Speak Magazine

Montreal Reviews

Zeitoun, a post Hurricane Katrina story

Eric White | Contributor

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the flooded city of New Orleans attempted to recuperate, the city’s justice system suffered an immense breakdown. One victim of this breakdown was Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American whose story is captured in the beautifully written biography Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

Zeitoun, as he is referred to throughout the book, was one of many innocent people incarcerated after the hurricane struck in late August of 2005. The story shows how post-9/11,  in the midst of the War on Terror and the paranoia that it triggered, the Department of Homeland Security took liberties to withhold Americans’ basic rights. Prisoners such as Zeitoun were held in maximum security, did not receive proper charges or a lawyer, and were not even allowed to contact their families.

Eggers , an American writer and publisher who has written numerous books, including his acclaimed memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), met the Zeitouns in 2006. Eggers then spent a great deal of time with the family, gathering information and compiling their stories.

 Although the book primarily focuses on Zeitoun’s experiences surrounding the hurricane, Eggers also backtracks, describing Zeitoun’s life before Katrina struck. Eggers goes into sufficient detail describing Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria, his travels working on oil and trade ships, and his eventual settling down in New Orleans. There he marries Kathy, a converted Muslim American with whom he raises a family.

Before the hurricane, with four children and a bustling contracting and painting business, Zeitoun and Kathy lead a somewhat average life. Kathy and Zeitoun are constantly busy running their business and raising their family, content with the life they have created together. However, as Eggers captures their story, he shows how fascinating these people are, with subplots such as Kathy’s religious journey in becoming a Muslim and Zeitoun’s pursuit of the American dream.

One anecdote from the first part of the book involved Zeitoun’s business, as he first attempted to create a painting and contracting business in a New Orleans neighborhood. When they first designed the company’s logo with a rainbow, they began attracting a lot of business from gay couples, while also losing some clients. After Kathy and Zeitoun had a serious talk about whether or not to change the logo, Eggers described Zeitoun’s answer to his wife. “Think about it, Zeitoun laughed, we’re a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such a good idea to turn away clients.” “Anyone who had a problem with rainbows,” he added, “would surely have a problem with Islam.” This example is a testament to Zeitoun’s character, as a sensible, hardworking, and intelligent man.

This is what makes the injustices against Zeitoun, a loving family man, so tragic. After Hurricane Katrina strikes, Kathy and the kids evacuate the city, while Zeitoun chooses to stay. He watches his house and his neighbors’ houses, and paddles around the flooded city in a canoe, looking for people who still need help. Zeitoun, along with another Arab and two other men are then mysteriously arrested.  This is where Zeitoun’s true struggles begin, as he must do all he can to get in contact with his family, and to try to get out of the maximum-security prison where he is held.

Zeitoun’s story is one that everyone should be aware of. The book deals with issues of racism and the infringement of basic human rights. Eggers’ distinct journalistic writing style, as he chronicles the life and story of Zeitoun and his family, makes the book a must-read. By reading Zeitoun one can gain a new perspective not only on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but also on the critical issues that took place in its wake.

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