Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

April 27, 2010

John Self beat me to a review of this book and did an exceedingly good job of it. No surprise in either of those facts. I will try not to repeat what he has said and to be brief.

Zeitoun (pronounced “zay-toon”) is the surname of Abdulrahman and Kathy, the people whose “view of the events” before and after Hurricane Katrina the book captures. John Self points out that Abdulrahman is “portrayed more or less angelically”. I would emphasize the more. For instance, the primary faults he displays are determination, unyielding fidelity to other living things, and the desire to be where the action is. These are his tragic characteristics which prove his stumble, if not his downfall.

Most readers will be familiar with the events, both real and reported, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. We know, then, where the weather portion of the book is going. Eggers had no easy task in setting up the Zeitoun’s story with sufficient details about the hurricane and reports to keep everyone onboard but not so much that it bores. His characters, too, walk the line between oblivion to the scope of the coming disaster and knowing too much:

Nagin told residents that the Superdome would be open as a “shelter of last resort.” Kathy shuddered at the thought; the year before, with Hurricane Ivan, that plan had been a miserable failure. The Superdome had been ill-supplied and overcrowded then and in ’98, with Hurricane Georges. She couldn’t believe the place was being used again. Maybe they’d learned from the last time and better provisioned the stadium? Anything was possible, but she was doubtful.

Of course, the reader already knows what happened, so Kathy seems a little prescient in her misgivings. I have to wonder whether relating the Zeitoun’s pre-Katrina fears on these types of policy matters is either accurate (surely everyone thinks they saw the disaster coming now) or helpful (even if accurate, the reader is almost invited to question the accuracy of the recollection). To me, these glimpses into the Zeitoun’s thoughts distracted from their story, rather than added to it. We have already been shown that Abdulrahman is a great guy, that Kathy is an outstanding mother, that they both work hard and live right. Must they also have such penetrating foresight?

This is really a minor annoyance; these examples crop up only a few times. Eggers does a great job relating the Zeitoun’s story with a building sense of danger, while helping us get to know the family. The bigger problem is the one touched on earlier. The Zeitoun’s seem almost like a sit-com family. I liked them, but I kept wondering if there was more to their story. While there are all-around great guys with all-around great wives and children, it was too neat, too Brady Bunch.

The strengths of the book are many. Abdulrahman’s experiences during the flood, rescuing people, dogs, and property, are particularly well-crafted and evocatively written. The same is true of flashbacks to Abdulrahman’s childhood and early adulthood. The man lived an interesting life and had an intriguing family. All of these aspect draw in the reader and give a strong sense of how Abdulrahman arrived where he did.

The climactic events are disturbing. The pain and confusion are captured in unadorned prose which only adds to the story’s power. This is the story of human tragedy amid natural disaster. The climax is strong and poignant. The reader cannot help but ask questions about how things could go so wrong in, as the characters say, America of all places. These types of things are not supposed to happen here. Of course, they do.
I was disappointed in the denouement, the aftermath. Too little information is provided regarding what happened to the other men with Zeitoun; each of the police officers and National Guardsmen who were involved are given a paragraph after the are tracked down by Kathy and the Zeitoun’s attorney.

There is no doubt that this tells the story of a breakdown in civil society and a personal tragedy for Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The book does not provide a complete picture, but only the experiences of the Zeitouns as related by them. Issues of Islamaphobia are present, but there were non-Muslims with Abdulrahman who, it appears, were treated no better. It also seems like a definite link is invited between Kathy’s later health problems and these tragic events. And, yet, in some ways the link feels too forced or speculative and, to me anyway, detracted somewhat from the larger issue. The systemic failures would not be less troubling if Kathy had suffered no physical deterioration.

The book is troubling, but imperfect. It is not wholly convincing. I am very happy to have read it and am quite troubled by the treatment of the Zeitouns and the other men with Abdulrahman that day. Like John Self, however, I would be interested in a different book that provided other perspectives. Not only to see the situation from the perpetrators point of view, but also to gain some necessary distance.

SPOILER ALERT

Zeitoun was clearly shaken by the events that day. His faith in America was understandably lost. His was not the kind of experience you merely remember; it was an experience which forms your world view. I came across an interview with Abdulrahman Zeitoun in which he states that, in America: “Muslims have no rights.” This is, to put it mildly, hyperbole.

Mr. Zeitoun’s statement suggests that there is a stronger, more powerful book, that is not limited to the perspective of the Zeitouns. Their close experience with injustice is an excellent case study in systemic failures in America; they are not necessarily the best witnesses. I would have preferred either a more novelistic approach to the subject or a more thorough investigation of events from multiple perspectives. Things went terribly wrong in the treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. But it is not as simple, as he points out, as a few “bad apples”. Neither is it as simple as “Muslims have no rights.” As many members of ethnic minorities can attest, this type of problem is not limited to Muslims. As many poor or otherwise socially disadvantaged people can also attest, this type of problem is not limited to religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the system either allows or creates incentives for this type of abuse. The extraordinary natural disaster that led to the particular example of the Zeitouns certainly exacerbated the problems of either unprofessional conduct by individuals and/or features of a criminal justice system that allow (or encourage) the abuses Abdulrahman and the other men arrested that day suffered.

Eggers did an excellent job of telling the Zeitouns’ story. He could have done more. The Diary of Anne Frank is compelling partly because she did not know what was going to happened, but the reader does. In Cold Blood is compelling because, while told largely told from the viewpoint of the criminals, it is not limited to their perspective. Eggers does not manage to escape the post-event perspective of the Zeitouns. The lessons the Zeitouns learned are not necessarily the right lessons. Their interpretation is, frankly, not as important as their experience. Eggers does manage to relate that experience, but it is a little too tinged with their interpretation to be an unqualified success. I do recommend it as a qualified success.