Zeitoun

Paperback | June 8, 2010

byDave Eggers

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A riveting account of Hurricane Katrina and a shocking tale of wrongful arrest and racism, Zeitoun is the true story of one Syrian-American, plucked from his home and accused of terrorism, written by one of America's most high-profile literary writers, now available for the first time in paperback from Vintage Canada.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers's riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun's roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

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From the Publisher

A riveting account of Hurricane Katrina and a shocking tale of wrongful arrest and racism, Zeitoun is the true story of one Syrian-American, plucked from his home and accused of terrorism, written by one of America's most high-profile literary writers, now available for the first time in paperback from Vintage Canada.When Hurricane Kat...

DAVE EGGERS is the author of seven books, including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, How We Are Hungry, What Is the What and The Wild Things as well as co-writer of the film Away We Go, starring Jon Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. He is the editor of McSweeney's, a quarterly magazine and book-publish...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.8 inPublished:June 8, 2010Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307399060

ISBN - 13:9780307399069

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Customer Reviews of Zeitoun

Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must-read! Eggers combines his fantastic storytelling and detailed journalism in this book about Abdulrahmam Zeitoun who remains in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to take care of his home, his neighbours, and his business. This tale is spellbinding and shocking. You learn of the shameful incidents that happened to a Muslim man during a state of emergency in the, ahem, land of the free.
Date published: 2014-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eggers' Best Normally I don't care for Eggers writing, but I greatly enjoyed this book.
Date published: 2014-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read.
Date published: 2014-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Epic Tale Published in 2009, this account of Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s attempt to ride out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in a canoe and the injustice he faced after suddenly disappearing on Sept. 6, 2005 is riveting. It’s an epic tale – told only the way Eggers can – of struggles against adversity, the fraying of the American dream and the ultimate triumph of faith and hope in the end. It’s a story that makes you feel good, despite how much it pisses you off. Reading the novel recently, it brought back the dark, dreary and terror-ridden reign of George W. Bush all over again. The kind of president whose party, as one Washington pundit so perfectly put it once, had “nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.” Zeitoun – pronounced Zay-toon -- is a good man. A pious Muslim, a devoted husband to his American-born wife and convert to Islam Kathy, and loving father to his four children. He’s a hard worker and a successful businessman, the hands-on owner of a contracting and painting company in New Orleans. Zeitoun is also of Middle-Eastern descent, however, and 9/11 remains a haunting memory to American authorities. Therein lies the tragedy in this story – that and the Kafkaesque absurdity of a justice system in shambles and a country whose priorities following the real tragedy – Katrina – are all out of whack. Kathy, caring for her newly born baby, sums up the cracks in her country well following the ordeal her husband and family endured: "She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmad sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us?" Zeitoun recognizes the rot in his adopted country, although the reader senses its stench is not so bad as to overwhelm his faith and love in America. Zeitoun concludes “systemic ignorance and malfunction – and perhaps long-festering paranoia on the part of the National Guard and whatever other agencies were involved – was unsettling. It said, quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten.” Eggers’ narrative control, his way of weaving past and present, is seamless, while maintaining a taut thread of suspense. His powers of description and language are also top-notch. For instance, the opening scene in which Zeitoun remembers fishing for sardines under a moonless night in Syria is cinematic in scope, and his description of the colour blue in a prison’s bars is pitch-perfect. Without giving away too much of the plot and robbing the reader of the suspense in this solidly written story, it’s enough to say that the events Zeitoun endured did indeed, as Eggers writes, surpass “the most surreal accounts he’d heard of third-world law enforcement.” How else to account for the comments of his siblings back home who, seeing the carnage of Katrina on the news, plead with him to move back. “Syria is so much safer,” they say. Given what’s happening today in that war-torn country, the comment comes across as ludicrous but it also illustrates the sorry state that America sunk to under Bush’s leadership. Eggers does not try to proselytize readers to a political point of view in the story. He’s too great an artist and too smart a writer to do that. He knows his story, and his art, will have the reader screaming in anger at the injustice his protagonist suffered, and the inanity of the president. Eggers has only to offer up a single quote of Bush’s, whose clichéd words ring hollow. Surveying the damage that Katrina did, the former president said: “America is confronting another disaster that has caused destruction and loss of life. America will overcome this ordeal, and we will be stronger for it.” As good a man as Zeitoun is, he is not perfect. He makes a grave mistake in not leaving New Orleans after the hurricane and only partly because of his desire to try to help save residents. He believes it’s his job to save his business and home – that a “home was worth fighting for” and that it is God who has sent him on this mission. But Zeitoun is also bitten by the pride bug, believing that by his heroic efforts will be measured against the deeds of his sports superstar brother Mohammed who died young. Still, these faults should not condemn him to the fate he had to endure and the reader is left fuming with anger that those who perpetrated these crimes against him are not brought to justice. And this reader too is left wondering of Zeitoun and Eggers’ other works, especially What is the What: Why aren’t these brought to the big screen? In a country that celebrated Argo and heaped on that movie an Oscar for best picture, Zeitoun is a harrowing true story that would play well on the big screen – and it happened right in their own backyard. Interested in reading more about Eggers? Read my review of A Hologram for the King on rabble.ca under the Books tag.
Date published: 2013-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Man Made Tragedy In my opinion, "Zeitoun" is possibly the best non-fiction book I've read this year. Dave Eggers, a modern day Dickens according to the New York Times' Timothy Egan, is a journalistic wizard weaving through the background of Abdulrahman Zeitoun -- a Syrian immigrant -- his family and life in New Orleans, and his adventures during the unfortunate events of Hurricane Katrina. The first half of the book admittedly is slightly dull, but the second half is both thrilling but profoundly tragic at the same time. I don't want to give up the plot but it will have you questioning the fragility of the constitutional rights (as Americans that is) and what it means to be an American. Unfortunately, there are probably many more Zeitoun stories yet to be told, each one as sad as the one before. As a cathartic process, I believe these stories all need to be told, if only so that somehow in the future, we can avoid repeating such terrible mistakes. When will we ever learn??
Date published: 2009-08-26

Extra Content

Read from the Book

FRIDAY AUGUST 26, 2005On moonless nights the men and boys of Jableh, a dusty fishing town on the coast of Syria, would gather their lanterns and set out in their quietest boats. Five or six small craft, two or three fishermen in each. A mile out, they would arrange the boats in a circle on the black sea, drop their nets, and, holding their lanterns over the water, they would approximate the moon.The fish, sardines, would begin gathering soon after, a slow mass of silver rising from below. The fish were attracted to plankton, and the plankton were attracted to the light. They would begin to circle, a chain linked loosely, and over the next hour their numbers would grow. The black gaps between silver links would close until the fishermen could see, below, a solid mass of silver spinning.Abdulrahman Zeitoun was only thirteen when he began fishing for sardines this way, a method called lampara, borrowed from the Italians. He had waited years to join the men and teenagers on the night boats, and he'd spent those years asking questions. Why only on moonless nights? Because, his brother Ahmad said, on moon-filled nights the plankton would be visible everywhere, spread out all over the sea, and the sardines could see and eat the glowing organisms with ease. But without a moon the men could make their own, and could bring the sardines to the surface in stunning concentrations. You have to see it, Ahmad told his little brother. You've never seen anything like this.And when Abdulrahman first witnessed the sardines circling in the black he could not believe the sight, the beauty of the undulating silver orb below the white and gold lantern light. He said nothing, and the other fishermen were careful to be quiet, too, paddling without motors, lest they scare away the catch. They would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. A few hours later, once the sardines were ready, tens of thousands of them glistening in the refracted light, the fishermen would cinch the net and haul them in.They would motor back to the shore and bring the sardines to the fish broker in the market before dawn. He would pay the men and boys, and would then sell the fish all over western Syria - Lattakia, Baniyas, Damascus. The fishermen would split the money, with Abdulrahman and Ahmad bringing their share home. Their father had passed away the year before and their mother was of fragile health and mind, so all funds they earned fishing went toward the welfare of the house they shared with ten siblings.Abdulrahman and Ahmad didn't care much about the money, though. They would have done it for free.Thirty-four years later and thousands of miles west, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was in bed on a Friday morning, slowly leaving the moonless Jableh night, a tattered memory of it caught in a morning dream. He was in his home in New Orleans and beside him he could hear his wife Kathy breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the hull of a wooden boat. Otherwise the house was silent. He knew it was near six o'clock, and the peace would not last. The morning light usually woke the kids once it reached their second-story windows. One of the four would open his or her eyes, and from there the movements were brisk, the house quickly growing loud. With one child awake, it was impossible to keep the other three in bed.Kathy woke to a thump upstairs, coming from one of the kids' rooms. She listened closely, praying silently for rest. Each morning there was a delicate period, between six and six-thirty, when there was a chance, however remote, that they could steal another ten or fifteen minutes of sleep. But now there was another thump, and the dog barked, and another thump followed. What was happening in this house? Kathy looked to her husband. He was staring at the ceiling. The day had roared to life.The phone began ringing, today as always, before their feet hit the floor. Kathy and Zeitoun - most people called him by his last name because they couldn't pronounce his first - ran a company, Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, and every day their crews, their clients, everyone with a phone and their number, seemed to think that once the clock struck six-thirty, it was appropriate to call. And they called. Usually there were so many calls at the stroke of six-thirty that the overlap would send half of them straight to voicemail.Kathy took the first one, from a client across town, while Zeitoun shuffled into the shower. Fridays were always busy, but this one promised madness, given the rough weather on the way. There had been rumblings all week about a tropical storm crossing the Florida Keys, a chance it might head north. Though this kind of possibility presented itself every August and didn't raise eyebrows for most, Kathy and Zeitoun's more cautious clients and friends often made preparations. Throughout the morning the callers would want to know if Zeitoun could board up their windows and doors, if he would be clearing his equipment off their property before the winds came. Workers would want to know if they'd be expected to come in that day or the next."Zeitoun Painting Contractors," Kathy said, trying to sound alert. It was an elderly client, a woman living alone in a Garden District mansion, asking if Zeitoun's crew could come over and board up her windows."Sure, of course," Kathy said, letting her feet drop heavily to the floor. She was up. Kathy was the business's secretary, bookkeeper, credit department, public-relations manager - she did everything in the office, while her husband handled the building and painting. The two of them balanced each other well: Zeitoun's English had its limits, so when bills had to be negotiated, hearing Kathy's Louisiana drawl put clients at ease.This was part of the job, helping clients prepare their homes for coming winds. Kathy hadn't given much thought to the storm this client was talking about. It took a lot more than a few downed trees in south Florida to get her attention."We'll have a crew over this afternoon," Kathy told the woman.Kathy and Zeitoun had been married for eleven years. Zeitoun had come to New Orleans in 1994, by way of Houston and Baton Rouge and a half- dozen other American cities he'd explored as a young man. Kathy had grown up in Baton Rouge and was used to the hurricane routine: the litany of preparations, the waiting and watching, the power outages, the candles and flashlights and buckets catching rain. There seemed to be a half-dozen named storms every August, and they were rarely worth the trouble. This one, named Katrina, would be no different.Downstairs, Nademah, at ten their second-oldest, was helping get breakfast together for the two younger girls, Aisha and Safiya, five and seven. Zachary, Kathy's fifteen-year-old son from her first marriage, was already gone, off to meet friends before school. Kathy made lunches while the three girls sat at the kitchen table, eating and reciting, in English accents, scenes from Pride and Prejudice. They had gotten lost in, were hopelessly in love with, that movie. Dark-eyed Nademah had heard about it from friends, convinced Kathy to buy the DVD, and since then the three girls had seen it a dozen times - every night for two weeks. They knew every character and every line and had learned how to swoon like aristocratic maidens. It was the worst they'd had it since Phantom of the Opera, when they'd been stricken with the need to sing every song, at home or at school or on the escalator at the mall, at full volume.Zeitoun wasn't sure which was worse. As he entered the kitchen, seeing his daughters bow and curtsy and wave imaginary fans, he thought, At least they're not singing. Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he watched these girls of his, perplexed. Growing up in Syria, he'd had seven sisters, but none had been this prone to drama. His girls were playful, wistful, always dancing across the house, jumping from bed to bed, singing with feigned vibrato, swooning. It was Kathy's influence, no doubt. She was one of them, really, blithe and girlish in her manner and her tastes - video games, Harry Potter, the baffling pop music they listened to. He knew she was determined to give them the kind of carefree childhood she hadn't had.***"That's all you're eating?" Kathy said, looking over at her husband, who was putting on his shoes, ready to leave. He was of average height, a sturdily built man of forty-seven, but how he maintained his weight was a puzzle. He could go without breakfast, graze at lunch, and barely touch dinner, all while working twelve-hour days of constant activity, and still his weight never fluctuated. Kathy had known for a decade that her husband was one of those inexplicably solid, self-sufficient, and never-needy men who got by on air and water, impervious to injury or disease - but still she wondered how he sustained himself. He was passing through the kitchen now, kissing the girls' heads."Don't forget your phone," Kathy said, eyeing it on the microwave."Why would I?" he asked, pocketing it."So you don't forget things?""I don't.""You're really saying you don't forget things.""Yes. This is what I'm saying."But as soon as he'd said the words he recognized his error."You forgot our firstborn child!" Kathy said. He'd walked right into it. The kids smiled at their father. They knew the story well.It was unfair, Zeitoun thought, how one lapse in eleven years could give his wife enough ammunition to needle him for the rest of his life. Zeitoun was not a forgetful man, but whenever he did forget something, or when Kathy was trying to prove he had forgotten something, all she had to do was remind him of the time he'd forgotten Nademah. Because he had. Not for such a long time, but he had.She was born on August 4, on the one-year anniversary of their wedding. It had been a trying labor. The next day, at home, Zeitoun helped Kathy from the car, closed the passenger door, and then retrieved Nademah, still in her carseat. He carried the baby in one hand, holding Kathy's arm with the other. The stairs to their second- floor apartment were just inside the building, and Kathy needed help getting up. So Zeitoun helped her up the steep steps, Kathy groaning and sighing as they went. They reached the bedroom, where Kathy collapsed on the bed and got under the covers. She was relieved beyond words or reason to be home where she could relax with her infant."Give her to me," Kathy said, raising her arms.Zeitoun looked down to his wife, astonished at how ethereally beautiful she looked, her skin radiant, her eyes so tired. Then he heard what she'd said. The baby. Of course she wanted the baby. He turned to give her the baby, but there was no baby. The baby was not at his feet. The baby was not in the room."Where is she?" Kathy asked.Zeitoun took in a quick breath. "I don't know.""Abdul, where's the baby?" Kathy said, now louder.Zeitoun made a sound, something between a gasp and a squeak, and flew out of the room. He ran down the steps and out the front door. He saw the carseat sitting on the lawn. He'd left the baby in the yard. He'd left the baby in the yard. The carseat was turned toward the street. He couldn't see Nademah's face. He grabbed the handle, fearing the worst, that someone had taken her and left the seat, but when he turned it toward him, there was the tiny pink face of Nademah, scrunched and sleeping. He put his fingers to her, to feel her heat, to know she was okay. She was.He brought the carseat upstairs, handed Nademah to Kathy, and before she could scold him, kid him, or divorce him, he ran down the stairs and went for a walk. He needed a walk that day, and needed walks for many days following, to work out what he'd done and why, how he had forgotten his child while aiding his wife. How hard it was to do both, to be partner to one and protector to the other. What was the balance? He would spend years pondering this conundrum.This day, in the kitchen, Zeitoun wasn't about to give Kathy the opportunity to tell the whole story, again, to their children. He waved goodbye.Aisha hung on his leg. "Don't leave, Baba," she said. She was given to theatrics - Kathy called her Dramarama - and all that Austen had made the tendency worse.He was already thinking about the day's work ahead, and even at seven- thirty he felt behind.Zeitoun looked down at Aisha, held her face in his hands, smiled at the tiny perfection of her dark wet eyes, and then extracted her from his shin as if he were stepping out of soggy pants. Seconds later he was in the driveway, loading the van.Aisha went out to help him, and Kathy watched the two of them, thinking about his way with the girls. It was difficult to describe. He was not an overly doting father, and yet he never objected to them jumping on him, grabbing him. He was firm, sure, but also just distracted enough to give them the room they needed, and just pliant enough to let himself be taken advantage of when the need arose. And even when he was upset about something, it was disguised behind those eyes, grey-green and long-lashed. When they met, he was thirteen years older than Kathy, so she wasn't immediately sold on the prospect of marriage, but those eyes, holding the light the way they did, had seized her. They were dream-filled, but discerning, too, assessing - the eyes of an entrepreneur. He could see a run-down building and have not only the vision to see what it might become, but also the practical knowledge of what it would cost and how long it would take.Kathy adjusted her hijab in the front window, tucking in strayhairs - it was a nervous habit - while watching Zeitoun leave the driveway in a swirling grey cloud. It was time for a new van. The one they had was a crumbling white beast, long-suffering but dependable, filled with ladders and wood and rattling with loose screws and brushes. On the side was their ubiquitous logo, the words Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor next to a paint roller resting at the end of a rainbow. The logo was corny, Kathy admitted, but it wasn't easy to forget. Everyone in the city knew it, from bus stops and benches and lawn signs; it was as common in New Orleans as live oak or royal fern. But at first it was not so benign to all.

Bookclub Guide

1. "Notes About This Book" (xv) gives a sense of how the book was written, whose point of view it reflects, and Eggers's efforts at accuracy and truth in his depiction of events. By choosing to portray the response to the hurricane through its effects on one family, what kind of story (or history) does he achieve?2. The book opens with "Friday, August 26," an expository chapter that introduces us to Zeitoun's family life and his business life, the two very interconnected. What are some of the ways in which the descriptions here draw you in as a reader, and make these people and their situation real? Why is the timeline a good structural choice for this story?3. Kathy has grown up as a Southern Baptist. Drawn to Islam through her childhood friend Yuko, she decides to convert. Why, when she comes to visit wearing her hijab, does her mother tell her, "Now you can take that thing off" (57)? Why does the prayer from the Qur'an quoted on page 51 have a strong effect on her? What does her reaction to the evangelical preacher who mocks Islam and says that Kathy's temptation to convert was the work of the devil (65 - 66), say about Kathy's character and intelligence?4. Do Abdulrahman, Kathy and their children make up an unusual American family, or not? How would you describe the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy, in marriage and in business? What effect does their religion have on the way others in the community see them?5. Why has Eggers woven into the story accounts of Zeitoun's past in Syria, his upbringing, his brother Mohammed, the champion swimmer, his brother Ahmad, and their close bond? What effect does this framework of family have on your perception of Zeitoun's character, his ethics, his behavior?6. The plight of the neighborhood's abandoned dogs comes to Zeitoun's attention as "a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shards" (93). The next day, he sets out in the canoe and tries to do what he can for animals and people trapped by the flood. How does Zeitoun feel about what he is doing? How does he think about these days after he has been imprisoned (262-64)?7. Discuss what happens when Zeitoun and the others are forced to get into the boat and are taken into custody. Is it clear why they are being arrested? What assumptions are made about Zeitoun and the other three men (275-87)?8. Part IV (203-90) tells the story of Zeitoun's imprisonment. Here we learn in great detail how Zeitoun is denied the right to call Kathy, how his injured foot is not attended to, how the other men are beaten, stripped, and starved, how he prays constantly, yet loses hope. What is the impact, as you read, of this narrative?9. "Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America's dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics" (Timothy Egan, New York Times, August 13, 2009). Would you agree with this statement? Can Zeitoun be read as a contribution to the history of hurricane Katrina and the failure of government to handle the disaster effectively?10. Discuss Kathy's situation, and her actions once she learns where Zeitoun is. The aftermath is more difficult, and she still suffers from physical and psychological problems that seem to be the result of post-traumatic stress. What was the most traumatic part of her experience, and why (319)?11. Given that the other men who were imprisoned with Zeitoun were held much longer than he was, and that Nasser lost his life savings, is it surprising that these men were not compensated in any way for their time in prison (320-21)?12. What is Zeitoun's feeling now about what happened? How does he move forward into the future, as expressed in the book's closing pages (322-25)?13. If you have read What is the What, Eggers' novel about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, how does Zeitoun compare? Discuss Eggers' approach to writing about traumatic regional and political events through the lives of individuals impacted by them.

Editorial Reviews

FINALIST – The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest"Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina. . . . Eggers's tone is pitch-perfect."— The New York Times Book Review"Zeitoun is impeccably structured and bursting with empathy, but Eggers's real success is in how thoroughly he camouflages his own authorial voice. He writes in poignant, straight-ahead prose that never clutters or dresses up the subject matter. The resulting book is so evocative and user-friendly that it will appeal to readers of virtually all ages."— The Georgia Straight"A heartfelt book, so fierce in its fury, so beautiful in its richly nuanced, compassionate telling of an American tragedy, and finally, so sweetly, stubbornly hopeful."— The Times-Picayune “Gripping and moving.”— San Francisco Chronicle “I deeply admired the talent, ambition and courage it must have taken to write Zeitoun. . . . His writing is spare and precise, with respect for both the reader and the story, and underlying the narrative [is] a wonderful sense of outrage made all the more powerful because of how light his touch is.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck “Eggers . . . sensibly resists rhetorical grandstanding, letting injustices speak for themselves. His skill is most evident in how closely he involves the reader in Zeitoun’s thoughts.” — The New Yorker “The book serves as a damning indictment of governmental and judicial failings in the wake of Katrina—but beyond that, it recounts a wrenching, human story of family, faith and, ultimately, hope. Dave Eggers is an important writer with a big heart, as conscientious as he is prolific. Whatever he does next, and however he does it, his work matters, and people should be listening.” — The Globe and Mail  “Brings the city in its immediate post-storm aftermath vividly to life. . . . No matter how much you’ve read and heard about what went on in New Orleans in the days and weeks following Katrina, much of what happens to Zeitoun will probably be new and shocking to you. . . . This book is a modern-day American epic that brings the complexity and ennobling dimensions of the best fiction to a real-life story that needed to be told.” — The Gazette