Zeitoun by Dave Eggers chronicles the plight of one family in the throes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. This true story, and a compelling one at that, delves not only into the damage and chaos caused by the storm, but also the compounded issue for the Syrian born American, Zeitoun, making his way in a post 9/11 era. His wife and children left before the storm hit and he chose to stay behind for the sake of looking after his business. Initially he is glad to have remained in New Orleans because he was able to move much of their family’s possessions to the top floor of their home out of harm’s way. When his neighborhood essentially became a river, he made use of a canoe bought not long before the storm. In his canoe, Zeitoun travels up and down his streets seeing everything anew. The point of view is at once sobering and delightful. I write delightful because Eggers crafted Zeitoun’s character in an uplifting fashion teasing out a sense of exploration and purpose. By traveling around in the canoe, he was able to rescue an elderly woman, an elderly couple, and feed a few domestic dogs left behind. He called his wife daily and expressed joy at being able to do God’s work during this devastation. With a generous spirit, Zeitoun believed he was meant to be in New Orleans for others.
The book takes a drastic turn when, a few days after the storm, law enforcement and volunteer guards patrolling the area in search of looters and the like come to Zeitoun’s home and arrest him without explanation. It is only after being manhandled, handcuffed, and detained that he is informed of their charges: he is a terrorist with Al Qaeda. The gross error is, to say the least, disturbing. Because of the storm, the judicial system failed to function and this good man, Zeitoun, found himself in the middle of this awful mess for nearly 30 days without a right to a phone call, a proper place to sleep, a proper meal, or representation.
I appreciated this book for the window it provides into the experience of the storm and for its overarching theme of addressing injustice. It is often said that when disaster hits we can see people coming together and get a glimpse at the best of humanity. Zeitoun offered this. But, in a disaster where a clear authority or legal structure falls, there is the disheartening possibility of moral failure. Eggers, through the story of Zeitoun, exposes this and makes us reflect on it.
This is a fantastic book and I have been recommending it right and left to friends and students.