Zeitoun (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun is a frightening book, telling a story of terrible and unexpected consequences of the terrorist threat to the United States. An immigrant from Syria, Abdulrahman Zeitoun in 2005 had lived and worked in the United States for seventeen years, the last eleven in New Orleans. Through hard work, he built a successful business, “Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC,” as the logo on his old truck read. With his wife Kathy handling the office and administrative owrk, Zeitoun had multiple job sites in the city. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their three daughters, plus Kathy’s son, lived together in their two-story house on Dart Street. The Zeitouns also owned a combined office-warehouse space, as well as six rental properties with eighteen tenants.
Then, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. Kathy fled with the children, first to a sister’s house in Baton Rouge and then to the home of a childhood friend in a suburb of Phoenix. Zeitoun stubbornly refused to leave. He had properties to watch over, he told his wife, and their home would be safer if he was there to patch holes and fix leaks. When the levees failed, Zeitoun carried valuables to the second story of their house and waited out the storm. Soon, he was sleeping on the roof in a tent and paddling around the city in an old canoe. He helped rescue others who remained in the city and needed help, and he fed dogs that were abandoned by their owners. He ran into other people who stayed behind and were helping one another, and they converted a Zeitoun property on Claiborne Street that was not flooded and had a working phone into a small emergency center. “He had never felt such urgency and purpose,” Eggers relates.
Eggers tells this story from the perspectives of Zeitoun and Kathy, as they live through the hurricane and struggle to survive and to stay in touch with each other. As the drama builds, Eggers fills in their backgrounds: Zeitoun grew up in a small coastal town in Syria in a large, high-achieving family; many of the more than a dozen photographs in the book are of this family. He worked for ten years on ships (starting out serving under his older brother Ahmad), ended in Houston, stayed in the United States, and eventually moved to New Orleans. Kathy is thirteen years younger than Zeitoun, was raised a Southern Baptist in Baton Rouge, converted to Islam, and met and married Zeitoun. Theirs is an American success story, of people living out their dreams through a commitment to marriage, family, and career.
Eggers’s story of Katrina and the people it affected takes more than half the book, and then the real tragedy strikesnot the natural disaster but the humanmade one that immediately follows. Zeitoun and the three friends who have been helping him are picked up at the Claiborne house by half a dozen police and military personnel and hustled to the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. They are thrown into outdoor cells made of chain-link fences topped by razor wire set up in the station parking lot. No one explains why they are being held, but their civil rights are immediately suspended, and they are not even allowed to make phone calls. They are accused of being looters, but, more important, because of the Syrian-born Zeitoun and Nasser, they are suspected of being terrorists. After several days in these cageswhere Zeitoun cannot sleep on the filthy pavement and where they are fed meals he cannot eat because they contain pork productsthey are moved to the Hunt Correctional Center, forty miles north of New Orleans. There, the abuse continues. Zeitoun and Nasser are put in a six-by-eight foot cell, and Zeitoun, who is now suffering from several medical problems, is not allowed to see a doctor.
The book is divided into five parts, and Zeitoun disappears from the third and middle section, as his ordeal is occurring. In this section, readers have access to the Zeitouns’ story only from Kathy’s point of view, as she grows increasingly frantic trying to locate her husband. All she can think of are the twenty-eight thousand weapons that have been rushed into New Orleans with National Guard, Blackwater, and other police and military units, and all she can imagine is her husband shot and dying anonymously in some jail or hospital. Part 4 of the book begins thirty pages later, as Eggers picks up Zeitoun’s story, and readers learn what has happened to him after the end of part 2 during his arrest and incarceration.
Zeitoun is finally interviewed by Department of Homeland Security personnel at the Hunt Correctional Center, but it...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
American Heritage 59, no. 4 (Winter, 2010): 98.
Library Journal 135, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 63.
The New York Times Book Review, August 16, 2009, p. 1.
The New Yorker 85, no. 26 (August 31, 2009): 79.
People 72, no. 10 (September 7, 2009): 56.
The Sunday Times (London), August 23, 2009, p. 19.
The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2009, p. W7.