Dave Eggers – McSweeneys’ Books – July 2009

If, like me, you watched the horrific events of Hurricane Katrina unfold back in 2005, and remember the seemingly incompetent way George W Bush and his government handled the devastating fall out in New Orleans, then Zeitoun is the book for you.

It has been written, understandably, with political intent and a strong sense of social commentary, and yet, by recounting the experience exclusively through one family (the Zeitouns), Eggers manages to avoid a heavy, oppressive feel.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun, known only as Zeitoun, is a wealthy, Syrian-American running two successful businesses with his American wife, Kathy and family. Before the storm hits, Kathy takes the children and leaves the City, as the majority of New Orleans residents do. Zeitoun is resolutely stubborn in his decision to stay behind, and during the aftermath, he uses his second hand canoe to travel around helping people. When he is falsely arrested, along with three other men (one of whom is also Syrian-American), they are accused of being terrorists, and denied their statutory phone call, without any charges being brought against them.

In the first part of the book, Eggers carefully sets the foundations of Kathy and Zeitoun’s lives, and through offering various retold scenes and significant details, a tremendous sense of character is built, enabling us to understand them. The story is told from both their points of view with interwoven strands of each character’s back-story, mingled with the present, and is effective in allowing us a clear sense of who they are and the day today lives they live.

The way in which Eggers describes Kathy’s conversion from Christianity to Islam is particularly enjoyable because it offers a clear insight of what she was searching for within religion and what it was that drew her to the Muslim faith, as well as detailing the ongoing difficulties it caused within her own family. This section was informative and fascinating and managed to achieve both without coming across as preachy or overbearing.

The story itself is the selling point of this non-fiction book, although Egger’s use of language, and structure keep you focused on reading to the end to find out how this horrific miscarriage of justice plays out, and feeling powerless and angry.

This is a beautifully crafted book, and a great read, which in time, with historical hindsight, will be a disturbing legacy of a tragic event that could have been avoided. However, having said that, there were a few minor irritants. One of which is during Eggers’ set up of Zeitoun, where it feels long-winded as we learn of Zeitoun’s inability to enjoy days off or take holidays. There follows an endless tale of Kathy secretly taking Zeitoun further away from home than he was anticipating for an enforced holiday and rest. However, later in the book during another reflection of the time Zeitoun forced them to walk miles to touch a rock, when Kathy had wanted only a stroll, my thought was, ‘I thought Zeitoun didn’t travel anywhere.’ Yet, here is on holiday in Spain. It’s a matter of little consequence when you put the subject matter in perspective, but for me, it stood out as a contradiction that makes you question the reliability of the author.

Another small gripe I had was that by the end, when Zeitoun has been released there appeared to be more focus on Kathy rather than on Zeitoun. Obviously, we care how the wife has been affected, but surely not at the expense of the man who has lived through it. I also felt the endless details of her medical conditions were over emphasized and returned to too frequently and unnecessarily, and so became a slight anti-climax.

My final disappointment came in the wrap up of the storylines, when the author details that Zeitoun spent three weeks in the prison, without charges, and without a phone call. This we cannot deny was a horrendous misuse of power and injustice. However, when you find out that the three other men have all spent longer inside a cell, one of them spending more than six months in a maximum security prison and with no good cause, I couldn’t help but feel, now there’s a story. Maybe the fault is mine, or society’s. We always want a bigger, better story. But still you wonder, what must six months feel like, how did he cope? And sadly, you walk away wondering about that rather than Zeitoun, whose story is the one we have spent considerable time investing in.

Having said that, Zeitoun is a must read book, because it is the legacy of a difficult time that at many different levels involved us all, with lesser or greater degrees. Also, because it highlights the many social difficulties that must be faced, prejudicial boundaries to be broken; and finally because in between the darkness of the situation there is laughter to be found, a sense of family and a marriage built upon trust and love that nothing can break.