We’ve written before at Book Group Buzz about Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun, the tale of one man’s horrible trip through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I included it in a round-up of the best Katrina reading and Misha highlighted a discussion of the book, including some well-written questions. Having just finished this marvelous book myself, I still have to comment. It’s a terrifying work, but one full of beautiful images, memorable moments that capture the aftermath of Katrina in microcosm. Abdulrahman Zeitoun decided to ride out Katrina because as a contractor and landlord, he felt he should stay and look after his family home, his business, and the interest of tenants to whom he rented living space. His wife and children left for higher ground, but Zeitoun stayed on. He weathered the storm rather well, despite major flooding in his house, and spent the days after Katrina paddling around in a used canoe, rescuing people, feeding animals, and doing other small good deeds. Because his main residence was flooded, he had moved with three other men into sleeping quarters at the house of one of his tenants. The four, two Caucasian, two of Syrian descent, were surprised by a raid by a mixed force of police and national guardsmen.

Told that they were suspected, on the most meager of “evidence,” of being al-Qaeda terrorists, the four were taken first to a horrifying prison camp built at a New Orleans bus station, then to a regular prison. They were never given access to legal counsel, presented with formal charges, or even given a phone call. All the money and credit cards they had with them were taken, never to be seen again (including one’s life savings that he was guarding personally in a duffle bag). On American soil, they were essentially made to disappear. Zeitoun was actually the luckiest, he spent only a month in prison (a cleric finally reported his presence to his wife), while the others spent at least four months each in jail.

Despite Zeitoun’s birth in Syria, as Eggers depicts him he is a figure out of American folk legend, a self-made man with a fierce work ethic. Although he is a practicing Muslim, and has seen abuse of the civil rights of others, particularly after 9/11, he doesn’t seem especially political. He’s more concerned with maintaining his family, protecting his property, and doing the right thing. He’s the rugged individual, paddling his little canoe alone through a flooded landscape after the big storm has turned his world on end. Thus, his arrest, when you get to it in the book, comes as a big shock, and the thoughtless behavior he receives from the “justice system” has to leave one cringing, wondering if Americans have any real civil rights when the pressure is on.

Recent events have shown that Zeitoun is no saint–he’s been charged with domestic battery and his marriage seems to have collapsed. Even before reading of these charges, I had the sense that Eggers was careful to construct his case in a particular light. We’ve all seen enough reports of authorial tinkering and outright falsehood in nonfiction to know that any re-creation of historical events needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, essential indisputable in this story are enough to give this reader a strong case of the willies. For instance, one can’t deny that FEMA put thousands of man hours and massive resources into building a gulag-like prison in the heart of New Orleans at a time when thousands still awaited rescue and lacked access to clean food, water, shelter, or medical care.

Years have passed since Katrina, and perhaps the fervor to hunt terrorists at whatever cost has somewhat diminished. One would like to hope that in today’s climate, and after lessons learned from events like Katrina, that the same kinds of abuses and mistakes would be less likely during a new disaster. Then again, maybe that’s not the case, and I think your book group will find a fruitful discussion in debating this rather fundamental question. Zeitoun is a story that will continue to resonate for many years to come.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Zeitoun"

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  1. misha says:

    Great post, Neil. I learned about the domestic abuse charges from the comment on my post. It did make me think about how that information would have impacted my group’s discussion of the book. Whether Zeitoun is viewed as a hero by readers or not is less the point for me, anyway, than those irrefutable, chilling facts that the book details and the human cost of the government whose response clearly led with the assumption of ill intention before one of help.

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