Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (New York: Vintage Books, 2009. 368 pp)

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Dave Eggers attended the University of Illinois but dropped out to take care of his younger brother in the wake of his parent’s death. These experiences are chronicled in Eggers’ best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In addition to published works, he has founded McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house, and 826 National, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids 6-18 in urban areas across the nation.

Mistakes We Knew We Were Making

Imagine making a colossal mistake. I’m not talking about burning a turkey or showing up late for a date. I’m talking about losing-your-job big. Often times, mistakes at this level drastically affect others. When you disappoint, or even worse, harm others, you better take some time to learn from your mistake. In Dave Eggers’ non-fiction novel, Zeitoun, we learn about a person whose life is irreversibly altered by one of these colossal mistakes.

Eggers’ Zeitoun documents the Hurricane Katrina disaster through the lens of New Orleans resident, Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

The Zeitouns 

Raised in Syria and a devout Muslim, Zeitoun immigrated to the United States in 1988. Married to an American, Kathy Zeitoun, with 5 children, Abdulrahman owns Zeitoun A. Painting Contractors, a successful local business.

“Kathy was one of nine children, and had grown up with very little, and Zeitoun, the eighth of thirteen children, had been raised with almost nothing. To see the two of them now, to stand back and assess what they’d built—a sprawling family, a business of distinct success, and to be woven so thoroughly into the fabric of their adopted city that they had friends in every neighborhood, clients on almost any block they passed—and these were all blessings from God” (14).

While Friday, August 26 2005, begins like any other day. The swirling storm pressing forward through the Caribbean offers only slight unease since the Zeitouns encountered hurricanes before. Even though bunkering during the storm is a necessity, hurricanes provide opportunities for profit as Zeitoun’s clients request houses boarded up.

But, with Katrina gathering steam over the Gulf of Mexico, Kathy assembles the children and evacuates to Baton Rouge as a precaution.

An Emerging Catastrophe 

Photo by NASA

Zeitoun, on the other hand, remains in New Orleans holding down the fort in the hopes of minimizing damage to the Zeitoun’s home as well as their many rental properties. Even though Kathy requests her husband’s presence in the evacuation, she knows the difficulties of convincing this bull-headed man. The notion of her husband weathering this storm is frightening.

“She thought again of her husband. The images she’d seen on the news were absurd, really—the storm looked like a white circular saw heading directly for New Orleans. On those satellite images the city looked so small compared to the hurricane, such a tiny thing about to be cut to pieces by that gigantic spinning blade. And her husband was just a man alone in a wooden house” (57).

For the most part, Katrina passes with no major adverse effects to the Zeitoun house. Only after the storm does the water begin to rise.

“But the water was clean. It was translucent, almost green in tint. He watched it fill his dining room, momentarily struck by the beauty of the sight” (87-88).

With the city 15 feet underwater, Zeitoun undergoes rescue operations. In the first days, he coordinates food delivery and rescue of his neighbors from the safety of his secondhand canoe. He also takes it upon himself to feed the hungry, left behind dogs of his neighborhood. While Kathy and the rest of the country observes the unfolding catastrophe from the newsroom of CNN, Zeitoun finds true purpose in the early post-Katrina days.

 “He was certain he had been called to stay, that God knew he would be of service if he remained. His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will” (110).

But this sense of calling quickly turns to horror when New Orleans police and the National Guard arrest Zeitoun and some of his neighbors for “looting” on Zeitoun’s own property.

More Punishment than Crime 

Confident the misunderstanding would soon be alleviated, Zeitoun’s certainty diminishes when he finds himself and his neighbors thrown in Camp Greyhound, a temporary prison set up at the bus station and his rights in abeyance under the suspicion of ties to Al-Qaeda.

“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. After 9/11, he and Kathy knew that many imaginations had run amok, that the introduction of the idea of ‘sleeper cells’—groups of would-be terrorists living in the U.S. and waiting, for years or decades, to strike—meant that everyone at their mosque, or the entire mosque itself, might be waiting for instructions from their presumed leaders in the hills of Afghanistan or Pakistan” (212-213).

What Katrina Tells Us about America 

New Orleans Flooding
Zeitoun is a heartbreaking story on multiple levels. For starters, Eggers describes the Katrina aftermath in excruciating detail. Without trying to get too political here, Katrina breaks my heart equally due to the failure of government institutions and individual citizens. While the shocking stories create the buzz, it is equally sad to hear about a man trying his best to help others in the wake of a catastrophe only to become unjustly imprisoned.

Even more, Zeitoun directs us to the unwelcome truth surrounding the American war on terror. Whether we admit it or not, too many Americans associate the acts of radical individuals with an entire people group. Instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, Zeitoun reminds us of the possibility of targeting innocent people.

We’re all broken. We will make mistakes. But it is important to recognize them quickly, make reparations, and learn to not make the same mistake twice. Even still, some mistakes will change people to the core. We all need to understand the gravity of the choices we make.

If you’re a fan of the non-fiction novel, if you’re interested in the effects of injustice, or if you want to learn more about true stories from Katrina, check out Zeitoun.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Where were you when Katrina hit? How has the media’s portrayal of the event shaped the way you remember the hurricane? Does Zeitoun’s story enrage you? How do you feel about the engrained prejudices Americans still hold?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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3 Comments Leave a comment
  • Jessica

    I have this book but I have yet to read it. The media coverage of the event in the UK now and then does not reflect well on America. More to do with the lack of help.

    • Donovan Richards

      Thanks for the comment, Jessica. Zeitoun won't change your mind about Katrina. It reinforces the shambolic response of the U.S. government to the disaster. But, I enjoy Eggers' writing. Have you read anything else by Dave Eggers?

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