GUY RAZ, host:
In New Orleans, you can barely drive a mile without seeing this one familiar sign. It's a rainbow. It's painted in broad strokes and it reads, "Zeitoun Painting Contractors."
The business owner Abdulrahman Zeitoun has been in the city for decades, fixing up buildings and renting to different tenants. He knows the streets of the city better than a cab driver. But lately, as he's been making his way through town and checking up on his properties, something happens.
Mr. ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN (Owner, Zeitoun Painting Contractors): My head drew upside down and - it's just like sometimes, I don't know who I am anymore and I don't know what direction I'm heading. I don't know the place I'm going to. All disappear from my head.
RAZ: He's thinking about Hurricane Katrina. Four years ago, Zeitoun stayed behind in New Orleans after his wife and kids had left for higher ground in Baton Rouge.
Author Dave Eggers has written a book about what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun during and after the storm. It's called simply "Zeitoun."
Mr. DAVE EGGERS (Author, "Zeitoun"): His story was this unique intersection between the war on terror and the worst disaster in American history. And so, given that he's from Syria and his family background is so fascinating, and they happened to be Muslim-American, too, and there was just so much there in terms of a novelistic scope.
It's a prototypical immigrant story; a guy achieving the American dream here and then may be falling victim to the weaknesses of our government, that time in history.
RAZ: Hmm. Paint a picture for us about him, about his place in the community in New Orleans when we first meet him.
Mr. EGGERS: He and Kathy have built this business, Zeitoun Painting Contractors, LLC., that you ask anybody in New Orleans they know the Zeitouns or they've seen these signs. And, you know, in every way, they were, you know, very successful and totally woven into the community and very well-loved by their clients and tenants.
RAZ: Mm-hmm. As the storm is approaching, his wife, Kathy, is packing up the kids. She goes to Baton Rouge. And I was struck by the description in your book when the levees break, Zeitoun is left alone. This strangely peaceful moment. Can you read some of that for us?
Mr. EGGERS: (Reading) Zeitoun sat beside his tent eating cereal he had salvaged from the kitchen. Even with the water no longer rising, he knew he could do nothing at home. He had saved what he could save and there was nothing else to do here until the water receded.
When he had eaten, he felt restless, trapped. The water was too deep to wade into, its contents too suspect to swim through. But there was the canoe. He saw it floating above the yard tethered to the house. Amid the devastation of the city standing on the roof of his drowned home, Zeitoun felt something like inspiration.
He imagined floating alone through the streets of his city. In a way, this was a new world, uncharted. He could be an explorer. He could see things first.
RAZ: Abdulrahman Zeitoun sort of becomes this person who starts to help people. I mean, all these people who are in desperate need of help and he happens to be in a canoe, paddling along the streets of his neighborhood.
Mr. EGGERS: The first time he sets out is really to check on his properties. And he just wants to see the state of things and how much damage was done. So he starts to make what he calls his rounds, where he checks on the houses of -that he owns and his friends' and clients' houses. And - but even on that first day, he hears a faint voice coming from a home. And he was with a friend at that point and they paddled up to the house and...
Mr. ZEITOUN: And we start slowly follow the noise.
RAZ: Zeitoun picks up the story from here.
Mr. ZEITOUN: I jump to the water, swim to her house and got to the door. I try - force the door to open. I kick it to open. And soon I open, I see the lady. And she have one-story house. In the middle of living room she had furniture, all of it covered with water. She hold on to her dining room table. And like, she's - the water up to her shoulders, and her dress floating around her like flower or like umbrella. How we go say it. And she said, please, take me out of here.
You know, when I saw her, I - first thing I see like, my grandmother. I mean, for so sadness and so happy at same time, I discover her.
RAZ: Back now to author Dave Eggers.
Mr. EGGERS: Because the canoe was so quiet, he was able to hear things that others weren't - and others going around in motorboats and fan boats that are so incredibly loud. He was in this quiet canoe and was able to sort of help animals and people, and see things and hear things that others weren't able to. And he came to think that he had been put by God in the city for a reason; that that was his destiny - was to be there after the storm and make himself useful.
RAZ: Eventually, Zeitoun is arrested for - allegedly for looting. He's actually inside one of his own properties when some law enforcement officers come in.
What happens to him at that point?
Mr. EGGERS: Well, he and one of his tenants and a friend, and another man, who had been there using the phone, this rental property that he had was one of the few places in the city that had a working landline, so others had been using the phone there, too.
And meanwhile, some law enforcement officers, a New Orleans police officer in particularly, had been casing them and had somehow thought that these four men using this house were involved in some vast looting operation. And so they broke into the home and arrested all four men and treated them very roughly with, you know, pointing machine guns at their head. And they were brought to an outdoor prison that had just been built after the storm. It was nicknamed Camp Greyhound.
RAZ: Can you describe the scene at Camp Greyhound? You know, what was it like?
Mr. EGGERS: Well, I think it was as close to hell as one could get on Earth. This was early September in New Orleans, you can imagine the heat and the humidity. And they're given no pillows, no blankets, nothing, and they're made to sleep on the cement. Now, separately, they're not allowed to touch the fence around them, because if they we're to touch the fence, maybe the guards are afraid of them tipping over the cages or something like that.
So guards with M16s are keeping them from touching the fence. If anybody touches the fence, they are brought out of the cage, handcuffed, and put face down on the cement and then tear-gassed directly in their face. They're doused with a bucket of water and then thrown back into the cage.
And so it was very evocative of what we know of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay. And there you have Zeitoun and three others that he was arrested with. They were put in their own separate cage and separated and given special attention.
RAZ: They were separated because?
Mr. EGGERS: Well, we can only assume that this is because they were considered the big fish.
RAZ: They thought that they were terrorists.
Mr. EGGERS: There was some suspicion that they were involved in a larger and possibly terroristic activity.
And after three days at Camp Greyhound, he and hundreds of others were shuttled up on buses to Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. And there he did three weeks more, all the while denied any phone call or access to a lawyer, and never being told what exactly he was charged with and never seeing a public defender or a judge.
RAZ: And all the while feeling totally and completely helpless.
Mr. EGGERS: I think that there were two things happening that conspired to make this possible, uniquely so in 2205. One was this overall emphasis on anti-terror measures. And FEMA had been folded into Homeland Security in 2003 and the focus and funding of FEMA really changed quite a bit at that point.
A lot of the officers and soldiers that were sent to New Orleans after the storm, given the general political climate and also the images that everyone was seeing on TV, and these misrepresentations of the lawlessness and chaos and looting and murdering happening in the city. And so many of the National Guardsmen had come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. And those that I talked to really felt they were entering a war zone.
RAZ: When he was eventually released from this prison after four weeks, and he is eventually reunited with his family, he sort of has this ability to kind of move on.
Mr. EGGERS: Yeah. He immediately got back to work and they've been working steadily and constantly and tirelessly to bring back the city. And they've been personally rebuilt, I think, about 150 homes since the storm, and just does his rounds still, drives around and rebuilds the city brick-by-brick.
RAZ: Dave Eggers is the author of "What is the What?" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." His new book is called "Zeitoun," it's out this week from McSweeney's. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco.
Mr. Eggers, thank so much.
Mr. EGGERS: Thank you.
RAZ: You can read an excerpt and learn about the nonprofit Zeitoun Foundation at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)