True-life horror story

On reading the book in common, Zeitoun

I spent 10 hours on airplanes last week, plenty of time to read Butte County’s current book in common, Zeitoun. It’s Dave Eggers’ award-winning account of what happened to one New Orleans family when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005.

I expected it to be about the storm and flooding that devastated the city, and how the Zeitoun family responded to the disaster, and it was that. But it was also about what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun after the flood. A Syrian immigrant who’d built up a prosperous painting and contracting business in his adopted hometown, he stayed behind after his family fled the city to watch over his several properties and help people who were stranded. He owned a canoe, and that’s how he got around, feeding abandoned dogs and rescuing oldsters and others trapped in their flooded houses.

Then he was arrested—or, rather, taken into custody, since no charges were filed—and his life took a turn that gives new meaning to the word Kafkaesque. He was held for weeks in a cement-floored outdoor cage with no beds and no chairs and subjected to gratuitous torture. Nobody would tell him what he’d supposedly done wrong, he wasn’t allowed to make a phone call or contact a lawyer, and he feared he was destined to disappear into the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and his wife and four children would never know what happened to him.

It’s a true-life horror story about how easily a country built on human rights can slip into the kind of brutality usually associated with third-world dictatorships. All it took in Zeitoun’s case was a hurricane, the lingering post-9/11 distrust of Muslims, and the willingness of authorities to suspend due process for little or no reason.

I reckon it’s generating some lively discussions in the classes where it’s being read.

Was Nielsen stalked? As part of his ill-advised effort to get a restraining order against Tehama County gadfly Don Bird, Assemblyman Jim Nielsen called Bird a “stalker” (see our update). That would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre.

Bird acknowledges he’s driven by Nielsen’s purported residence in Gerber, a funky doublewide mobile, dozens of times to see whether the assemblyman was actually there. He wasn’t. As everybody but Jim Nielsen seems to know, he lives in a big, fancy house in Woodland, outside his district, which is contrary to state law.

“If you’re stalking someone, you’ve got to have somebody out there to see,” Bird says. “So far, I haven’t seen anyone out there.”

The restraining-order gambit was a disaster for Nielsen. Not only did it call more attention to his residence problems just as he’s about to launch a bid for the redesigned District 3 seat, it also cost him $7,500 in back attorney fees.

Lately Nielsen’s begun telling stories about his life in Gerber, as if he really lives there. I’m starting to worry about the man’s mental health.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.