Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Zeitouns: From Jableh to Post-deluvian New Orleans

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

by Abu Fares

There's a tomb at the far end of the Cornishe 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 recieving 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 (see side bar for link to book) 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 eldery people trapped in their houses and feeding dogs abandoned by their owners. He wife's pleas to leave the city go unheaded 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 anectdotes help the reader understand Abdulrahman's character, his inner strength and resolve bordering on stubborness, 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 seige 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.


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