Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Posted on December 13, 2009. Filed under: Books, Personal Reviews | Tags: , , , , , |

I’ve heard that Dave Eggers was an excellent writer so I thought his newest book would be a great way to get introduced to his work. Zeitoun is the last name of the family his book is focused on. This book is a non-fictional account of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of the Zeitoun Family. What really makes this book stand out is that part of the Zeitoun family saw Katrina from the eye of the storm, while the rest of the Zeitoun family watched the storm and aftermath unfold from various parts of the country. Having both of these perspectives displayed really gave a better overview of the full impact that Katrina had across the Country, and even in certain parts of Europe.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was a hard-working immigrant from Syria. At first that seemed like an irrelevant fact but it became relevant within the last half of the book. Zeitoun found love with Kathy, a southern Christian woman who converted to the Muslim faith later in her life. Kathy and Zeitoun seemed to be the perfect couple with a picture-perfect American life in New Orleans. They loved their neighborhood, had a strong business built upon hard work and morals, healthy children and a devout love for each other and God. One downfall to their life was that Zeitoun could be too hard-working and was also known to be very stubborn and set in his ways, which led him into trouble during Katrina’s aftermath.

Eggers did a great job really painting their New Orleans life – I’ve never visited Louisiana but after reading the first few chapters I had a great image in my mind of what their neighborhood and neighbors looked like. The early stages of the book really paint the scene for disaster. You can feel the winds change and you can taste the severe weather that is looming through radio and television reports. As a reader you feel the nervousness of preparing yourself and your belongings for the storm, and wonder if you will truly make it out in time. Eggers makes you feel like you are there in the path of Katrina days before it is ready to barrel down on you.

Kathy and her children flee the city at the last-minute and board up with family only a few hours from her home. As I mentioned before Kathy was  Baptist but converted to Islam later in life. It is clear that Kathy’s choice to wear a hijab was hers alone, but in a post 9/11 America that puts people at unease, and her own family makes it a point to let her know that they would prefer her not to wear it. Kathy’s family leaves her and her children unwelcome and unsettled in her home to the point that she flees to Phoenix to wait out the aftermath of Katrina with a dear friend who also converted to Islam later in life. There is a beautiful undercurrent that Eggers weaves, whether intentional or not, in this book about the unconditional support and love that can be found in people. When Kathy’s family could not deliver that support the Islam community unconditionally reached out their hands and hearts to help the Zeitoun family.

Zeitoun remained in New Orleans to watch over the family home as well as the rental properties he owned throughout New Orleans. With his second-hand canoe he was able to traverse the flooded New Orleans streets after the Hurricane had done its damage.  Zeitoun made it his mission to feed abandoned dogs, maintain his family home as leaks sprung in the roof, and rescue elderly stranded residents that weren’t able to evacuate in time. Zeitoun had a daily routine in place and was sure of his choice to stay being the right one. Through all of Kathy’s protests for him to evacuate Zeitoun reassured her that he was safe and needed in New Orleans.

Kathy heard continuing reports of violence and theft in the city and she eventually started to break down Zeitoun’s resolve to stay in the city. Zeitoun called both Kathy and his brother in Spain at noon daily to give them updates on his safety. While making a call a few days after the storm he was arrested with no mention of the charges, no phone call, and no Miranda rights. Zeitoun was processed, strip-searched and placed in a cage with no mention from the Police of why he was being arrested or held. At this point in the book Zeitoun effectively goes missing. Both the reader and his family are not clear on what happened to him – he just disappeared after 6 men arrived at the door. Eggers keeps us in suspense and we truly feel Kathy’s desperation at not knowing if her husband is safe.

It was clear at this point that Eggers was changing the story from the effects of Katrina on residents and people across the country to how the post 9/11 world dealt with Muslims in America. It became a portrait of the struggles Muslims have to deal with in 9/11 and maybe it will serve as a way to get non-Muslims to offer open eyes and hearts to Muslims in America. Zeitoun’s arrest was due to Terrorism; terrorism in New Orleans during a category 5 hurricane is pretty hard to believe but FEMA believed it and removed this good-hearted man from his canoe and helping others to lock him in a cage. Eggers makes you feel the anger Zeitoun and his family feels about his arrest because you have ‘talked’ with his brother, learned about his family, seen his good-hearted actions across the devastated New Orleans landscape post-Katrina and truly have come to know him for all his goodness. Seeing Zeitoun in this situation is almost unbearable and the anger builds within you. I had heard of FEMA horror stories but never through this lens before, it was eye-opening to say the least.

This book was addictive and a page-turner. I thought I knew about Katrina but this really opened my eyes to what Katrina really brought out in people in New Orleans. It’s important to keep in mind that Eggers is a journalist and this book is meant to evoke certain emotions in the reader and it definitely does. I’d like to believe that there were aspects of New Orleans that ran like clockwork in New Orleans post-Katrina but unfortunately none of the accounts seem to portray that. Eggers gives us a tale of corruption, stereo-types and prejudices that go on in America every day. This is the land of the free, but not for everyone even when they haven’t committed any crimes. Zeitoun left me feeling hope that the more people to read this will open their eyes and give people the benefit of the doubt in the future. It is a great expose into the many wrong-doings that people had to fight through after Katrina devastated New Orleans.

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6 Responses to “Zeitoun by Dave Eggers”

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another excellent review. i wasn’t aware of this book, having only read “What the What” by Eggers but this sounds like a really interesting read.

How was that book?? I really liked his style of writing!

I really enjoyed “What the What” it was a little hard to get into at first because I was a little slow to accept the voice of the narrator but I think that is because I knew he was creating a work of fiction for essentially a non-fiction story. I would recommend it though. It was a pretty quick read, especially given the subject matter 🙂

This looks good. I really liked Eggers’ books, especially A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, a collection of interviews.

Are you familiar with the works of David Foster Wallace? Eggers wrote the intro to the 10th anniversary of Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 2006. I’ve never read anything else by Eggers, but if his fiction’s anything like his intro writing, I see why you like him. I generally go for darker books, such as the ones Wallace wrote. Although I have to let you know about Wallace’s This is Water, a short, enlightening book that takes only about 20-30 minutes to read. Maybe you’ve already heard of this, so my apologies, but if not, definitely check it out!

I’ve never read David Foster Wallace but definitely an author I am going to check out. I really enjoyed Eggers book but unfortunately haven’t read any of his works since. This is a wake-up call for me to hit the library and check out more Eggers and see about David Foster Wallace – thank you for a great suggestion!


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