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Zeitoun (Paperback) by Dave Eggers, book reviewIn 2005 the world watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina attacked the city of New Orleans, bursting the levees and leaving the city neck-deep in water. The environmental devastation was beyond imagination but what shocked observers even more was the rapid breakdown of ‘normal’ human behaviour. The city descended into chaos and disorder; stores were looted, gangs roamed the streets and inhabitants – most of them poor and black – were herded into the Superbowl where rape, violence and despair were the order of the day. What the television reports didn’t tell us was about the violence and psychological abuse of innocent inhabitants, arrested without charge, denied even the basic rights of a phone call or the opportunity to let anyone know where they were – all in the name of ‘Homeland Security’. Dave Eggers’ new book ‘Zeitoun‘ gives us a window onto the events before, during and after Katrina seen through the true story of one man – Abdulrahmen Zeitoun – and his family.

Abdulrahmen Zeitoun was born in Syria, moved to the USA and eventually found himself in New Orleans where through hard work and determination he rose from working for other companies to setting up his own building and maintenance firm which soon became known throughout the city. He married a white US-born Muslim convert, Kathy, and together they brought up her son by her first marriage and three daughters they had together. Zeitoun (we soon learn that Americans can’t deal with funny foreign names so everyone calls him by his surname) became a pillar of the community – a hard working, dependable man with properties all over the city and a great business reputation. Zeitoun and Kathy had experienced some racist abuse – especially after 9/11 – but they took it in their stride. When Zeitoun designed a logo for his business with a rainbow on it they got lots of bookings from gay couples. Kathy pointed out that people maybe had the wrong idea about the company and perhaps they should change the logo. Zeitoun – ever the down to earth pragmatist – decided not to, suggesting that anyone who objected to gays probably wasn’t very pro-Muslim. That’s the kind of attitude that summed up this very likeable man.

With the Hurricane approaching, Kathy and the kids headed out of the city to visit relatives and friends but Zeitoun refused to leave, choosing instead to stay behind and keep an eye on their home and their rental properties. We hear about the impact of the storm as Zeitoun waits it out, filling holes in the roof with cushions and pillows and moving all their valuables upstairs. Within a day or two he was paddling around the city in an old canoe listening carefully for the sound of trapped residents, feeding abandoned dogs with meat from his slowly defrosting freezer, and dropping water and food to elderly and disabled neighbours. Tragedy brings the best out of some people and Zeitoun was later haled as a true American hero making it all the more shocking that he and several of his friends were arrested in his own property for allegedly steeling his own possessions.

“In a country with a long history of slavery and abuse of immigrants, ‘Zeitoun’ is the kind of book that a lot of people hoped would never need to be written”

At first they were incarcerated in the make-shift prison camp at the city’s bus station (ironically named ‘Camp Greyhound’ by their guards) where it soon became apparent that they weren’t there for looting and were accused of being Taliban and threats to Homeland Security. Repeated requests for a phone call and medical help went ignored and the men were soon moved to a high security facility outside the city. The treatment of Zeitoun and his friends goes beyond imagination. I’m married to a UK prison officer and I feel sick when I think about the difference between how he and his colleagues treat their ‘clients’ and the treatment dished out by alleged prison professionals in the USA. Once you’ve read this you can not have any doubts about the accusations made against the prison staff in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. If your skin’s the wrong colour and your religion’s in the spotlight, then forget the application of Human Rights Legislation if you’re unlucky enough to fall foul of the US prison system.

The book is both shocking and redemptive. We see a man get eaten up by a corrupt system and we’re left wondering if he can possibly get out the other side. We watch his wife tormented by anxiety but never giving up on her belief in her husband or her determination to see him again. I will not tell you how the book pans out because to do so would spoil the ending but I will say that I really did not know until the final chapter what would happen to Zeitoun and his family. I certainly didn’t expect to see such a story of forgiveness and acceptance of such ill treatment.

Dave Eggers is better known for his memoir ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ which I have to admit I’ve not read. By background he’s a white middle class kid – the son of a school teacher and a lawyer – but ‘Zeitoun’ makes him the voice of the black and Middle Eastern underclass that suffered more at the hands of the US authorities than they did from the destructive power of the hurricane. In a country with a long history of slavery and abuse of immigrants, ‘Zeitoun’ is the kind of book that a lot of people hoped would never need to be written and many more won’t want to read.

Zeitoun’ won Eggers a ‘Courage in Media’ award. I think it was well deserved.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Published by Penguin Books, paperback, February 2011

With thanks to Penguin for providing a review copy.

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One Comment on "Zeitoun"

  1. Leeswammes (Judith)
    02/03/2011 at 06:49 Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I had this book on my radar already and I really want to read it.

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Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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