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Zeitoun

by Dave Eggers
Reviewed by BN Aziz

I first saw this book in the airport before I was about to depart New York for Damascus. The name "Zeitoun", olive, is a popular word in Arabic, and the a common Arab family name. Still I did not realize the importance of the story until a year later when I actually took it in hand to read.  

Dave Eggers is now a widely known because of his authorship of this book, and the earlier biography/novel “What is the What”, which I am currently reading.

It seems that Eggers has introduced a most effective, convincing way to tell the dramatic story of his subjects. Extensive recording of a man’s life story, then lightly fictionalized. "Zeitoun" is the account of an American family over a two year period. It is a simple family, as unremarkable as so many millions in the landscape of American history. Abdulrahman Zeitoun has a wife Kathy and four children, the oldest of which is a boy from her first marriage. Together this ordinary couple run a family house construction and repair business. Their days are full —driving children to school, supervising workers, meeting deadlines, bar-B-Q’s in the yard, visiting extended family.

Then hurricane Katrina emerges and heads into their neighborhood in New Orleans. Kathy departs for higher ground in another city with the children;  Zeitoun remains in New Orleans to board up houses of neighbors and secure his own properties.

He is an un-heroic fellow who finds he is needed by neighbors, abandoned animals, and three other men in the neighborhood who also remained through the storm. When Zeitoun goes missing after a week, his wife begins to worry. So does his brother Ahmed in Spain.

Zeitoon and his fellow survivors are incommunicado, have been picked up by federal authorizes. For looting.

The tension created by these two locations—Zeitoun in the flood and then in prison, and his family in a distant cit, frantic about his welfare-- is moderated by flashbacks of Zeitoun and Kathy’s early lives in the US, and his youth in Syria, his brothers and his father at sea, his own wanderings around the world, ending up, almost by chance in New Orleans. Compared to his earlier life, the domestic scene they inhabit in the US is rather uneventful.

What makes the book special for me is Eggers’ presentation of the life of the man Abdulrahman Zeitoun, both his heroism in the storm, his determined prayer and belief in himself, his day to day offhand description of his treatment like a caged animal. First we experience Zeitoun and Kathy’s Islam as a very ordinary matter woven humbly into their common American days; then we experience the devastating Katrina hurricane as a calamity; and finally we are confronted by the behavior of federal enforcement authorities during the storm. I read many criticisms of the blunders of authorities, the racism behind the inaction, the incompetency, the priority given to ‘security’, the corruption pervading reconstruction of the city. I watched Spike Lee’s critical film of the affair in “When the Levies Broke”.

Only in this book, in the almost understated words of Zeitoun, do I feel the outrage of the whole affair, especially the caging of American and denial of their rights by the faceless, cold men and women who our government trains in the name of to ‘protecting this land’.  But neither author Eggers nor Zeitoun use such harsh words. They just give us the facts.

One congratulates Eggers on his writing and his respect for people that allows them to entrust  their story to him. For me, an anthropologist, Eggers illustrates the best in social and political documentary.

 "Zeitoun" was published in 2009 by McSweenys.com

 

 



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