… it’s better that you just read the book. But I’ll just say that it’s based on true accounts of a family who survived hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and then survived many other more unpredictable trials. The book as a whole–its before, during, and after of events described–perfectly encapsulates my love/hate relationship with this country.

I urge you to read this (and especially if you would never normally read Dave Eggers). If you give it 40 pages of your attention, I guarantee you will finish the whole thing in a day or 2.”

He was right. 2 days and I had finished this book. A good story, well written, highlighting the ridiculous priorities of government agencies in emergency situations and a demonstration on how they treat American citizens (badly!).

Green Book

If you haven’t seen the movie Green Book, I’d like to recommend that you do.

It’s been both lauded by the film critics and also panned for historical inaccuracies. However, I believe that it IS worth watching. It’s based on real life events…real people. I’ll put a link to the trailer at the end of this post.

It highlights the racial tension of the 1960’s in the southern states of the USA and follows the life of Donald Walbridge Shirley – born in Florida in 1927 to Jamaican immigrant parents. But Don is no ordinary black man. He is something that people particularly in the deep south don’t understand…..he is a musical genius AND more importantly a highly educated, intelligent and sophisticated black man. He held doctorates in music, psychology and liturgical arts and could speak 8 languages fluently as well as being an extraordinarily gifted pianist who started playing the piano at the age of 2 and was invited to study music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of music at the age of 9. He was also a talented painter.

The movie begins with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga – a New York nightclub bouncer applying for a job as a driver for Doctor Shirley. He is shocked to find out that Doctor Shirley is a negro and that he wants Tony to be not only his driver but also his protector for a tour of venues in the deep south of the USA, where the Don Shirley jazz trio will give a series of musical performances…….to rich white folks. There’s a scene early in the movie in Tony and his wife’s apartment where a couple of black work men are given a drink of water by Tony’s wife and Tony puts the glasses that the guys have used into the trash rather than washing them and using them again. He accepts the job because he needs the money and reluctantly sets off with Shirley armed with the “Green Book” which gives the movie it’s title.

The Green Book in question is a guide for blacks who travel in the south and lists motels and restaurants where they will be welcomed. There are not many…..and those that do accept blacks are shabby and run down.

The movie highlights the racial problem and also the differences between the northern united states and the south. The people of the south are willing to shake hands with this musical genius and are eager to be entertained by him, but don’t want him eating with them in the same restaurant – even though he is better dressed than most of them, better educated and better mannered. Nor do they want him using the same toilet as them.

It’s funny how blacks used to be employed by whites to prepare their meals and even look after their kids…..but they weren’t allowed to use the same bathroom. I forget who said it, but someone once said that you knew when the great depression really hit the white folks…..it was when they used to have to look after their own children.

The police in the south, just like those in the north, are meant to “serve and protect” and by the terms of the US Constitution – to treat everyone equally. “No State shall… abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” BUT it seems that in the deep south, “any person” doesn’t apply to blacks and we see Dr Shirley obstructed and abused by both the good old white folks and the police.

Racism is bred from ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar or unknown. In the movie we see Tony’s attitude toward Don Shirley change as he comes to know him better. It’s a life lesson.

I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away the whole plot, but it is worth watching just to see how the relationship between the two men – from totally different backgrounds – changes as the movie progresses.

Don Shirley is a misfit. He’s black…..but doesn’t fit in with black society because of his education and sophistication. BUT neither is he accepted into white society due to the colour of his skin. This feeling of isolation drives him to drink and he becomes an alcoholic. It is also insinuated that Dr Shirley is a homosexual which only adds to the tension and prejudice against him.

Here’s the official trailer of the movie to tempt you.

Official Universal Pictures trailer – Green Book

It’s a movie that both entertains and informs. Sad and frustrating in parts and funny and uplifting in others. It’s a relationship movie….a road trip movie…a lesson in life….it has action, great music, great actors and a good script (written partly by the real Tony Lip’s son……who incidentally also plays one of Tony’s family members in the movie). I thoroughly enjoyed it.