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Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the real-life hero of Dave Eggers's new book. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina he paddled from house to house in a canoe, offering help to his neighbours. For his trouble, he was arrested as a suspected terrorist
It was 6 September, six days after the hurricane, and he was in the house – his own property, which he rents out – along with a Syrian friend, Nasser Dayoob, his tenant Todd Gambino and Ronnie, a white man Zeitoun didn't know but who had asked to stay in the house for shelter. Zeitoun was on the phone to his brother in Syria when six unidentified police officers and National Guardsmen burst through the front door dressed in military fatigues and bullet-proof vests and carrying M16s and pistols. Zeitoun explained he was the landlord, but the only response was a demand from one of the National Guardsmen for his identity card.
"All he did was look at my ID," Zeitoun says, "and that was enough. Nothing else. No other questions. The moment he saw my name he said, 'Get into the boat!'"
We get back into the car and retrace the route of that boat ride, stopping at the Greyhound bus station near the city centre. Today it's back to a semblance of normality, with its familiar canine logo and silver buses lined in rows. But when Zeitoun was carted off there, he and his three companions found themselves surrounded by 80 or so men with assault rifles and dogs, a mixture of National Guardsmen, prison wardens and soldiers, some of whom had recently been serving in Iraq and who seemed to approach the situation in New Orleans with a war-zone mentality. The closest thing it reminded him of was Guantánamo.
'You guys are al-Qaida,' said one soldier. 'Taliban,' said another