Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, is one of those books everyone should read, not only because it touches on relevant social phenomena but also because it’s a deft demonstration that high-end narrative non-fiction can enchant and thrill just like any romance or thriller. With a perfect blend of exposition and scene, Eggers soothes the reader into a shared reality with a family of six, a successful domestic unit with multicultural heritage in our shrinking world: Abdulrahman, a hardworking immigrant from Syria. Kathy, a proud natural-born American who converted to Islam. Their children, four American youngsters who adore the movie Pride and Prejudice. Their history, an authentic blend of family quirks too odd for fiction but skillfully portrayed in Eggers’s well-timed account.
This story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina comes on like a hurricane. Calm pervades the first third of the book. We hope alongside Zeitoun that the storm will spare his business, his home. Just like citizens sitting in a deserted city in front of a satellite image of a hurricane about to make landfall, we want to believe that it really can’t be as bad as predicted. We’ve weathered storms like this before. And look, the damage really isn’t so bad.
Then reality barges in. Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in American history, obliterates the city of New Orleans, which is just the beginning for Zeitoun and his family. Hurricane Katrina sets the stage for Eggers to rattle our windows until they shatter, tear the roof from our house. The Zeitoun family becomes collateral damage of a national psyche steeped in fear of the other, a victim of bad decisions by soldiers returned from combat, of government panicking at the cries of sensationalist media. Through Egger’s crystal clear lens, we suffer with Abdulrahman Zeitoun the abuse of humanity without heart, and the wound goes deep because even Zeitoun, a Muslim immigrant in America, had come to expect more.
The country he had left thirty years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there, then and now, that precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States.
Zeitoun is crushed at the nexus of two debacles: the war on terror and the handling of Hurricane Katrina. Through his story, we become aware that the public devastation of Katrina put in place a setting ripe for private terror – of the vulnerable and the persecuted. We become aware that “this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in a barrel. The barrel itself was rotten.”
“She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmed sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us?”
Zeitoun makes us ask questions, questions of ourselves and of our nation. Would I be the one to stand up and say no? How do we stop the system from going too far? What are we willing to do in the name of preventing terror? What’s to be done if I, like Abdulrahman, step out of my naiveté and acknowledge that “every piece of machinery – the police, the military, the prisons – that was meant to protect people like him was devouring anyone who got close”?
This story is not without hope. Though lasting and awful, one family’s suffering brought this book to the hands of many. By way of Dave Eggers fine storytelling and unembellished prose, we can see what needs to be righted. We can come at our daily lives with more compassion. We can be more like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who “is sure that God is watching the work he and Kathy and his men are doing, so it must be done with great care and even, he tells his crews, with soul.”
Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. Vintage Books, New York, 2009.
(All author proceeds from [Zeitoun] go to the Zeitoun Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and fostering interfaith understanding. www.zeitounfoundation.org )