Author: Dave Eggers
Release date: July 2009
Genre: Contemporary nonfiction
Source: Dana’s personal collection
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, originally of Jableh, Syria, and his wife Kathy, a native of Baton Rouge, have built a successful painting and contracting company in New Orleans. Kathy, a convert to Islam, and Zeitoun, a lifelong Muslim, occasionally worry about religious persecution in the post-9/11 United States, but for the most part they feel incredibly blessed by the returns on their hard work. Their busy days are spent interacting with clients, managing their workforce, and maintaining a happy home for their growing family.
When Hurricane Katrina begins heading toward New Orleans, though, everything changes. Kathy insists that she and the children drive to Baton Rouge to ride out the storm, but Zeitoun stubbornly chooses to stay in the city to watch over their home and rental properties.
After the storm, he paddles through the submerged city in a secondhand canoe rescuing neighbors, caring for abandoned pets, and distributing supplies and fresh water. The scene is almost idyllic—a strong, capable man paddling around the city he loves, doing everything he can to save it.
But a few days after the disaster, his story takes a compelling and unexpected turn. Zeitoun, his Syrian friend Nasser, a friendly tenant named Todd, and an unexpected stranger, Ronnie, are arrested at one of Zeitoun’s rental houses by a heavily armed group of National Guardsmen and local police.
They’re taken to Camp Greyhound, a makeshift jail in a nearby bus station, where they are searched and held for three days without being charged. Along with countless other suspected looters and criminals still in the city, they are then transferred to the rural Elayn Hunt Correctional Center under the disorganized “control” of FEMA.
Throughout the ordeal, the Zeitouns’ faith—in God and their country—is tested. Zeitoun chronicles his descent into despair about the unfair treatment he receives at the hands of post-hurricane officials:
He had long believed that the police acted in the best interests of the citizens they served. That the military was accountable, reasonable, and was kept in check by concentric circles of regulations, laws, common sense, common decency.
But now those hopes were put to rest.
This country was not unique. This country was fallible. Mistakes were being made. He was a mistake. In the grand scheme of the country’s blind, grasping fight against threats seen and unseen, there would be mistakes made. Innocents would be suspected. Innocents would be imprisoned.
Zeitoun is an eye-opening account of the devastating effects of two very different disasters in the United States: As Hurricane Katrina wreaks havoc on neighborhoods and lives in New Orleans, religious intolerance toward Muslims becomes more pointed in this post-9/11 world. The Zeitouns’ fascinating story of survival in the face of loss and discrimination makes both catastrophes undeniably real to the reader.
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I know very little about the Islamic faith, so I found Kathy’s account of her conversion to Islam very interesting. I was struck when, after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Kathy felt “like an exile in her own country”; her neighbors and even her own family treated her differently. This was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me on a personal level.
I was also interested in Zeitoun’s many stories about growing up in Jableh, learning the trades, embarking on a seafaring career, and eventually settling in the Unites States. He learns from a young age the importance of faith, family, and hard work, and his solid character and strong beliefs are endearing.
However, Zeitoun’s reasons for staying in New Orleans, even if it means sending his wife and children off without him, have grandiose, almost delusional echoes at times:
Maybe, he said, there was a reason he’d stayed, a reason he’d bought that canoe, a reason he was put into this particular situation at this particular time.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” he said.
Kathy was silent.
“It’s God’s will,” he said.
As an agnostic individual, I struggle with comments like these that remind me a little too much of religious fanatics. I found it difficult to connect with Zeitoun until he later admitted that perhaps his views had been a little too selfish and unrealistic.
Readers wary of Eggers’s exuberant style in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius need not worry. Eggers seems careful to let the Zeitouns’ voices be heard. However, Eggers’s portrayal of Zeitoun sometimes seems unrealistic and unconvincing; it was difficult to empathize with him at times, since much of what happened to him would have been prevented if he had made more level-headed decisions.
Though the conditions of his captivity were unbelievably unjust–he was never read his rights, he was searched without a warrant, he was held without charges and without a phone call, he was denied medical attention–his arrest was not surprising. He chose to stay alone in a city during its most pressing crisis, despite pleas from his family and the mayor’s institution of a mandatory evacuation plan; what did he expect?
The Zeitouns’ strong suspicion that his arrest was related to his religion and ethnicity seems based entirely upon one offhand comment by an unidentified soldier. Otherwise, his arrest appears to be in keeping with that of all other looting suspects. Eggers’s focus upon the often-overlooked but fascinating injustices of the post-disaster relief services is illuminating, but he makes no comment upon the thoughtless choices that led to Zeitoun’s arrest.
In terms of formatting, I was thrown off by the book’s choppy paragraphs, which give it a halting, slightly disorganized feel. On one hand, the constant breaks made it easy to read on the metro; on the other, it made it harder to truly lose myself in the narrative. And I may be picking nits here, but use of phrases such as “this day” instead of “today” made parts of the story seem retrospective, though most of the time it succeeds in feeling personal and immediate.
Despite my qualms about certain aspects of the story, I find myself reaching now for more books on both Islam and prison injustices, and sparking a reader’s curiosity in lesser-known topics is arguably a book’s greatest accomplishment.
I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!