“Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

The August selection for Twin Cities’ Books and Bars was Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, a meticulous recounting of one New Orleans family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina and its deadly aftermath. The eponymous man of the title (whose first name is Abdulrahman) remains in the city before during and after the hurricane. He chose not to leave, though his wife, Kathy, and children did. It’s also their story, about the struggles of one refugee family and the difficulty of remaining in contact with those left behind.

Epitomizing the phrase “the personal is political,” Zeitoun addresses issues of class, race, politics and, as trite as it may sound, humanity. As the book began, I was irritated by the writing. Eggers’ description of Zeitoun seemed to pedestalize the man, while reading more like a screenplay at times than a work of critical nonfiction.

Zeitoun pulled onto Earhart Boulevard, though a part of him was still in Jableh. Whenever he had these morning thoughts of his childhood, he wondered how they all were, his family in Syria, all of his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews scattered up and down the coast, and those who had long ago left this world. His mother died a few years after his father passed on, and he’d lost a treasured brother, Mohammed, when he was very young. but the rest of his siblings, those still in Syria and Spain and Saudi Arabia, were all doing well, extraordinarily so. The Zeitouns were a high-achieving clan, full of doctors and school principals and generals and business owners, all of them with a passion for the sea. (12)

As I read on, though, I was completely and utterly won over to Zeitoun the man and to the plight of his family specifically, and New Orleans in general. This is often painful read, but tremendously moving and heartening. It’s an examination of the racism that persists, especially toward Arab-Americans and Muslims in the wake of 9/11. The current debate in New York City over what should be where in the aftermath of 9/11 shows how fresh these issues remain. The book is also an education, about the Muslim tradition and an unforgivable government and media debacle in our history.

The recent furor on whether Jonathan Franzen and his book are being overhyped because he’s a white male makes me wonder at the amount and content of the praise Zeitoun has received, e.g., Entertainment Weekly picked it as a book of the decade. I can’t and won’t say whether it merits the praise, but I do say it’s an emotional and provocative narrative, well worth reading, discussing and ruminating on how the future might change, given this oft-ugly chapter of the past.

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