Zeitoun is the new non-fiction book by Dave Eggers. If you’re a regular here, you know that I am an Eggers enthusiast. I am also from New Orleans, and I have been selectively reading from the pile of Hurricane Katrina-related books that have been coming out at a steady clip. Therefore, a Katrina-related book by Dave Eggers inserts itself directly onto the top of my to-be-read pile.
With Zeitoun, Eggers does for New Orleans AND post-9/11 hysteria what he did for the Lost Boys of the Sudan with his non-fiction masterpiece What is the What.
The book begins with an epigraph by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:
…in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime…
Certainly, a post-apocalyptic reference is fitting enough for a Katrina story. It is this particular reference with its foreshadowing of punishment that makes it particularly apropos for the story of Zeitoun, a story that had to be told.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a New Orleanian by way of his native Syria. He came to the U.S. largely by chance, and stayed to create a better life for himself. He is a husband and family man, a religious Muslim, and a successful and respected building contractor. His Katrina story begins almost exactly the same as everyone else’s, with a decision: should I stay or should I go? As you might surmise from the cover, Zeitoun chose to stay.
With his family safely out of town, Zeitoun finds himself in one piece after the storm. He sets off in his canoe to explore the city and look after his interests around town (job sites, rental properties, business office, etc). Zeitoun saves the lives of several people after the storm and looks after the abandoned pets of neighbors. He meets up with a few acquaintances, and they work together to survive and help out where they can.
Zeitoun is overcome with a sense of purpose, and he comes to believe that God has placed him in New Orleans to this end: to help others in need. The rude awakening, and the book’s gripping second half, comes when Zeitoun is arrested while standing in the hallway of a house that he owns for what amounts to “being suspicious”. What follows is a Dante-esque descent into hell that has to be read to be believed.
Eggers first encountered Zeitoun’s story in the McSweeney’s-published Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. In the afterword Eggers says that the Zeitoun family’s story stuck with him, and he visited them the next time he was in New Orleans. He says, “from our first talk it was clear that there was more to their story…and so began an almost-three-year process…”
To tell Zeitoun’s story, Eggers interviewed Zeitoun and his wife at length, and traveled to Syria and Spain to interview other family members. He visited the jail where Zeitoun and his friends ultimately found themselves incarcerated. Eggers even found the arresting officers to get their first hand account. As a piece of journalism, this is book was no minor undertaking.
Like What is the What, Zeitoun is a compelling true story that reads like great fiction. The author removes himself from the subjects’ story entirely, letting the tale speak for itself. Zeitoun is also like What is the What in that although both stories speak of incredible injustices and personal tragedy, they are both, somehow, uplifting and .
Like its predecessor, all of the author’s proceeds have been donated to a foundation run by the book’s subject that will use the money for philanthropic purposes. If you liked What is the What, it is a safe bet that Zeitoun is for you. It is an incredible story that deserves to be widely read.