Over the weekend, I finished up “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers, one of the titles on the American Library Association’s Notable Books List.
You’ll recall that Eggers has written “creative nonfiction,” including “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and “What Is the What?” This book fits more clearly into nonfiction. It’s the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun of New Orleans, and what happened to them as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
The Zeitouns’ story without Katrina would have been interesting, the marriage of a Syrian Muslim man and a white American convert to Islam. The two built up a contracting business, with Abdulrahman taking care of the jobs while Kathy handled the office end and raised the children.
Abdulrahman was one of several children who grew up near the ocean. A poignant aspect of his upbringing was that his older brother was the best swimmer in Syria. His family and hometown were so proud, and then so distraught when the young man was killed in a car accident at age 24. Abdulrahman has always felt pressure to live up to family expectations, to measure up to high standards. It explains much of his business success. Kathy converted to Islam after her dearest friend did so. Her devotion to that faith, and to her husband, have created a sense of strength and connection.
As Katrina approached, Kathy evacuated to Baton Rouge with the children, staying in her sister’s crowded home. After a few days, she took the family to Phoenix where her dear friend took them in. Zeitoun remained in New Orleans. He had the presence of mind to get his unused canoe out of the garage while the ground was dry, and when the storm surged came through, was able to rescue some neighbors using it. He felt that he was called to stay in New Orleans for this purpose.
One of their homes continued to have a phone that worked, and he stayed in touch with Kathy. Then along with three other men, he was arrested. He was taken to a jail created out of fencing in the bus terminal. He was allowed no phone calls. They slept on bare concrete. Eventually he was taken to prison at St. Gabriel.
Eggers largely allows Kathy and Abduhrahman to speak for themselves. His preface explains that this story is told from their view–he isn’t trying to give the whole story of Katrina, just the story of the Zeitoun family. He uses a chronological ordering that allows them to walk the reader through confusion, through snippets of information, through decision points. In many ways, this book is completely plot-driven, yet in others, we get to know these people very well.
I was struck by the international aspects of their life, with Zeitoun’s family checking in via cell phone and the Internet from Spain, Syria, and elsewhere.
In the end, I had a sense for the chaotic aftermath of the storm. The Zeitouns worked hard to figure out what exactly happened. They weren’t vindictive about it, they just wanted to understand.
This book is written in a very straightforward style and reads quickly. I recommend it to people who want “the story behind the story,” to those who are interested in New Orleans, or in the experiences of immigrants to the U.S., and those who like to read about people who overcome suffering.