Monday, January 3, 2011


By Dave Eggers

New York, Vintage Books, 2009

Non-Fiction 325 pages

Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced Zaytoon) is a Syrian-American contractor and property owner in New Orleans LA. The son of a prosperous seafaring family in Syria, he immigrated to the United States as a young man, married Kathy, a Muslim convert, and settled down to run a business and raise a family in New Orleans. He is by any measure a successful businessman, well-respected in the community.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is the story of Hurricane Katrina as the disaster was experienced by Abdulrahman, Kathy and their four children. When Abdulrahman decided to remain in the city to guard their house and other properties, they knew that leaving was the best thing for their children, and Kathy left with much fear and trepidation. Eggers uses a day-by-day format to tell the story; first what is happening to Abdul and then what is happening to Kathy and the children--Zeitoun in the midst of the flood; Kathy in Baton Rouge and then in Phoenix, refugees from the storm.

Zeitoun is a gentle man; Kathy a take-charge sort of woman. They form a great partnership when they are together, but both suffer terribly when they are separated by the unfolding tragedy. You can’t help but like Zeitoun. The first thing he does when the water reaches the second floor of his house is to free the fish from the fish tank, so they will have a chance of survival. He sleeps on the roof of the house in a tent, but he curls up on his daughter’s bed, missing his children terribly. Daily he travels the city in a used canoe, feeding dogs, checking on friend’s property, finding help for neighbors in need. He is a very good man. So, when he is arrested as a terrorist and thrown into a makeshift jail at the Greyhound station, the injustice of it all cuts through the reader like a knife. How dare they!

This is a masterfully written book. Zeitoun reads like a novel, building slowly at first developing the characters and the setting and then when the unbelievable happens, the reader is so embroiled in the plot that you are transfixed and can’t stop reading. Eggers has a journalist’s eye for detail and some of the book reads like a newspaper account, as well. The reviewer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune says, “One of the great achievements of this book is its description of the drowned city, seen through Zeitoun's observant eyes. Eggers brings to life the eerie quiet, the sloshing of waves in places where waves are not supposed to be, the faint cries for help, the sound of dogs barking.”

For that reason, I had trouble deciding if this were a biography or a general non-fiction book. The story of Abdul and Kathy Zeitoun is more than a biography; it is the tale of an entire city, a failed government, of immigration, and terrorism, and human frailty as well as courage. It is a story of “suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?” (NY Times reviewer)

The epilogue tells of the Zeitoun’s life in the years following the storm. They were interviewed for McSweeney’s “Voices of the Storm” where Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s publishing company, heard their story and realized there was a book in there. Together, with the Zeitoun family, the story emerged. Eggers and the Zeitoun family have also begun a foundation, The Zeitoun Foundation, to support the redevelopment of New Orleans but also to speak about human rights and incarceration.

The reviewer for the New Orleans Times Picayune sums up her review with this words: “so fierce in its fury, so beautiful in its richly nuanced, compassionate telling of an American tragedy, and finally, so sweetly, stubbornly hopeful.” I can only concur.

The entire review in the Times Picayune:

The review in the New York Times:

An interview with Abdul and Kathy Zeitoun on the Tavis Smiley show:

Website for McSweeney’s:

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