Sept. 15 2010 12:00 AM

’Zeitoun’ couple comes to troubled East Lansing



It’s a propitious time for the subjects of Dave Eggers’ 2009 book “Zeitoun,” Abdulraham and Kathy Zeitoun, to visit East Lansing.

Last week, a Quran was desecrated and dropped in front of the Islamic Center, throwing a community that prides itself on tolerance into despair.

The Zeitouns know that feeling from inside and out.

“Zeitoun” follows the nightmarish experience of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian- American, who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Abdul, as he is called by friends and neighbors, became a hero, navigating the flood waters in a canoe to evacuate trapped residents and comfort others who stayed behind.

He was arrested in his own home as a looter, labeled a terrorist, jailed in a makeshift prison and held incommunicado for weeks.

Eggers’ book is set in the hurricane and its aftermath, but its fascination in 2010 comes from its deep, cold dive into the murk of post-9/11 American emotions.

Like the preacher in the 1955 film “Night of the Hunter,” America seems to have “hate” tattooed on one hand and “love” on the other. Last week, East Lansing and MSU were Exhibit A.

On one hand, East Lansing and MSU picked “Zeitoun” for its One Book, One Community event Sunday, trying earnestly to foster tolerance in the community.

On the other hand, look for Sunday’s discussion to turn to the recent Quran desecration in East Lansing.

When the Zeitouns were interviewed by phone last week, another tolerance debate, over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, was in full swing.

Abdul called objections to the mosque “silly.”

“It is a peaceful place to worship God,” Zeitoun said. “You go to a mosque to try to correct yourself.”

Abdul, a Syrian immigrant, has been in the United States since 1988.

Much of the irony in Eggers’ book comes from the fact that Abdul embodies the American virtues of good neighborliness and hard work. He runs a successful paint contracting business and owns numerous rental homes in New Orleans with his spouse and business partner, Kathy.

According to Eggers’ account, Zeitoun can’t help thinking like a seasoned building contractor, even in captivity. While thrown into a series of makeshift prisons, he examines their construction to determine how freshly they were built.

While Zeitoun is a philosophical sort, Kathy Zeitoun is more blunt. A native Louisianian, she was a strict Baptist who converted to Islam as an adult.

As Abdul described his unlikely arrest and captivity in a makeshift prison, his wife interrupted him, as the two often do when talking together.

“It was a chicken coop,” she said. “For a long while every time I would drive by the site of Camp Grey hound [where Abdul was held] I would stick out the American Bird.”

“I felt like I am in a third world county,” he said. “This never happened to me in any other country.”

“Kathy has a colorful way of talking,” Eggers told an audience at MSU last week.

Kathy said the book-writing project, which took three years, helped in the healing process.

“Abdulraham was able to talk with David about things he would never talk to me about,” she said. “It was like pulling teeth with him, but David was very patient.”

The Zeitouns worked closely with Eggers to assure the accuracy of the book.

Early on, Eggers ask Abdul if he would rather have the book fictionalized to protect his family’s privacy.

Zeitoun told Eggers it was his story, so he wanted his name used.

Clearly, the physical and emotional rebuilding from Katrina is far from finished.

Kathy said even though their own uptown neighborhood is rebuilt and that 60 to 80 percent of the city is back to normal, the neighborhood right across the street from them is nothing except decaying houses.

Abdul said the fifth anniversary of the hurricane brings back bad memories, “but you have to deal with it.”

Kathy began to say they are “moving on” with their lives, but Abdul interrupted.

“Time heals all wounds,” he said. This Sunday, they’ll have a chance to test that theory on a fresh wound here.

An Evening With Abdulraham and Kathy Zeitoun

7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19 Kellogg Center, MSU Free admission