Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Clearly I waited too long to read this book, even though it sat ready on my shelves and on my iPod for years. Before I lament further, you should know that if you choose to go audible, Firdous Bamji doesn’t disappoint; he remains one of the very few narrators whose name will make me pick up a book over that of the title and author.
So why the whinge-ing? I’m one of those readers who doesn’t like family trees in the beginning of books because I don’t want to know that Tom and Sally get married before they’re even born. I don’t like maps with the route clearly marked because then I’ll know that Joe got out of Dodge but didn’t make it to Paradise. What’s the point of reading to the final page if you already know what happens?
All that means that if you read the news, then you might already know what happens after the events contained in Dave Eggers‘ ‘best of’-lists-making, much lauded, true (-enough) Katrina title, Zeitoun. If you are one of the blessed few who know nothing, then please do NOT start a google search! I fervently wish I could have read this without bias …
As a story, Zeitoun is exciting and engaging, with only a few minor faltering moments (a few too many pages of waiting – for Katrina, for news, for answers). A Syrian Muslim by birth, an American citizen by choice, a successful New Orleanian businessman by tenacity, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who is known by his easier-to-pronounce last name, runs a painting contracting company with his American wife Kathy, who became a hijab-wearing convert to Islam before she met Zeitoun. The company’s ubiquitous logo sports a rainbow – the significance of which was originally unknown to Zeitoun – which inadvertently attracted gay clients, although other potential clients stayed away and a few workers even left the company. Once made aware of the symbolism, Zeitoun stayed firm: “Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.”
When Katrina hit, Kathy and the couple’s four kids had already left New Orleans. Zeitoun stayed back to keep an eye on the business, the family’s home, and their many other properties. He boarded his canoe in the disastrous aftermath helping others, saving the lives of both people and pets. And then, without cause or warning, he was arrested in one of his own rental houses. He was held in the Greyhound bus station-turned-makeshift-jail without being charged for three days, then sent to Hunt Correctional Center – a maximum-security prison – for 23 more, where he was not allowed even a single phone call.
Meanwhile, Kathy and the kids were in Phoenix with Kathy’s childhood best friend, desperately searching for any news about Zeitoun, all the while fielding frantic worrying from Zeitoun’s internationally dispersed family. The personal losses Zeitoun suffered after Katrina were exponentially magnified by the theft of his basic civil rights as an American citizen fueled by post-9/11 paranoia at the hands (fists, feet, pepper-spray) of the very people the U.S. Government sent to protect the disaster victims. Lest you think Zeitoun was a lone target, Eggers includes even more “absurd” stories, topped by the arrest of Merlene Maten, a 73-year-old diabetic woman held at Hunt’s sister prison for retrieving a sausage out of her own cooler from her own parked car.
Zeitoun should have been a moving tale about a local hero within a shared witnessing of outrage against the miscarriage of justice in the wake of a natural disaster. If the story could have ended in 2009 when the book was published, it surely would have remained a beacon of hope and inspiration. Alas, history (or should I say, ‘his story’) will prove otherwise.
Ironically, in this morning’s New York Times‘ leading article about yesterday’s horrific tragedy, “Blasts at Boston Marathon Kill 3 and Injure 100,” an unnamed “Saudi man” gets two mentions as having been singled out, in spite of repeated claims that no suspects are yet in custody. Over at the Times‘ Op-Ed page, in “Living Through Terror, in Rawalpindi and Boston,” a medical resident writes, “And then, as we worked our way through the dazed throngs in Back Bay, I realized that not only was I a victim of terror, but I was also a potential suspect. As a 20-something Pakistani male with dark stubble (an ode more to my hectic schedule as a resident in the intensive-care unit than to any aesthetic or ideology), would I not fit the bill?” Any doubts? Read Zeitoun.