Back in the house on Claiborne, two weeks earlier, Zeitoun is wondering when and how he might be able to leave. Now that people don’t seem to need help, there’s not much left to see, and he misses his family. As he’s talking to his brother Ahmad in Spain, Nasser calls to him about some men on the porch.
Now the narrative shifts back two weeks, in order to follow Zeitoun in the days when Kathy had no word from him. Ironically, his disappearance takes place just at the moment when his trials and responsibilities seem over.
The armed men are wearing police and military uniforms, bulletproof vests and fatigues. There are at least 10 guns in the room. They ask Zeitoun who he is, and he tells them that he’s the landlord. Zeitoun gives one of them his ID, but the man doesn’t even look at it, and tells him to get in the boat.
The military response that Kathy has been following on the news is here manifested in person. The soldiers’ large amounts of gear and protection is almost darkly comical, given that they’re facing unarmed civilians.
Zeitoun is pushed towards the door, where Ronnie and Nasser have already been gathered onto a massive military fan boat. Two officers are pointing their rifles at them. At that moment, Todd returns on his motorboat and asks what’s going on. He says he lives there, and his proof is in the house, but the officer tells him to get in the boat too.
The officers are not interested in any justification that the men might put forward—they seem like they have a previously assigned task, and will do whatever they need to fulfill it, even at the expense of basic human rights and dignity. The military fan boats return here, again as a frightening, antagonistic foil to Zeitoun’s quiet canoe of rescue and exploration.
Zeitoun assumes that this has something to do with the mandatory evacuation, and he just needs to call Kathy, who can call a lawyer. But he needs Yuko’s number, which is on the hall table by the phone. He asks the soldier if he can sneak back in and grab it, but as he moves towards the house, the soldier grabs Zeitoun’s shift and shoves him back onto the boat.
Zeitoun is convinced that the trouble is no more than a misunderstanding, and with his basic right of a telephone call (one supposed to be given to anyone imprisoned) he’ll be able to sort out why he’s being taken away and what he can do to be freed.
The boat heads towards the intersection of Napoleon and St. Charles, where a dozen other men in National Guard uniforms, bulletproof vests, and sunglasses are watching them. Two of them tackle Zeitoun to the ground once they’re led off the boat: his face is pressed into the grass. He doesn’t resist, but he is immediately handcuffed and his legs tied together, as the men bark orders and curse at him and the others.
Again, the treatment of Zeitoun, Todd, Nasser, and Ronnie seems far out of proportion with the way they’re acting. The National Guardsmen and other officers seem prepared for tough, hardened criminals—even soldiers at war—rather than unassuming citizens.
The four men are herded into a large white van. Zeitoun asks one young soldier in the driver’s seat what’s going on. The soldier says he doesn’t know—he’s from Indiana.
The mass influx of soldiers and officers seems to have led to confusion and lack of coordination—a total breakdown of the system of justice and the right to information.
They wait silently in the van for 30 minutes. Zeitoun asks one of the soldiers if he could take care of the dogs in the neighborhood. The soldier agrees. Zeitoun says he’ll give him the addresses, but the soldier says he knows where they are, and walks away.
At first, it seems that the soldier is genuinely interested in helping Zeitoun out, but it soon grows clear that the man is only mollifying Zeitoun, or maybe even making fun of him. His indifference will tragically lead to the probable deaths of many animals, however.
Finally the van starts, and they drive to the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, seemingly confirming Zeitoun’s assumption that they are being forcefully evacuated. As they pull to the side of the building, Zeitoun sees police cars and military vehicles, with National Guardsmen patrolling the grounds.
Zeitoun knows that there has been a mandatory evacuation, so this serves as his major assumption for why he and the others have been detained—it’s also why he can’t imagine that there’ll be a harsh punishment for whatever his perceived crimes might be.
Zeitoun and the others are led inside to the main room, where it looks more like a military base than a train and bus station. There are no civilians. Instead, there are only dozens of men and women with guns, along with boxes of water and supplies. Everyone there seems to take more and more interest in the four men. Todd is brought to the Amtrak ticket counter and begins to be interrogated.
Although Zeitoun has assumed that they’ve been brought to the passenger terminal in order to leave the city, it appears that the terminal itself has been transformed. Like the rest of New Orleans, it has become a staging ground for what looks like a military operation. This is “Camp Greyhound,” another example of the wrong-headed response by authorities to the disaster—which we already see here, as the soldiers have plenty of supplies, which the victims lack.
Todd, who is usually hotheaded, starts arguing at the Amtrak desk, and finally asks if they’re going to get a phone call. The officer says no, even when Todd insists that they have to. Todd asks a passing soldier why they’re here, and the soldier says that they’re al Qaeda. Todd laughs, but Zeitoun is frightened. In some ways he’s been waiting for this day since 9/11, when rumors about “sleeper cells” meant that everyone at any mosque could be under suspicion.
Todd is aware that it’s their right to be able to place one phone call, but the regular rules of legal detention don’t seem to apply in this dystopian environment. Todd can only imagine that the idea that the men are from al Qaeda is a joke, but for Zeitoun, who has paid attention to the growing Islamophobia since 9/11, this is an all too real possibility.
Zeitoun and Kathy have worried before about the eagerness of the Department of Homeland Security to interrogate anyone with a connection to the Middle East. Zeitoun’s friends have had to send in documents and hire lawyers, but until now Zeitoun had never been profiled, apart from occasional suspicious looks or sneers upon hearing his accent.
In the years after 9/11, the police tapped into much broader powers of surveillance and interrogation, usually antagonizing the Muslim community. The “Patriot Act” also basically allowed authorities to circumvent the usual rule of law whenever a threat of terrorism was even suspected.
Zeitoun decides to ignore this one soldier’s words, but moments later another soldier mutters “Taliban” as he looks at Zeitoun. Now Zeitoun is certain that a horrible misunderstanding is taking place. He sits back while Todd rants, understanding that it will be a long time before this can be resolved.
While Todd (who has never had to face this kind of prejudice) continues to think that this is merely an easily resolvable misunderstanding, Zeitoun now realizes that he and his acquaintances have found themselves embroiled in a problem of much higher stakes.
Zeitoun looks up at the mural occupying the upper half of the station’s malls, depicting the history of Louisiana and of the U.S. more broadly. Zeitoun notices for the first time how much of this mural has to do with struggle and subjugation, from Ku Klux Klan hoods, to Confederate Soldiers, to Native Americans being herded off their land, next to wealthy aristocrats and businessmen.
For Zeitoun, until now, New Orleans has largely been a land of opportunity, despite periodic instances of prejudice. Now, he understands that there is a much longer, darker history behind his beloved city. His present situation even seems like a logical continuation of this history.
Nasser is processed after Todd. The armed officials grow excited as they realize that there is cash in Nasser’s duffel bag: $10,000. Todd is carrying $2,400. There are Mapquest printouts in his pockets, and though he says he delivers lost luggage, the officials aren’t satisfied. They find a small memory chip from a digital camera in his pocket as well. Zeitoun sees this evidence mount up, and despairs that he won’t be able to reach a lawyer or judge.
Eggers portrays the officers as almost perverse in their apparent desire to find any evidence of wrongdoing and to be able to piece together these possessions into a narrative that would condemn the four men. Zeitoun knows what they’re looking for, and exactly how these innocent possessions could be misinterpreted.
Finally it’s Zeitoun’s turn for processing. He is fingerprinted and his photograph Is taken. The officials take his wallet, and while they ask him basic questions, he isn’t told of the charges against him. Shortly after it’s over, a soldier brings him into a small room and tells him to remove his clothes. Zeitoun hasn’t been read his rights and doesn’t know why he’s being held, but now two soldiers in full camouflage with automatic rifles are surrounding him. Ashamed, Zeitoun submits to a full body check, which is unbelievably invasive. It’s Todd’s turn after him.
A basic legal right of a detainee, in addition to being given a phone call, is to be told of the charges that have led to one’s detainment. Not only is Zeitoun not given this basic right, but he is asked to submit to an embarrassing full body check—an indignity that seems to be meant for hardened criminals, rather than for someone who’s never been charged of a crime and doesn’t even know why he’s there.
Zeitoun and Todd are brought to the back of the station, to where the buses depart. When the doors open, it’s revealed that the parking lot has been transformed into a massive outdoor prison. A 16-foot-high cage extends a hundred yards into the lot under a freestanding roof like those at gas stations. Zeitoun and Todd are pushed inside the enclosure, where two other prisoners are already being held.
Zeitoun had realized that the authorities have transformed the station into a holding ground, but the scope of this transformation is only now clear. Ironically, rather than serving as a hub for free movement and transportation, the station is now a locus of confinement.
For Zeitoun, this has all been surreal, but Todd rants and swears. He notes that this isn’t unprecedented, though, as during Mardi Gras, the police sometimes would put drunks and thieves into temporary tent-style jails. But this one is elaborate: a series of small, divided cages, like ones that hold dogs. To Zeitoun, it looks exactly like pictures he’s seen of Guantánamo Bay.
While Todd can’t find a rational way of dealing with what’s happening to them, Zeitoun attempts to fit their confinement into a broader framework. Despite his realism, this prison seems to be on an entirely different level to what he’s familiar with. Guantánamo Bay is a prison for suspected terrorists, infamous for its violations of human rights and its lack of accountability.
The space inside the cage is about 15 by 15 feet and is empty except for a portable toilet. Across from it is a two-story office building, now occupied by soldiers staring down at them with their M-16s. Behind them is the loud, unceasing sound of a full-power train engine. Zeitoun realizes that this Amtrak engine is generating all the electricity for the station and jail, and that this sound won’t be going away.
The description of the men’s confinement shows just how stark the makeshift prison is, from the tiny, spartan space, to the obvious constant surveillance from above, to the roar of the train engine that seems almost meant to torture the inmates and prevent them from sleeping.
Zeitoun is determined to get one phone call. He tries to get the attention of an officer by reaching for the chain-link fence in front of him, but the guard yells at him not to touch the fence: they can only stand or sit in the middle. There’s a pain in Zeitoun’s foot, and he sees that some kind of metal splinter has gotten wedged under his foot. He needs to get it out quickly, or it will get worse.
Zeitoun still tries to trust that the regular rules of the legal system will be followed through, but it seems that this denial of rights has become its own law. The guard seems to take pleasure in decreeing harsh and arbitrary rules for the prisoners.
A little later, Nasser and Ronnie are pushed inside. Only Todd has been told why he’s being held (possession of stolen goods) and none has been permitted a phone call. Nasser explains that he was concerned about the looting, and so decided to keep his life savings with him. The interrogators seemed not to know or care that many immigrants keep their money in cash. With the Syrian names and accents of Zeitoun and Nasser, the cash, and the Mapquest printouts, they realize that they’re in deep trouble.
As the four men compare notes, it seems that the authorities have been systematic in both denying the prisoners basic rights and in refusing to present a reason for detainment (or, in the case of Todd, a compelling, evidence-based reason for detainment). The authorities seem to know what they’re looking for and to be ready to perceive what they find in a single given way.
For the first hours, Zeitoun is committed to making a phone call. While landlines aren’t working, there is a rumor that there’s a satellite phone in the upstairs office. The prisoners beg for access whenever a guard passes, but have no luck. One guard tells them that they’re Taliban—they don’t get a phone call.
Again, it seems that there is a pervasive assumption among the guards that the men are affiliated with terrorists and thus don’t deserve basic rights—even though this assumption is based on prejudice rather than fact.
After four hours, the men are given a military-style, ready-to-eat meal of barbecued pork. Zeitoun tells the guard that he and Nasser cannot eat pork, but the guard shrugs and says not to eat it. They give their portions to Todd and Ronnie.
Not only do the guards refuse to respect the Muslim dietary requirements of Nasser and Zeitoun, but this requirement seems to be only one more reason to suspect the two.
Zeitoun suggests to Nasser that they pray, though they’re nervous about doing so in front of the guards. But Zeitoun thinks that this makes it even more important to pray, so they do so, as the guards watch them.
All throughout Zeitoun’s imprisonment, one thing that will not leave him is his religious faith and conviction that he should do God’s will. This contrasts with the negative and antagonistic views the guards seem to hold of Islam.
There’s little space to sleep, but Zeitoun wants to stay awake on the off chance that a supervisor or lawyer might pass by. The others struggle to sleep in the confined space and with the engine blaring. Every so often the guard shines his flashlight in, illuminating the exhausted, confused faces inside the cage.
Zeitoun, stubborn as always, continues to believe that with just enough perseverance he’ll be able to explain his case and eventually be freed. He still has faith in the American ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.”