by Bushra Burney
I remember back when Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005 in New Orleans. I heard about the lawlessness that took over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit and I saw the images of destruction on TV, but in no way was I prepared for Dave Eggers’ new book Zeitoun. Syrian born Abdulrahman Zeitoun, or ‘Zeitoun’ as he is called, and his family were among the New Orleans residents whose lives were affected by the flood and its aftermath. In his latest work of nonfiction, Dave Eggers chronicles the Zeitoun family through Hurricane Katrina, the days leading up the event, and the ensuing weeks that forever changed them.
Eggers opens the book with Zeitoun and his wife Kathy as they go about the day to day. Together, they have raised a family while establishing a successful business in New Orleans. When we are first introduced to these characters, the hurricane has yet to strike. However, the ominous warnings regarding the increasing strength of the hurricane are prevalent throughout New Orleans media, ensuring Zeitoun, Kathy, and all of the New Orleans residents become aware at the dire nature of the situation, especially with the news that the levees may breach. And yet, Zeitoun elects to stay in the city as his wife and kids evacuate despite his wife’s pleas for him to join them in the exodus to a safer area.
When speculation becomes reality and the levees break, the city is flooded and Zeitoun somehow makes the most of it. He navigates the city with his second hand canoe and becomes a savior of sorts to people around the city as he rows around, offering his help when he can. At first, he embraces the calm spell the city falls under. Then, the unthinkable happens and Zeitoun finds himself apprehended and placed in a makeshift prison. Meanwhile, Kathy goes through her own personal hell as she can’t contact her husband and is left to wonder if he is among the rising number of dead bodies floating around New Orleans. One will feel a rise of indignation as they read on about the atrocities committed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, all in the name of justice.
In the end, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Not only was I completely immersed in the story, but it’s important that we learn about one of the most defining events in recent U.S. history. Also, I loved how Eggers goes back and forth from the present to the past with events that provide insight on the people he documents throughout his book. The reader learns about Zeitoun growing up in Syria and his life at sea, what led Kathy to Islam, how Zeitoun and Kathy met and got married, and a multitude of other events that truly define these people and make them easy to relate to, making their struggle our struggle, whether one is Muslim or not.
Further reading: – Check out Wajahat Ali’s interview with Dave Eggers: Dave Eggers Interview: Zeitoun – An American Muslim Hero. This interview has also been featured in Huffington Post and Variety.