NCO Club: Off Topic Discussions => The Lounge - Get A Beer & Just Chatter Away => Topic started by: Koen on 17 December 2009, 19:46:40

Title: Book: Zeitoum
Post by: Koen on 17 December 2009, 19:46:40

a book by Dave Eggers

description of the book:

This story begins, as so many do, with a man and a boat, navigating a course through treacherous and uncertain waters.

Almost four years ago, Abdulrahman Zeitoun -- a former fisher off the coast of his native Syria, a former seaman, now a respected New Orleans businessman -- set out in an aluminum canoe to see what could be saved in his flooded Fontainebleau neighborhood.

In the midst of the post-Katrina chaos, he ferried some neighbors to safety, checked on others in their homes, made sure tenants in his rental properties were all right, fed starving dogs left behind by their owners, and then was arrested -- inside one of his own properties -- under suspicion of being a terrorist.

He was first imprisoned in Camp Greyhound, the makeshift facility at the bus terminal, then moved to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel. Even as his family searched for him from their exile -- first in Baton Rouge, then Arizona -- and his extended family did what they could from Syria and Spain, he was denied contact with them, as well as other civil rights.

A Muslim, he could not eat the pork that was such a large part of the jailhouse diet; when he fell ill, he was denied medical care. Guards called him "al Qaeda" or "Taliban." When Homeland Security later decided that the department was not interested in him, he was charged with looting.

Zeitoun's story -- originally told in the form of a diary that appeared in Voices of Katrina on -- later appeared in an anthology, "Voices of the Storm," published by McSweeney's Books. McSweeney's publisher Dave Eggers is the best-selling author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and "What Is the What?"

In town in 2006 to do a reading for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, of which he is a longtime supporter, Eggers met with the Zeitouns in their home. Intrigued by their story, he sensed there was more to be told.

"I fell in love with the whole family," Eggers said by phone from home in San Francisco, "and by 2007 we were off and running. I feel lucky they entrusted me with this story."

The resulting book, "Zeitoun" (McSweeney's, $24), is a fiercely eloquent and simply elegant tale of a man who was trying to do the right thing in the aftermath of an unprecedented catastrophe. It also is a story of faith -- the Muslim beliefs that sustained Zeitoun, his wife, Kathy, his children and his worried relatives in Syria and Spain.

Proceeds will go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which will serve as a grantor to various post-Katrina rebuilding initiatives.

Eggers traveled to New Orleans eight or nine times to meet with the family, and had numerous phone conversations and e-mail exchanges over the years, presenting and revising drafts.

"Throughout the process, I cannot possibly express how warm and cooperative they were," Eggers said. "They took it seriously from the beginning, but some very powerful details came out late in the process. You learn so much by sitting, by listening and writing. Stories don't arrive on schedule.

"The details about the biweekly strip searches Abdul endured at Hunt came about very late. We were driving around last fall when he told me that. .¤.¤. When you're an outsider, you can bring a level of astonishment and outrage that's hard to see when you're close to it, especially when you're brought up the way Zeitoun has been."

Eggers tracked down two of the arresting officers, who described their version of post-Katrina chaos and who expressed varying degrees of remorse over Zeitoun's experience; a civil suit is pending.

The Zeitouns' story comes on the heels of "What Is the What?" Eggers' tale of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese "lost boys." Eggers sees similarities in these stories of dispossession and immigrant success. Just as he traveled to Valentino's village in the Sudan, Marial Bai, he traveled to Syria to see Zeitoun's ancestral home of Jableh, and to Spain to meet with Zeitoun's brother Ahmad.

"I knew how deeply Zeitoun's wrongful incarceration would affect the extended family," Eggers said. "When I talked to people during the research, many of them said, 'Oh, he did less than a month, that's not such a big deal,' but there's a sort of callousness in some circles about the effect of incarceration on the extended family. And I really wanted to try to reflect that. When you don't know where somebody is, the logical thing is to presume them dead."

At the same time Eggers was writing this book, he was expanding his own family, with the birth of a daughter in 2005 and a son in 2008. The Zeitouns have five children; the youngest, Ahmad, is a post-Katrina baby, lively and bubbling with energy.

"They are role models in a lot of ways for me," Eggers said of the family.

In the Zeitouns' sunny living room on a Saturday afternoon, the hard realities of their experience seem far away. Aisha, a few days away from her 9th birthday, serves a beautiful flowering tea; mother Kathy slices a delicious cake; and Ahmad takes up residence on his father's lap. This is a family of sweet smiles and straightforward looks, of loved and loving children. Parents and children sit near each other, often touching. What they suffered from separation is virtually incomprehensible, even more heartbreaking in the light of their present solidarity.

Kathy Zeitoun is open about her anger, her post-Katrina stress, but her outlook for the future is a positive one.

"I hope this will change the minds of people, make them not assume," she said. "Religion is like a color. My family is of a different faith."

Would Zeitoun stay for another storm? "Yes," he said unequivocally. "And I would tell every able-bodied young man to stay. You can save so much."

And Kathy would remain with him, never wanting that kind of separation and worry again.

"I stayed through Gustav," she said in her lilting voice. "And somehow, we all ended up taking a nap and sleeping through it. And I woke up and thought, 'Oh, I missed it.'¤"

At the end of the book, Eggers writes: "Zeitoun thinks of the simple greatness of the canoe, of the advantages of moving quietly, of listening carefully."

"That miraculous little canoe," as Kathy Zeitoun calls it, was stolen after Zeitoun's arrest, but that "simple greatness" has been restored to it -- and to its owner -- in this remarkable book.

And for the mariner himself, another canoe remains a distinct possibility. "I think I would get a bigger one this time," Zeitoun said. "So I could go anywhere."

He remains forward-looking, hardworking, devoted to his adopted city, philosophical. "Where you live, you stay. Every day you step in one foot. God -- he tried to make everything perfect," Zeitoun said. "But life? Not always wonderful."

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, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. But, on September 6, 2005, 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 New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun became possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research—in this case, in the U.S., Spain, and Syria.

"Eggers honors that steady spirit of the Zeitoun family and all rebuilding New Orleanians  with this 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

"Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina... Eggers' tone is pitch-perfect-suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?... It's the stuff of great narrative nonfiction... Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun."
— The New York Times Book Review


“This is a beautiful book. Zeitoun is a poignant, haunting, ethereal story about New Orleans in peril. Eggers has bottled up the feeling of post-Katrina despair better than anyone else. This is a simple story with a lingering radiance.”
— Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

“Zeitoun is an American epic. The post-Katrina trials of Abdulrahman Zeitoun would have baffled even Kafka’s Joseph K. Though Zeitoun’s story could have been a source of cynicism or despair, Dave Eggers’s clear and elegant prose manages to deftly capture many of the signature shortcomings of American life while holding onto the innate optimism and endless drive to more closely match our ideals that Zeitoun and his adopted land share. Juggling these contradictions, Eggers captures the puzzle of America.”
— Billy Sothern, author of Down in New Orleans

“Zeitoun is a gripping and amazing story that highlights so much about the tragedy of Katrina, post-9/11 life for Arabs and Muslims, and the beautiful nature of American multi-cultural society.”
— Yousef Munayyer, policy analyst, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

“Zeitoun is an instant American classic carved from fierce eloquence and a haunting moral sensibility. By wrestling with the demons of xenophobia and racial profiling that converged in the swirling vortex of Hurricane Katrina and post-9/11 America, Eggers lets loose the angels of wisdom and courage that hover over the lives of the beleaguered, but miraculously unbroken, Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. This is a major work full of fire and wit by one of our most important writers.”
— Michael Eric Dyson, author of Come Hell or High Water (

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