Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun

Dave Eggers' Zeitoun tells the story of a Syrian immigrant after Hurricane Katrina.

This August 29 will mark five years since Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on New Orleans, a city that was like no other.

The city and entire Gulf region still bear the imprint of the epic destruction.

Many people who left there have never returned, despite their profound desire to do so.

The biblical devastation has led to an outpouring of books from authors like historians Michael Eric Dyson and Douglas Brinkley and journalists like Jed Horne, who worked along with the rest of the heroic Times-Picayune staff to put out the paper throughout the crisis.

While President Bush, FEMA and Michael Brown’s callow handling of the hurricane and its aftermath have received plenty of well-deserved derision, people’s choices to stay and wait out the storm have gotten less.

Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun tells the tale of a Syrian-born immigrant and well-respected businessman who sends off his wife and their four children, initially helps hurricane victims and then becomes caught up in the vicissitudes of post-September 11 anti-terrorism paranoia.

Many thanks to dear friend and reader Cheryl Flack, who lent the book to Dunreith and me.

It is hard not to be aware of Eggers’ many contributions to the literary scene.

In addition to his own writing, which has moved from his recounting of his life after losing his parents to chronicling individual stories like Zeitoun’s that both contain gripping personal material and that highlight injustice, Eggers has created the publishing house McSweeney’s, Voices of Witness, a series of books that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises, and 826 Valencia, a project that works with young people in cities to improve their writing skills.

In Zeitoun, he focuses on the 47-year-old Muslim businessman.

Zeitoun ignores the many pleas of his wife Kathy, an American who converted to Islam, to leave, choosing instead to stay to look after their many properties and wait until the water recedes.

Having purchased a canoe, Zeitoun initially finds that, despite the extent of the hurricane’s damage, he is making a contribution by paddling around and helping elderly people and dogs who are trapped in their homes.

He feels stronger than ever before and, in fact, feels himself both serving his deity and possibly approaching the accomplishment made by his brother Mohammed, a champion swimmer.

Then the police come.

In the midst of the daily call he places to Kathy, who first in Baton Rouge with family but later goes west, Zeitoun goes to the door to see who is knocking.

She does not hear from him for weeks.

Without giving too much away, I will say that Zeitoun gets caught in the harsh and Kafkaesque world of anti-terrorist detention.  He suffers tremendously, losing 20 pounds, enduring nearly unbearable pain in his infected foot and size, having his daily requests to call his wife denied, and having his hair change color.

A devout man of faith who loves his adopted homeland, he also sees both tested at the most basic level.

As searing as these experiences are, the lasting toll on Kathy seems to be even greater.

Eggers’ use of detail and narrative shifts leads to a compelling story.  I will wrap up the post now for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but do hope you find the time to read this gripping work.


5 responses to “Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun

  1. After reading this book I watch the amazing documentary “Trouble the Water” – a dcumentary that uses footage shot by a family who stayed in New Orleans through the rising water and what happens to them afterwards. Also, don’t miss “Treme”, the new David Simon series on HBO about musicians and others in post-katrina New Orleans.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Cheryl, for the book and these tips. It’s great to have you commenting again!

      We liked Trouble the Water, but did get a bit dizzy from the camera work. I’ll watch anything David Simon does.

      Have fun at New Trier tonight! We’re sorry to miss it.


  2. I posted a review of ZEITOUN on my blog, Murder By Type. I knew people who lived in New Orleans at the time of Katrina and I don’t know where they are now.

    As an acknowledgement of the fifth anniversay of Katrina, I used the blog (which is actually a place where I post reviews of crime fiction) to highlight some stories of the Katrina experience for the people of New Orleans.

    Friday I used information from Chris Rose’s collection of columns for the Times-Picayune, 1DEAD IN ATTIC. Saturday, I focused on Orleans Parish coroner, Frank Milyard, and his experiences and the difficulty he faced in identifying the bodies of people who had died and were left where they lay.
    Tomorrow, Sunday, the anniversary of the breach of the levees, I posted a review of ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers.


  3. A friend who gets my affinity for New Orleans just bought me a copy of Zeitoun. I look forward to getting into it.
    Ironically, while reading comments on this post, I noticed a reference to “Trouble The Water.” I was invited by the fiancée of one of the film’s main characters to a screening of “Trouble The Water” while marching in the 5th Annual Katrina Commemoration March and Second Line Parade on August 29. I hadnt heard of the film, knew nothing about it except I knew I’d find a way to attend it in the upstairs hall at Desperado’s Pizza on Frenchman Street the evening of the commemorative march.
    All three major characters in the film – Kimberly Rivers Roberts (who recorded the unforgettable footage that’s the backbone of the film), her husband, Scott, and Brian Nobles, a man they befriended during the storm, were present, and answered questions after the screening.
    Kimberly Rivers Roberts performed several rap songs, some from the documentary, and is intent using the film as a stepping stone to a singing career.
    Brian’s fiancée, a fervently religious woman who invited me at the Hunter’s Field rally after the march, welcomed me warmly. This is one powerful film, one that makes the Kafka-esque aspects and racial tensions of post Katrina New Orleans painfully clear. This is not a “land of the free and the home of the brave” kind of portrayal of America we’re accustomed to seeing. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149405/

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