As this weekend’s storm has reminded us, hurricanes can be a threat to U.S. cities on the East Coast as well as the Gulf. But the vast changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina have had little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles.
Six years after the federal levees failed and 80 percent of the city was flooded, New Orleans has lost 80,000 jobs and 110,000 residents. It is a whiter and wealthier city, with tourist areas well-maintained while communities like the Lower 9th Ward remain devastated. Beyond the statistics, it is still a much-contested city.
Politics continue to shape how the changes to New Orleans are viewed. For some, the city is a crime scene of corporate profiteering and the mass displacement of African Americans and the working poor; for others it’s an example of bold public-sector reforms, taken in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that have led the way for other cities.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born in Jebleh, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Decades later and thousand of miles away he awakes from dreaming of a fishing expedition out of his childhood home: “Beside him he could hear his wife Kathy breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the hull of a wooden boat.” As so often in Dave Eggers’s latest novel, the docudrama “Zeitoun”, a caught image opens a window on an ocean of memory and a state of mind.
Zeitoun now lives in New Orleans, where he runs a painting and building company and owns several buildings. He’s a dedicated businessman, father, husband, and Muslim. His painter’s van is emblazoned with a rainbow, which Zeitoun soon discovers has gay associations for Americans. But he doesn’t change it. “Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.”
Kathy, practical and strong-willed, was brought up a Baptist in Baton Rouge. Attracted by “the doubt sown into the faith” and “the sense of dignity embodied by the Muslim women she knew,” she converted to Islam after her failed first marriage. Some years later she married the much older Zeitoun. Eggers describes their domestic bustle and warmth, and their personal irritations. For Zeitoun, these include his children’s wastefulness and obsession with pop music, and his alienation in a family of women. Kathy is bothered by Zeitoun’s stubbornness and her own family’s Islamophobic nagging.