Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872
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 becomes increasingly clear that, in the chaos after Katrina, no one is responsible: “You’re not our prisoner,” guards at Hunt tell him; “You’re FEMA’s problem.” Zeitoun realizes that there is “something broken in the country.” This fourth section ends with further frustrations, as a hearing for Zeitoun is scheduled and then canceled without explanation, and character witnesses whom Kathy and a lawyer have gathered are dismissed. Kathy is finally reunited with her husband three hundred pages into Zeitoun. He has lost twenty pounds, and he looks to her after his twenty-three-day ordeal like a sad old man.
Part 5 brings whatever closure can be found in a tragedy such as this. It is the fall of 2008, three years after the hurricane, but Kathy is still suffering from multiple medical complaints, including loss of memory. Her medical tests indicate that she is a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. The worst part of the ordeal, she says, was after she knew Zeitoun was alive at Hunt Correctional Centera missionary delivering Bibles to cells took her phone number from Zeitoun and called herbut was not allowed to see him or even know where a court hearing might be held. It was being told by an unknown woman on the telephone that the hearing’s site was private information that did the most damage.
Zeitoun’s problems do not stop when he is released. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer is delivered to the family’s house, but it sits unused for months because the agency fails to deliver either keys to unlock it or steps to access the entrance. Finally, the trailer is carted away unused. Zeitoun returns to work, but Kathy works less now. The couple has a son, Ahmad, named after Zeitoun’s brother in Spain. His brother worked hard to find him while Zeitoun was missing, sending e-mails around the world trying to locate him and then helping Kathy free him.
The family’s business is back on its feet, and Zeitoun and his crews have restored 114 New Orleans homes. Legal relief for Zeitoun’s treatment proves elusive, however. Lawsuits go nowhere, police officers who arrested Zeitoun claim no responsibility for what later happened to him, and Zeitoun cannot even get his wallet back from the authorities at the Amtrak station. It is being held as evidence, an assistant district attorney tells him. He will not explain what it is evidence of, however.
Eggers intrudes very little into his account for he knows that it speaks for itself. It is clear that no one person is to blame: “Zeitoun’s ordeal was caused instead by systemic ignorance and malfunction.” Zeitoun was arrested because he was a Middle Easterner; because the United States was still in a security and cultural posture shaped by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and because the federal government treated Katrina as if it wereor could becomea terrorist attack. In Phoenix, Kathy heard President George W. Bush compare the storm to the September 11 attacks and the war on terror in his weekly radio address. In such a hysterical atmosphere, rumor and confusion naturally follow.
Government fanboats sped by Zeitoun’s waves for help, and soldiers ignored his warnings about other stranded residents. News accounts fueled racist assumptions about murders in the city; even the chief of police claimed on national television that babies were being raped in the Superdome, where thousands of people sought shelter during the flooding. While Zeitoun and the others were being held in the chain-link cages at the Passenger Terminal, they realized from the new materials that officials must have been making plans for the building of this makeshift prison within a day of the storm. The complex and difficult job of constructing and staffing these outdoor cells, which would eventually hold more than twelve hundred men and women, “was completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses.”
Hundreds of cases of water and prepared meals were delivered to the guards and their prisoners, while city residents nearby were fighting for food and water. The government’s focus on terrorists warped everyone’s sense of values in this natural disaster. Zeitoun’s tragedy, given the federal mind-set, was inevitable. As Mark Twain wrote, in one of Eggers’s epigraphs to the book, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The final ten pages of appendixes in the book explain much, and they offer a glimmer of hope. The first appendix describes the Zeitoun Foundation, an organization founded in 2009 by the Zeitoun family, the author, and the publisher to help rebuild New Orleans and “to promote respect for human rights in the United States and around the world.” Eggers lists ten nonprofit organizations that were the first recipients of grants generated by the sale of Zeitoun. These include Rebuilding Together, which rehabilitates houses of low-income homeowners, and the Green Project, which sells building materials salvaged in the New Orleans area. In his acknowledgments section, Eggers lists the people he and the Zeitouns want to thank, the books and articles that were crucial to his project, and the agencies and organizations that provided necessary information. Finally, in a note on process and methodology, Eggers describes how the book came about: A team of volunteers from Voice of Witnessa McSweeney’s book series that uses oral history to highlight human rights crisesproduced Voices from the Storm (2005), and the Zeitoun story in that book struck Eggers. He gathered research and interviews and wrote the book over the next three years.
Zeitoun is a straightforward account with a compelling momentum to it, and Eggers wisely lets the story tell itself. However, Eggers is, among his many roles, a novelist, and the style of the book reflects his concern for language. In particular, readers will notice persistent animal imagery: Dogs are everywhere, barking in hunger, floating dead in the floodwaters, and even guarding the cages at the bus station ironically nicknamed Camp Greyhound. Zeitoun and the other prisoners are caged and treated as though they were animals. In the most horrific image of the book, after his release Zeitoun returns to find the dogs he had been feeding waiting by the windows for his next visit, dead of starvation. The line between men and animals, Eggers suggests, is very thin. Zeitoun wonders early in the book why Americans sometimes fall short of their ideal. Zeitoun is evidence of how American democracywith the help of dedicated people and organizationscan periodically right itself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37
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.