Mona's Reviews > Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
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Feb 04, 10

bookshelves: life-stories, nonfiction, social-justice-human-rights, united-states, small-press
Read in December, 2009

When I first started reading news reports of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I was reminded of Blindness by Jose Saramago. Though that book concerns a mass epidemic of blindness with unknown causes, not a natural disaster, Saramago explored the moral breakdown of society that results when people – and the law – stop caring about what it means to be human. I remember the reports coming out of New Orleans were eerily similar to the incidents described in Blindness: family separation, looting, disease, violence, overwhelming apathy, and total disregard for human life.

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun is both a rebuttal and a confirmation of that portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans. The book is a matter-of-fact account about one American family’s experiences during and following Hurricane Katrina. Kathy takes her three daughters and son to safety, leaving behind her husband, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, to care for their businesses and home. When the levees break and New Orleans is submerged under water, Zeitoun’s childhood in a Syrian fishing town and his possession of a canoe enable him to move through the flooded city with some ease. He checks in on his tenants, feeds abandoned pets, and saves lives. Though his family worries about his safety, he assures them that he has seen very little of the looting and violence that permeates much of the news coverage. Zeitoun is unassuming, humble, and empathetic, a man of honorable sensibilities.

If the story ended there, we would have a man-overcomes-all-odds type of story that no doubt would have been shouted from the rooftops, possibly even made into a big-budget feature film. But the stark reality is that Hurricane Katrina, compounded by city and state officials’ failure to reinforce unwieldy infrastructure prior to the storm, left an enormous trail of devastation. The Bush Administration’s wholly inadequate humanitarian assistance as well as its prior and subsequent record of arcane, unfair, and cruel methods of meting out justice only made the situation worse. Zeitoun was caught in the crosshairs and the second half of his story uncovers an even harsher reality than the news coverage of violence in post-Katrina New Orleans has portrayed. I will not go into specifics here, but the second half of the book is shocking, sobering, angering, and sad.

What Eggers does so well with this story is to tell it in the most straightforward voice possible. There are no blatant, biased judgments in this book. You, as the reader, can draw your own, but Eggers will never make them for you. He provides some context for the story – there are factual statements detailing, among other things, the path of the hurricane, when city officials began making announcements urging New Orleans residents to leave the city, when the levees broke, and when the U.S. National Guard arrived in the city afterwards.

But the focus here is on Zeitoun and his family, and they are extremely likeable protagonists. Within the first few pages, I was hooked. Zeitoun’s memories of Syria and how he came to America, his and Kathy’s retellings of the way they first met, their relationship with each other as well as their kids, and their absolute faith in God would all make for pretty extraordinary stories on their own. But it’s the Zeitouns’ strength and courage in facing the natural and man-made disasters that came with Hurricane Katrina that make this book one of the best I’ve read in a long, long time.

There are some books you pick up for entertainment or educational value. Zeitoun might be a book like that for some people. For me, not only is it the kind of book that I’m thinking about months after I read it, but it’s also the kind of book that I need to share with others. Within days of finishing it, I passed my copy on to no less than three family members. This is a big thing for me because I hate lending out my books (especially to family members, because I don’t seem to get those books back). But the message of this book is too important not to share. So for anyone who does end up reading all the way through this lengthy review, my point is this: read it. It’s highly, highly recommended.


I want to address a few comments I've seen in other reviews. First, there are some reader-reviewers who focus on the fact that the Zeitouns are a Muslim family. While that is certainly true, I believe it's dangerous to characterize the message of the book as one that simply portrays "the plight of Muslims in post-9/11 America." (I didn't get that quote from any one review but from an amalgamation of multiple reviews both on and off of Goodreads.)

What Zeitoun goes through in the second half of the book can - and did - happen to people who were not Muslim. And though the Zeitouns are Muslims, that does not represent the extent of their identity. Like every other American family in New Orleans, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun faced many obstacles in protecting their kids, home, and businesses, and like every other family that returned to New Orleans, they face the ongoing struggle of rebuilding what they once had.

Second, some reader-reviewers complain about the way in which Eggers told this story and argue that it is not up to par with his usual writing. Since this is my first Eggers book, I cannot address those concerns adequately. But Eggers came to the city where I live recently to talk about one of his prior books, What is the What. In his discussion, he said he chooses carefully the manner of storytelling for each book. For What is the What, he originally began with a nonfiction style. But once he realized he might not be able to confirm certain aspects or details of Valentino Achak Deng's story, he was afraid the book would get attacked for possible inaccuracies (see reaction to Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone). Such reactions unfortunately may detract from the public's willingness to read a particular book. So he went with a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, and a first-person perspective, and those ultimately worked best for Deng's story.

But with Zeitoun, Eggers found several resources to confirm Zeitoun's story and to add to the effectiveness of telling it. And he felt that readers might be more drawn to Zeitoun's story if there was little fabrication. I agree with Eggers' choice here: the story speaks for itself. There is no need for fabrication.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Hena nice review! i agree with you - zeitoun is a book that everyone needs to read. and if people have the means, they should buy it, since all the proceeds go to victims of katrina.

people need to read this book - it shows the true ugly side of america that we can't ignore.

Mona Yes, definitely buy it! And apart from the story, it's a beautifully made book. It definitely made me a new fan of McSweeney's.

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