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Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun Talk With Honors Students

In "A Conversation With Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun," the subjects of Dave Eggers' latest novel answered questions from students about their Hurricane Katrina experience.
Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun Talk With Honors Students

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun speak to Honors College students about their experiences following Hurricane Katrina.

Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, subjects of Dave Eggers' latest bestselling novel, recently spoke to more than 200 LSU Honors College students and faculty members about their experiences during Hurricane Katrina and the chaotic weeks that followed.

"Zeitoun," the nonfiction account of their harrowing story, has been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner. It was chosen as the Honors College Shared Read this year.

Granger Babcock, Associate Dean of the Honors College, sat beside the couple and moderated the discussion, first asking questions that had been previously submitted and then taking questions from the floor. 

"It really made us stronger, what happened," said Zeitoun. "Each one of us chose to face the problem ... (and) what happened here in America ... could happen anywhere."

A Syrian American contractor, Zeitoun runs his own business in New Orleans with Kathy, both his wife and invaluable business partner. 

Although Kathy begged him to evacuate, Zeitoun made the life-altering decision to stay in New Orleans when his family left to seek shelter. After the storm, he paddled around the city in a canoe, rescuing and helping anyone he could — until he was arrested in his own home and suspected of terrorism.

The contrast between Zeitoun's quiet, reassured demeanor and his wife's talkative exuberance was evident from the very start. Wearing a stylish hijab and sandals, Kathy instantly captivated the audience while her husband sat grinning beside her.

A convert to Islam, the Louisiana native talked openly about the prejudice she has had to face, including people who assume she can't speak English and overly aggressive airport security checks.

"I like to make jokes, I like to laugh in the face of discrimination," she said. "I just have a bubbly personality."

But despite the appreciative peals of laughter that often broke out from the crowd, the seriousness of Zeitoun's plight came into even sharper focus as he spoke firsthand of the horrors he endured.

"[Soldiers] came to New Orleans trained for a war zone," he said. "I didn't even see anything like this in the movies ... these guys were used to dealing with criminals and they treated us like criminals."

In the novel, Zeitoun recounts how he was denied a phone call, kept in an outdoor cage, and violated during strip-searches. It was a month before a visiting missionary helped him contact his wife and he was set free.

"Some of it, I heard about secondhand in the drafts (and) I was very upset," said Kathy. "I thought, why record this? But I'm really glad that it's out there now ... (Dave) knew best. We never expected it to go this far.

Proceeds from the novel went to 18 different foundations, and an animated documentary based on Eggers' novel is currently in the works under the direction of Jonathan Demme.

Zeitoun stressed that he wanted others to hear his story in the hopes of bringing about change.

"We learn from mistakes," he said. "We should not judge people. We should ask what we can do for them."

When asked if the experience changed his views of humanity, Zeitoun said he viewed the events as a test of faith.

"If we drive in a car to go somewhere and have flat tires, maybe the flat tires will save us from a wreck," he said. "God has arranged everything for a reason."

Kathy said that the experience has given her a new outlook.

"It made me want to fight for humanity more," she said. "One of the first questions we were asked is if we were being punished. I think God is much more merciful than that, but I do think it was a great big test."

Both Zeitouns said it's not always easy to live with the memories of the disaster that befell them five years ago. Kathy suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and has episodes of memory loss and said her husband was also greatly changed after his imprisonment.

Zeitoun admitted that he now spends more time at the contracting business than he did before.

"The work makes me forget," he said. "I just throw it behind my back."

But theirs is a story of perseverance and strength.

"Time heals all wounds," said Kathy, still smiling. "You find your peace with it."

 

Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College

For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831

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