Saturday, January 23, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Thank goodness this book was published. Zeitoun (McSweeney's Books, 2009) by Dave Eggers tells the story of a Muslim Syrian-American man wrongfully arrested in post-Katrina New Orleans. Abdulrahman Zeitoun paddled a canoe through his flooded city, helping stranded citizens and feeding dogs left behind. His wife and four children had evacuated the city, and perhaps he should have too. But being a hardworking, down-to-earth painter and general contractor, as well as owner of several rental homes, Zeitoun thought he better stay and look after things. I never met a more responsible man in life or literature than Zeitoun.

The first half of the book builds a solid picture of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, their busy life and spiritual practices. Their business has been successful, they employ many good people and have the respect of their community. Then in in the second half of the book, the going gets rough. About a week after the hurricane, New Orleans is under martial law. Anyone left behind, anyone foreign, anyone with cash in their pockets, anyone seen coming and going from homes with anything electronic, is stereotyped as a looter, or in Zeitoun's case, a possible terrorist.

Zeitoun was locked up without a phone call, and kept in a maximum security prison for twenty-three days. His wife was frantic, as was his family in Syria. Zeitoun may have been in prison much longer were it not for the willingness of a Bible volunteer who acted as a messanger, agreeing to make a phone call for Zeitoun. When he finally walks out of prison, he is a diminished man. His wife has grown a wide streak of white hair. But together again, they pick up the pieces and begin rebuilding New Orleans. Kathy suffers with signs of post traumatic stress syndrome. In 2006, their son Ahmad was born. Zeitoun works harder than ever, with barely a day off. People are amazed that this family stays, not only in New Orleans, but in America.

I feel privileged to have read this book. I wouldn't have picked it up were it not for the HCPL West University book group. We will be discussing it on February 3, 2010. No one should have to endure what the Zeitouns went through. I'm not a political animal at all, but reading this expose of inhumane treatment, I felt myself grow new hackles. Eggers does a wonderful job of letting the facts tell the story, using sharp, clean prose that cuts to the bone. Proceeds from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, created not only to aid the rebuilding of New Orleans, but also to ensure the human rights of all Americans.

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