Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
reviewed by Thom McClendon
Department of History
Warning: this review gives away some key elements of the story.
This is a story of the American dream and the dark currents that threaten to drown it in a militarized and extra-legal America after 9/11.
Two stories converged in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed in August and September of 2005. One is the story of a unique American city, down at the heels but culturally rich, that suddenly found itself in the national spotlight in ways that exposed characteristics unsuspected by conventioneers strolling through the French Quarter. The other is the story of a man-made disaster compounded by government heartlessness, inefficiency, and secrecy that left over a thousand New Orleanians dead in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun, about the eponymous painting contractor who stayed in the city during and after the storm, and his wife Kathy, tells us little about the characteristics of New Orleans in normal times. We hear nothing about music, food (other than Popeye’s chicken), or Mardi Gras culture. Eggers tells us nothing about racial divisions and complications in a city that was founded on slavery. But Zeitoun illuminates the experience of the flood in a way that takes us far from the scenes of devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward and chaos in the Convention Center. In this book, we see the storm and the flood through the eyes of a successful small-business owner, a Syrian immigrant paddling through the city in his second-hand canoe trying to help his neighbors.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Middle Eastern origins and his wife’s status as a white American-born convert to Islam shed new light on New Orleans. Like other American cities, this is a city of immigrants. Some arrived as French soldiers or African slaves or Spanish merchants in the 18th century. More came as American bankers, Irish laborers, or American slaves imported from the upper South in the 19th century. And others, like Zeitoun, a former merchant seaman and his Baton Rouge-born wife, alighted in this port city in the 20th century and set out to build a business and a family.
The story is told entirely from the point of view of Zeitoun and Kathy, beginning on the Friday before the storm that hit the city on Monday morning August 29. On Friday morning, we learn, Katrina was just another hurricane in the Gulf region, not much affecting the consciousness of busy New Orleans residents who live through hurricane season every year. But by the end of that day, there were increasingly dire predictions that the storm might grow in strength and hit the city. Like hundreds of thousands of other residents of New Orleans and along the coast, Kathy packed up her kids and dog and left that Saturday. But she could not persuade her husband to leave. He was determined to stay to look after their own house—two stories and well provisioned with food—as well as their office and a number of rental properties they owned. We now see this as foolish, and assume that everyone who could get out (many could not, due to lack of transportation) did. This story and others I have read, however, demonstrate that many veterans of hurricane-evacuations (none mandatory before this one) stayed in the city for similar reasons. But few of those who voluntarily braved the storm had the harrowing experiences that befell Zeitoun or the agony that came to his wife and family. The fact that anyone had such experiences—not to mention that tens of thousands of poor people were simply abandoned to the storm and flood—is deeply unnerving to those who want to believe that our country is somehow different from say, authoritarian Syria. (At one point, Kathy is on the phone with her sister-in-law in Syria, who is watching images from the flood and asks how Kathy can live in such an unsafe country!)
Zeitoun’s experiences of the flood, as related by Eggers, seem at first like a grand adventure. When the storm waters first recede, then begin to rise rapidly around his house (bringing the realization that a levee or levees, which are miles from his house, must have failed) Zeitoun takes charge of his situation. After retreating to his second floor, he begins to paddle around his neighborhood in his canoe, comically reliving his family’s seafaring heritage. But his quiet approach enables him to hear the distress cries of trapped elderly neighbors, even as military parties speed by in fan boats, hearing nothing and stopping for nothing. He enlists other private boat operators to effect a number of rescues. He undertakes the regular feeding of dogs left behind by neighbors who assumed they would be back in a day or two after the evacuation.
But then this romantic tale takes a darkly tragic turn. Zeitoun, a Syrian friend, a tenant, and another man are roughly arrested (for no reason they can discern) at one of his rental properties. They soon find themselves incarcerated in cages erected on the bare asphalt in a hastily converted bus station: Camp Greyhound. The look of the place reminded Zeitoun of nothing so much as pictures he had seen of Guantanamo Bay. While guards, some of them veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, accuse Zeitoun and his fellow immigrant of being “Taliban” or “Al Qaeda,” and taunt them with pork-based MRE meals, no formal charges are brought, and they are not allowed to make a phone call or to see a lawyer. Their transfer, a few days later, to a Louisiana prison brings the expectation that a more orderly process will emerge, but in fact the nightmare continues. A chance encounter with a missionary, who phones Kathy at Zeitoun’s request, leads eventually to Zeitoun’s release, after more than three weeks of incarceration.
It is unsurprising that the difficult conditions created by the storm (though it should be noted, and noted again, that those difficult conditions were due to inadequately constructed levees, a federal responsibility) led to some mistaken arrests. What is deeply disturbing is the way Zeitoun and his fellow captives were treated, with no regard whatsoever for the requirements of law. Kathy and Zeitoun’s brother Ahmad, a resident of Spain, had both been in regular phone contact with Zeitoun from the rental house (which had a rare working phone after the storm) and were surprised, then despondent, when he suddenly disappeared.
Zeitoun, then, focuses our attention on two very important American stories. One is the story of Hurricane Katrina’s flood, a product of government neglect of critical infrastructure (and misguided engineering of the river system—a complicated topic) and failure to rescue citizens left stranded in the city as a result or their poverty or infirmity (along with some cases of stubbornness). The other is a story of the dark forces that have undermined the rule of law in America since 9/11 (or, in longer perspective, since the Cold War). While Zeitoun tells us little about what is unique about New Orleans as an American city, it tells us a great deal indeed about what has gone wrong with America. The ability of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun to persevere in spite of all this is inspiring.
Eggers and the Zeitouns have established the Zeitoun Foundation “to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans and to promote respect for human rights in the United States and around the world.” I urge you to read this book and to contribute to the foundation.