ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers

Book Quote:

“Why are we here?” he asked a passing soldier.
“You guys are al Qaeda,” the soldier said.
Todd laughed derisively, but Zeitoun was startled. He could not have heard right.

Zeitoun had long feared this day would come. Each of the few times he had been pulled over for a traffic violation, he knew the possibility existed that he would be harassed, misunderstood, suspected of shadowy dealings that might bloom in the imagination of any given police officer.

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 19, 2009)

It’s been four years since one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina, hit New Orleans, yet the stories of those affected have been making their way out only slowly. Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is one such. Here too, as in his brilliant What is the What, Eggers does an expert job narrating non-fiction and making the story come alive.

By all indications, the Zeitouns—Kathy and Abdulrahman—were a successful couple in New Orleans. They owned a construction and painting business and had a vibrant family with four girls. Abdulrahman, a Syrian American who had spent a lifetime wandering the seas, settled in New Orleans in 1994 and married Kathy, a convert to Islam.

Years later, when Hurricane Katrina came knocking, true to pattern, Abdulrahman stayed behind figuring he would need to hunker down only for a day or two. “Their business wasn’t a simple one, where you could lock an office door and leave,” Eggers writes explaining why the decision might have been a hard one to make, “Leaving the city meant leaving all their properties, leaving their tenants’ homes and this they couldn’t do unless absolutely necessary.”

But of course, as we know, things got very bad quickly and Abdulrahman finds his house deep in water. He begins to sleep on the roof in a small tent and uses a canoe he once bought, to help stranded neighbors. He takes comfort in providing some measure of help to his fellow citizens and especially to a few dogs that he takes to regularly feeding every day. As the situation gets worse, as the water gets increasingly toxic, as the looting starts, and the law and order situation gets increasingly shaky, Kathy pleads with her husband to leave. Abdulrahman is still adamant—he is of more use here in New Orleans, he insists. What would he really do away from home waiting for word to get back and merely worrying about his property and business?

So stay he does until one day a group of armed government officers show up at his door and Abdulrahman suddenly finds himself under arrest. He is taken to a makeshift prison at the nearby Greyhound station—the charges against him are unknown. At first Zeitoun naively suspects he is taken into custody because he ignored the mandatory evacuation order. Soon it becomes apparent that his ethnicity and his religion might have something to do with his being held without contact, charges, bail or trial.

Having once fished with his brothers in Syria, Zeitoun accurately uses the metaphor “bycatch” to describe his being caught in the government’s war on terror. “It was a fishing term,” Eggers writes, “…when they pulled in the net, there were thousands of sardines, of course, but there were other creatures too, life they had not intended to catch and for which they had no use.”

The book is full of touching details—you can tell Eggers has done his homework. Family pictures flesh out the characters well. While he was held in prison, Abdulrahman’s brother in Spain, Ahmad, writes letters to American authorities, desperate for any information about his brother. These letters—fractured English and all—bring out the plight of the family extremely effectively.

Prison was full of horrors: “The guards alternated between the pepper spray and the beanbag gun, shooting the men and women in the cages,” Eggers writes. Kathy’s plight as she waits for word from her husband and eventually fights for his release, is also detailed well.

Almost as horrifying as Zeitoun’s ordeal are the gross inefficiencies of the response system with its totally absurd set of priorities. For one, “while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and overpasses,” vast amounts of money and energy were being spent on building a complex and efficient prison at the local Greyhound station. Then there were the fan boats which were deployed right after the storm, but which missed calls for help because they were so darned noisy. Months later the Zeitouns have a FEMA trailer deposited on their property for weeks on end—without a set of keys to actually use it. Authorities at local prisons don’t have records of Katrina refugees coming through—“they’re FEMA’s” is the standard reply. Zeitoun chronicles many of these and as such casual asides that they end up making a deeper impact on the reader than any polemic material could.

Kudos go to Dave Eggers who has increasingly used the power of his pen to tell the stories that need to be told. In the incredible What is the What, which I really loved, Eggers chronicled the horrors of war through the eyes of a Sudanese teenage refugee. Here too, Eggers lays bare the heartbreaking story of a man who is subjected to untold horrors simply because of one of the most bizarre confluences of American history and natural disaster. Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Zeitoun is a must-read. It’s heartbreaking to see someone so much in love with his country be betrayed by a justice system gone awry. “In the grand scheme of the country’s blind, grasping fight against threats seen and unseen, there would be mistakes made.” Eggers writes.

“This country was fallible,” Zeitoun sadly realizes. Yes, it is. This sobering realization—that there are hundreds of such “bycatch” in our government’s war on terror—sinks in slowly. It is a realization that is hard to swallow but is also what makes Zeitoun such a riveting read.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 492 readers
PUBLISHER: McSweeney’s (July 15, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More New Orleans stories:

Fictional experience of post 9-11 fear:




September 19, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Humorous, New Orleans, Non-fiction

One Response

  1. Judi Clark - November 19, 2009

    Dave Eggers won the 2009 National Book Award’s “The Literarian Award” which was announced last night.

    Here’s a link for more information and on this award and why it was presented to Dave Eggers:

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