Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Random House Publishers; $15.95
Reviewed by Caty Gordon
In the true tale of how one tragedy begets another, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun illuminates the ethereal idiocy of the Bush administration’s two greatest failures: the supposed War on Terror and a botched relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Eggers does not proffer excuses for either side of the political gambit but instead imparts the factual accounts of Abdulrahman Zeitoun as he canoes his way through the forsaken, flooded city of New Orleans and, later, faces unfounded charges and is unjustly labeled a terrorist. Meanwhile, Eggers’ evasion of a didactic voice or any semblance of propaganda keeps his story alive, unlikely, and inescapable.
Eggers begins the novel by introducing audiences to Zeitoun – a Syrian-American immigrant and contractor who stayed behind in New Orleans to ride out the storm with his rental properties while his wife took their children to safer ground. In the aftermath of the hurricane the streets are buried under six feet of water, homes are damaged, lives are destroyed. And despite radio reports of rape, looting, and anarchy, Zeitoun refuses to leave the city, citing a spiritual calling to save who or what he can. Each morning he sets out in his canoe, paddling along familiar streets now made foreign by the storm’s impact. He serves as the relief to those whom the government failed: the senior citizens trapped inside flooded homes, starving dogs barking on rooftops, the isolated families in need of fresh water. And yet despite his heroism Zeitoun finds himself face-down on the ground, his hands zip-tied, while unidentified armed officers and private contractors accuse him of association with Al-Qaeda.
The cultural mores of anti-Arab racism in the United States following September 11, 2001 appear throughout Egger’s recollection of Zeitoun’s anecdote. He’s labeled a terrorist, denied a phone call and any indication of what his chargers are, and is singled out for mistreatment and isolation. The nuances of exploitation and degradation based on race are reminiscent of so many of the horrific mistakes made in the wake of September 11 by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, by Blackwater contractors on Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday, by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. The men and women who arrested and assaulted Zeitoun did so under dangerously brittle assumptions which Eggers portrays with lucid tact. He brings into the forefront of the narrative a deeply imbedded racism that too often goes unimpeded while maintaining an eloquent voice that does not delve into instructions for social responsibility.
What makes this story so successful is that it so engrossing readers forget that Eggers is imparting it. His cogent prose deftly balances the plight of one man reflecting the voice of a nation: the trust in an American dream, the inadequacy of such, and the sanguine drive to overcome the ignorance. And throughout it all Eggers propels the story with a momentum to match Zeitoun’s optimism in a book that is shaped by the imagistic landscape of a city brought to its knees by the futility of the government it sought salvation from. Zeitoun is a necessary account of the unfathomable (yet verified) collision of militarized nationalism and a natural disaster. Eggers, whose previous novels were lauded for their literary maneuvers, steers clear of such to present a story in its most raw and real form. With the gruesome account of Zeitoun’s plight there is no need for rhetorical prose, embellishment, or argument – the facts stand alone.
Poignant and compelling, Zeitoun is the story of a man who believed he was chosen by God to save a city that his government could not. It is a story of revulsion toward a system that failed a man targeted for what his captors believed was preemptive patriotism. It is a story of perhaps Eggers’ greatest achievement as an author, because though the circumstances surpass even the worst of nightmares, it is every bit of true as it is beautifully told.