Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

After reading the mammoth non-fiction tome Homocide, I thought that I'd stay with fiction for a while, but Zeitoun will be due back at the library soon and Dave Eggers wrote the last two films I watched so this account of one family's experience of Hurricane Katrina came next.

Abdulraham Zeitoun (known by his last name) is a Syrian Muslim who runs a successful contracting and decorating business in New Orleans with his wife Kathy. They are bright, honest, extremely hard working people who have built up a lot of goodwill in their adopted town with their hard graft and kind natures.

When reports of the incoming hurricane become more unnerving, Kathy begs her husband to evacuate with her and their four children but he refuses, determined to ride out the storm and look after their home, office and various rental properties across the town. He has sat out many a storm in this way before and Kathy ends up leaving for Baton Rouge without him.

We know what happens next.

This is non-fiction and all dates and events have been verified where possible, but Eggers does not write Zeitoun's story in an objective journalist's style. The book is very even handed and fair to all involved (Eggers even tracked down law enforcement officers who arrested Zeitoun to get their side of the story) but the tale reads like a novel with character backstory, beautiful imagery and pacy plot.

Obviously some of the events that take place are horrifying and there are glimpses of humanity at it's most base and stupid but there is also a lot of unexpected hope, beauty and faith in the essential goodness that total strangers can show each other.

My favourite section is where Zeitoun ventures out in his aluminium canoe to explore the new world that the flooding had created:

" He was conflicted about what he was seeing, a refracted version of his city, one where homes and trees were bisected and mirrored in this oddly calm body of water. The novelty of the new world brought forth the adventurer in him - he wanted to see it all, the whole city, what had become of it."

A lot of issues are covered in this compact book, the American government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the opacity of modern bureaucracy, Islamaphobia, the hysteria of tabloid media and the gaping holes in supposedly civilised justice systems. Although obviously dystopian in setting and full of infuriating and terrifying moments, Zeitoun is also a deeply humane book which gave my misanthropic heart a little lift.

Author proceeds of the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation.


  1. Nobody does narrative non-fiction like Dave Eggers. Sounds like a powerful and very moving book.

  2. It is powerful but also lightly written and with enough optimistic faith in the human spirit that you don't get bogged down by unrelenting misery. Which would have been so easy.