Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

  2009. McSweeney’s. Hardcover. 342 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In this non-fiction book that reads like a novel, Eggers tells the story of the Zeitoun family’s ordeal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a painting contracting business in New Orleans. Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun), was originally from Syria, had married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and settled down in New Orleans in 1994. When Hurricane Katrina is forecast to hit the city, Kathy takes their kids away to stay with her family elsewhere in the state. But Zeitoun stays behind to look after their home and rental properties.


Zeitoun started off gradually, introducing the reader to the family at its center. Eggers continued to intersperse backstory throughout the progression of the hurricane narrative. I enjoyed reading the stories of Zeitoun’s life. His family lived by the sea in Syria; his brother Mohamed was a champion long-distance ocean swimmer, a hero for Syria, but who died young in a car accident. Zeitoun took jobs on ships that took him all over the world until he finally fetched up in New Orleans. There he was introduced to and married Kathy, an American who had converted to Islam to the bewilderment of her family. She had one son from a previous marriage, and she and Zeitoun had four more. They knew people all over their city through their respected and successful business.

It was fascinating to read a sustained first-person account of staying through the hurricane and the flooding of the city. Mostly I had read only snippets and quotes from New Orleans citizens that were included in articles about the storm. At first everything was surreal but hopeful: Zeitoun assisted stranded neighbors and fed trapped pets, paddling his canoe among the watery streets.  But while he was using the phone at one of his rental properties, a boat full of armed men showed up and from then on the story became very harrowing. (I’ll give more detail on what happens later in the review, so if you like your nonfiction to be as unspoiled as your fiction, you might want to check out at this point.)

When I watched the news footage of Hurricane Katrina as it happened back in 2005, it was the angriest I had ever been in my life about something not personally happening to me. I usually cannot sustain a high level of anger for long, but I was furious for days over this.

Zeitoun brought me right back to that level, especially because I hadn’t really known about stories like Zeitoun’s. He and three other men were picked up at his rental property by armed police and National Guardsmen as suspected looters and taken to a makeshift outside prison at the Greyhound station. Zeitoun was almost immediately treated like he was a terrorist. He was repeatedly denied a phone call and medical attention, and was humiliated, taunted, and mistreated. The other men were also subjected to this treatment (along with hundreds more who were held in Camp Greyhound). Zeitoun was held for almost a month, and for most of that time his wife Kathy had no idea what had happened to him and feared that he was dead.

I couldn’t bear to put Zeitoun down as I raced toward the end, staying up later than I should have to finish it. I think I didn’t quite register the epilogue part of the book, because I was still reeling from the injustice of Zeitoun’s ordeal. My roommate vicariously experienced the book as I vented to her that night about the story and about Hurricane Katrina in general. I woke up the next morning still thinking about it.

I mentioned in my recap of the National Book Festival a quote from Gregory Maguire where he said we have a “moral need to take our time to decide who is good and who is bad.” That is exactly what did not happen for Zeitoun and for others held at Camp Greyhound. On the basis of one officer’s mistaken identification of him as a looter, Zeitoun was branded as “bad” and handed off to other authorities, who carried that assumption further, and handed him off to different authorities who were so far divorced from the original circumstances of his arrest that they just fell into the simplistic equation of incarcerated = bad, Muslim = terrorist and wouldn’t hear of anything otherwise.

I admire Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun for letting their story be told by Dave Eggers. They opened up their lives to us, the readers, and that is a brave thing to do.

Writing this review, I’m reminded of another couple’s story from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Their story was told in the documentary Trouble the Water and if you watch it, I recommend watching their Q&A with film audiences in the special features.

I’m so glad I read Zeitoun, but I had to make a pledge after reading this book not to read another nonfiction book about upsetting subjects for the rest of the year. I have read several emotional heavy-hitters this year: And the Band Played On (AIDS), Safe Area Goradze (”ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia), We Wish to Inform You… (Rwandan genocide). After reading Zeitoun, I realized that I do have an emotional limit when it comes to my reading material, and that I need to take a break for a while.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Life with Books – “Although Eggers tells this non-fiction story in narrative form, he is careful to relate things as simply and straightforwardly as possible. I’m sure it is a structure that has been criticized as blurring the line between fact and fiction, but I think Eggers manages to pull off a rather tricky balancing act.”

Literate Housewife – “While reading the book I felt like the Zeitoun family were close friends, I was at all times fully engrossed in their story.”

Ready When You Are, C.B. – “I’ve no reason to suspect their account, in fact I believe they are telling the truth from start to finish, but it would have benefited the reader if Mr. Eggers had built collaborating evidence into the book, instead of adding it on at the end in a few pages.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

4 responses to “Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

  1. Glad u liked this. I had listened to the audio version and thought it was very good.

  2. Non-fiction that reads like a novel: my favourite kind! “Trouble the Water” was a pretty emotional experience, too; I’m sorry now that I missed that special feature you’ve mentioned. I understand what you mean about the emotional toll of reading/watching things like this: the power of art, I s’pose.

  3. This sounds amazing, but I know just what you mean about having an emotional limit. The only one of those I’ve read was the Sacco, but it was indeed incredibly upsetting.

  4. Diane – The suspense must have been terrible with an audio book. I’ll confess I peeked ahead a few times to find out what happened later.

    BuriedInPrint – Glad to hear from someone who also saw “Trouble the Water.” I often don’t give time for watching special features, but I was left wanting to know more after watching the film itself.

    Nymeth – It’s hard, because there are a few other non-fiction books on my radar that I know will be upsetting but likely brilliant. But I’m pretty set on having this break until next year. The books can wait and it will probably be better to approach them without being so wearied by other harrowing books.

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