As someone who witnessed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this book about one man’s experiences in New Orleans during the legendary storm was difficult to read because of the memories and emotions it brought back. However, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is an important book because of its accurate portrayal of the storm and the problems that occur in chaos, even in a big American city like New Orleans.
Originally published: 2009, USA
Rating: 4 = Recommended Reading
Similar to his approach to telling the story of Sudanese refugees in What is the What, in Zeitoun Eggers uses the real life story of a man facing a difficult challenge. Abdulrahman Zeitoun (or, just Zeitoun) is a Syrian immigrant living in New Orleans with his wife, children, and their contracting business, Zeitoun Paining Contractors, LLC. Zeitoun decides to stay in New Orleans in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approaches and the rest of his family evacuates. As the storm tears through New Orleans, Zeitoun travels through the city in a canoe trying to do what good he can, but his wife—monitoring the news from safety—hears that the military is moving into the city which could spell trouble for Zeitoun, a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East in post-9/11 America.
Eggers’ attention to detail in Zeitoun is not a surprise. His What is the What was another non-fiction book that was well-researched and easy to read. A lot happened in New Orleans during Katrina, and Eggers does a good job of hitting on a lot of it. There are mentions of officials’ speeches, publicity appearances, and various controversial situations. For example, there are only a couple of sentences about the prisoners stranded on the I-10 bridge for three days, but the incident is present. For me, it brought back memories of seeing aerial photos of the stranded prisoners: a situation I had almost forgotten about. By including details like this, Eggers is able to present a good scope of events in New Orleans during Katrina.
With such a large possible scope, Eggers does an excellent job with the pacing. While the primary focus is on the day-by-day events of Katrina, there are also flashbacks of Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria and Kathy’s conversion to Islam. While sometimes the flashbacks are longer interruptions from the main plot, they remain interesting, provide depth for the characters, and give additional fuel for the Muslim-American tension. There are also bits of passages from the Qur’an that provide more context for the Zeitouns’ religion and family culture.
Religious and Cultural Tension
At the center of this particular Hurricane Katrina story is a Muslim-American family, the Zeitouns. Through flashbacks of Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria, the reader learns about his cultural upbringing before immigrating to the US. Through Kathy’s conversion story and the Zeitouns’ lives, the reader is given insight into their Islamic culture. While their cultural and religious backgrounds might not be terribly important for the first part of the story, it becomes very important as the story unfolds. After the hurricane, reports of violence led to military troops flooding the city, many of whom were on the lookout for potential terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Eggers does a good job of describing this situation realistically without exaggerating or dramatizing the cultural/religious clashes.
The central message of Zeitoun is to help all in the wake of tragedy. When horrible things happen, instead of turning to violence and chaos, we should come together in common humanity to care for all people. It may sound like a utopian dream, but we can look to others with love, not hate, when faced with fearing for our own survival. Situations like Hurricane Katrina are terrible disasters and mistakes are often made when people tried to wrap their minds around what is happening. Fear can quickly turn into violence, but it doesn’t have to.
Really the only issue I have with Zeitoun is the scope. While there is power in focusing on a particular area and viewpoint of Hurricane Katrina, I worry that people who do not remember Katrina will mistakenly think that New Orleans was the only part of the country affected. While the damage in New Orleans was widespread and unfathomable, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was in a similar situation. The Mississippi coast was devastated and entire towns were swept away. The damage went farther north through the state than anyone had imagined (including me, hunkered down in Hattiesburg, MS). There was also further damage to the Louisiana coast and further inland. While I do not think Eggers should be responsible for telling the entire story of Hurricane Katrina, I do worry that without mention of the other affected areas some readers will remain misinformed about the scope of this tragedy. The book needed to focus in on the Zeitouns and New Orleans, but I guess I can encourage at least the readers of this review to remember the thousands of other people who lost their family members, homes, and communities in Katrina’s wake.
Whether you experienced Hurricane Katrina or not, this is an important book to read in order to remember that while tragedies do happen, we must remain human beings who operate with love, respect, and kindness to all people.