Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Well, well. I’ve been gone an awfully long time. I don’t really feel like going into reasons why, so I won’t. Besides, we have never had much of a relationship in the sense that you, my readers, (in hope that there are more than ONE) might know me outside my book reviews.
Truly. If you are my friend on Facebook then Shazzam! You know what I’ve been up to. As much as I let on via Facebook, anyway. And that’s enough about me.

ZEITOUN. Great read. I, of course, only recently discovered Dave Eggers – to my eternal embarrassment. I don’t really know what he is ABOUT, but I admire his style just the same. Is he a crazy liberal? Is he a charming ferreter of truths? Is he a self-righteous bore who only tells you half the facts? I don’t know. But so far, I dig him.

In the horror that was Hurricane Katrina, I remember I was living in Montana. Consumed with my 28 year old college self, I didn’t have much time for the news, but I did watch some of it and gasped in horror with the rest of the country as lovely New Orleans was drowned beneath the waves.

Afterward, I heard all the rumors about the shocking conditions in the Superdome, the offensive comments of Barbara Bush, the struggle to rebuild, the ineptitude of FEMA, the stories of beautiful courage, the disgusting way the insurance companies got out of paying for damages, and on and on and on…but I never heard THIS story – and it was totally fascinating.

Basically, Zeitoun is a house painter, an immigrant, a resident of New Orleans, a Muslim, and a really responsible and sweet guy who gets thrown into prison because of racial profiling and a whole helluva lot of paranoia. Abdulrahman – a name which no one in New Orleans can pronounce so everyone just calls him Zeitoun (Zay-toon) is a very successful house painter. He and his wife, Kathy, have built up a lucrative business and a good reputation among their neighbors and clients. When the warning for Katrina goes out, Kathy and their children decide to leave New Orleans and head to Baton Rouge. Zeitoun stays to look after the house. He’s done it before, and doesn’t think this time will be any different.

When the hurricane hits, the first floor of the house is flooded, and Zeitoun spends a lot of time saving what possessions he can and trying to get some sleep in the second floor of the waterlogged house. When the storm has passed, Zeitoun spends the next week or so paddling about in his canoe, lending his help to others who are stranded – even climbing in windows and feeding the neighbor’s left behind dogs. He manages to meet up with a few neighbors who are stranded nearby, and together the men do what they can to help one another and anyone else they find.

They even have a working phone, so for a while, Zeitoun is able to keep in touch with his wife and children, as they travel from a relative’s house in Louisiana – to friends in Arizona – who take them in as the situation worsens.

Then Zeitoun and three of his neighbors are falsely arrested for looting and, of course, terrorism, and the truly awful bit of the story begins.

Zeitoun is falsely imprisoned. He is not allowed to contact his wife. He is not allowed a lawyer. He is locked away and physically and mentally mistreated. If it weren’t for a passing stranger, who follows his instinct and helps Zeitoun contact his family, Zeitoun might very well have been locked away for years. I don’t want to go on, because I feel like the ending should be a surprise. I want you to decide for yourself if its a happy ending or not. I know how I felt.

I know I didn’t go into too much detail here, but I also feel a little rusty at reviewing. Personally experienced: The book made me self-examine. I enjoy self-examining when it comes to racism.

Some people hate it. They feel uncomfortable, I think.

I like it because I like facing truths about myself – about my world – even if the truths are uncomfortable. I don’t claim to be a racist, but I know – as a white, upper middle-class, privileged woman – that I can unconsciously act and think in a racist way. I can be dismissive of race or condescending or over-zealous in my judgement. It’s never on purpose. It’s never ill-meant. I don’t make racist jokes in secret or think they are funny when I hear them. I don’t feel afraid of other’s religious beliefs (I tend to marvel at these, having none of my own). I don’t assume stereotypes are true, and when they are, I try not to let it represent the entire race. I try to be open-minded and enjoy differences, rather than worry over them. But really? It doesn’t make me a non-racist. I can still have a lot of random racist reactions because I was born white and American and middle class.

Mostly, it makes me feel bad. But somewhere along the way, I figured out this: it’s always important to know that nobody can help where they are born or what color their skin is or in what socioeconomic status they were raised. So taking away that responsibility and any guilt it may cause, makes me OK with any stupid reactions I might have. I’m aware of my own failings when it comes to others who are ethnically different than I am. And just being aware – that’s always a strong and good first step.

Many people who have reviewed the book have commented on the shock they felt realizing that such a thing can happen in America in the 21st century. I have to agree. Yet, I have to disagree. What was shocking to me was the idea that our government can make someone disappear so completely, and that this is not just in movies or an insane conspiracy theory. (I do so hate conspiracy theories) But what wasn’t shocking was that racial profiling is prevalent. That it can take over and that the brown-skinned people can be dehumanized and mistreated because the white-skinned people are suddenly threatened and terrified.

‘Fear is the root of all evil. It is horrible to live with fear, and above all things, it is degrading.‘ L.M. Montgomery once said. And it’s true. It is the truest thing I’ve ever learned. Casting aside fears is tough, but in the end it’s what saves you.

However, all that introspective blathering aside, what I admire about Dave Eggers was this: after he tells you the story and gets you all infuriated, he goes and gets as much of the other guys’ story as he can. And although they claimed to be ‘following orders’, and that makes us cringe a bit – or scoff loudly, its nice to know the author tried to get all the facts. I do appreciate people who get all the facts.

Anyway, this is a fantastic read. I finished it, riveted, in about a day. I’m passing it on to others. And I am really looking forward to reading more of Dave Eggers’ stuff.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

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