Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is a true story account of one family’s experience and devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun lived and worked in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun) is a Syrian immigrant and the Zeitouns are practicing Muslims. The Zeitouns have weathered many hurricanes during their time in New Orleans and at first the family is not concerned about the storm. After repeated warnings, Kathy evacuates to Baton Rouge with their four children while Zeitoun insists on staying behind to take care of their painting/contracting business and rental properties. Zeitoun weathers the storm and the eventual breaching of levees and flooding of the city. Zeitoun bought a used canoe years ago and is now able to put it to good use by helping some of his neighbors and abandoned dogs. After a few days with fewer people to help and the city becoming increasingly polluted and dangerous, Zeitoun beings to plan to leave and join Kathy and the kids in Phoenix (where she eventually ended up). That is, until Zeitoun is arrested in his own home for looting and is put in prison for 23 days without being given access to his Constitutional right of one phone call. They won’t even tell him what the charges are against him, but he does have a few guards tell him that he’s Taliban, or a terrorist.
For the most part I very much enjoyed this book. It is a fast read and I read it within three days. I read the first 100 pages within a couple of hours. I enjoyed reading about Zeitoun’s early life in Syria and how he came to live in America. I also enjoyed reading about Kathy’s history of growing up in a large Christian family and eventually converting to Islam. Kathy’s journey to conversion helped me understand the Muslim religion in a ways I had not thought about before.
I liked how this novel focused both on Zeitoun’s experience in the city and also in jail juxtaposed against Kathy’s experience fleeing the storm, keeping connected with and worrying about her husband, and the absolute torment she went through when she hadn’t heard from him in two weeks and feared that he was dead.
Mostly I was outraged reading this book. Knowing that a jail was built within a couple of days of the storm when all of that man power and resources could have been used to rescue people trapped in their attics, under freeway passes, and at the Superdome made me sick. The jailees had access to toilets and food but not those trapped in the Superdome? Where were the priorities of those in charge? I was also outraged that a man could be arrested for and jailed for 23 days without any proof of a crime being committed (he was on his own property when he was arrested!) and denied a phone call or medical attention. And he was lucky because others who were falsely accused were jailed for months by FEMA. Heck of a job, Brownie? I think not. You think that can’t happen to you as a citizen of the United States, but oh yes, it can. Reading this book brought me back to the outrage I experienced seven years ago watching all these tragedies, travesties, and injustices happening in the United States of America in the 21st Century because of incompetent government officials and agencies.
The only thing I disliked about the book was all of the descriptions in chapters of Zeitoun’s hero brother that really had nothing to do with the story. I kept skipping over them because they were boring. I wanted to get back to the action of the book.
Eggers wrote about the Zeitoun family in a book called Voices from the Storm, but felt that their story was so compelling that it deserved an entire book. The book ends in 2008 with an update on how the family is doing now, but a lot can change in four years. Once lauded as a Katrina hero, Zeitoun is now anything but. He is currently in jail for domestic assault against is now ex-wife Kathy and just recently he has been accused of trying to solicit someone to kill Kathy, her new boyfriend, and her son from her first marriage. Finding this out just a few days after finishing this book really put a damper on the hope I held for the Zeitoun family and their future. At the end of Zeitoun Kathy talks about Zeitoun becoming increasingly more religious and fanatic and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. What he went through in those 23 days of jail after Katrina has irreparably harmed his mental state and his family forever.
The story of the Zeitoun family is about one of the country’s greatest tragedy’s and failings, which in my opinion, lead to a very tragic end to a once stable and happy family.