Stories sustain us. They comfort us, shock us, give us hope and at their heart, remind us of our shared humanness.
But greatest of all, stories give us access to the intricacies of life we would not otherwise be able to touch, feel or truly understand. We rely on tales and narratives to explain things we are unfamiliar with and to open up experiences we never knew existed.
This is why Dave Eggers new book Zeitoun is so important – it sheds light not only on the Bush administration’s botched response to America’s largest natural disaster, but also on America’s finer moments, and its darker ones as well.
This book is part of a larger effort by Eggers’ publishing house McSweeny’s to publish personal stories using oral history to make some of the greatest contemporary human rights issues more relatable and accessible.
This is exactly what Zeitoun does. This story is the culmination of three years of intense research and hours and hours of in-person, phone and email interviews and conversations. Eggers even traveled to Syria and Spain to meet the Zeitoun family to get their stories.
So here it is: Abdalrahman Zeitoun, known to all as Zeitoun, is a Syrian immigrant who settles in New Orleans and works as a painter. He later marries and, with his wife, Kathy, works his way up and builds a contracting and painting business they both run out of their home. Things are good for the Zeitouns. They are a family devoted to their community and faith, respected in their neighborhood and community as a whole and have a flourishing business because of word-of-mouth recommendations. Their daughters are smart, witty and keen – devoted and doting.
From Egger’s well hued portrait, it is easy to see the Zeitouns represent the best of the American Muslim experience — humbly building up their neighborhood while enjoying the easy kindness of their community, attending local barbeques while not afraid to politely pass on the ribs. It is the Big Easy after all.
The story focuses on the year 2005, which comes and goes as any other. The Zeitouns go through the ups-and-downs that any family encounters trying to balance an ambitious small business with an active personal life.
August rolls around and news reports begin to talk about a hurricane that is sweeping across Florida. But like most hurricanes from the vantage of New Orleans, this one looks rather harmless. Having weathered other storms, Zeitoun passes on the idea of evacuating. Kathy, to be safe, loads the kids and heads with them, and without Zeitoun, to her family’s house in Baton Rouge.
Having moved across Florida toward New Orleans, Katrina is upgraded in the warm waters of the Gulf from a moderately strong storm to a full-fledged category five hurricane prompting government officials to call for evacuations. The city flees the storm, but Zeitoun digs in determined to protect his house and neighborhood. With plenty of food, and living Uptown, far enough from the levees and high enough to not be submerged should the levees break, Zeitoun relies on God and remains confident things will turn out okay. They almost always do.
Hurricane Katrina hits. Winds blow off roofs and storm surges wipe out anything in site of the ocean. Lake Pontchartrain floods. The levees break. FEMA, recently folded into the Dept. of Homeland Security, rolls in armed to the teeth. Having heard stories of rape and mass pillage, police and military are ready for the worst.
While those who stuck out the storm finally move out of a surreal post-Apocalyptic underwater city, Zeitoun decides to stay and survey the damage in his neighborhood. After having saved as much family furniture and personal items as possible, he hops into his second-hand aluminum kayak and paddles around. Without the roar of a motor, he hears the faint cries of neighbors – elderly, disabled, those out of water. He rescues them either by himself or with the help of a friend with a boat.
Zeitoun stays in touch with Kathy throughout his time in the city through a working line found at one of the family’s properties. Each day at noon they catch up — Zeitoun talking about the city and Kathy pleading with Zeitoun to finally leave. Zeitoun stays, though. “He had never felt such urgency and purpose. In his first day in his flooded city, he had already assisted in the rescue of five elderly residents. There was a reason, he now knew, that he had remained in the city. He had felt compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning. He was needed.”
But FEMA had other plans. Having seen Zeitoun with a few a friends (including another Muslim immigrant) and a tenant at one of Zeitoun’s rental properties, they suspect the men of stealing and arrest them with inordinate force. The men are then thrown into “Camp Greyhound,” a makeshift Guantánamo style prison camp built at the former Greyhound station. Kathy can’t reach Zeitoun and for weeks doesn’t hear from him. She prepares for the worst.
From here, Eggers moves back and forth between Kathy and Zeitoun, recounting the pain, frustration and fear of each. Kathy is helpless, stuck outside of New Orleans. Zeitoun is helpless too, trapped not only in a ravaged city, but in a Guantánamo style prison camp with no way to reach the outside world and no semblance of order or authority to appeal to for help.
Eggers goes into full detail of the horrific conditions Zeitoun faces and his almost-impossible ordeal — while imprisoned on theft charges, accusations emerge that Zeitoun is part of a terrorist “sleeper cell.” This hits Zeitoun the hardest. Someone trying to save his neighbors is accused without recourse of trying to kill his neighbors. Nothing makes sense.
But Zeitoun is not alone and this new book from Eggers is meant to highlight not only Zeitoun’s story and plight, but also the horrific conditions thousands of tired New Orleans residents faced post-Katrina that were brought on by an incompetent and overly militarized federal administration.
Eggers does a masterful job weaving Zeitoun’s story together to show the multiple dimensions of his experience — Zeitoun’s belief in America’s highest ideals and principles and shock at their violation, his love of his community, his family’s fears and his current efforts to put this sad chapter behind him to focus on the real work at hand — rebuilding his home, New Orleans.
This book and story will go down in history as many narratives do that recount incredibly transformative times in our nation’s history. What is so heartening is that Eggers avoids telling a “Muslim” story and instead tells an important and rich American story through the experience of an exceptional American family that is Muslim, nothing more and nothing less.
Jordan Robinson is Media Associate for the One Nation Foundation. He was formerly the online editor at Islamica Magazine, based in Amman, Jordan, and graduated in 2007 from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.