Miami Herald // Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun. Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s. 342 pages. $24.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant who was living in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. With his wife, Kathy, he had built a widely respected painting and contracting business and owned several rental properties. Sadly, the destruction of his home and livelihood was just the beginning of what would be a grotesque and awful ordeal. In Zeitoun, based on hours of interviews and other research, Dave Eggers tells the man’s tragic story and puts a human face on what may be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Zeitoun spent the days leading up to Katrina in denial. He didn’t anticipate the storm’s direct impact on New Orleans or even the failure of the levee system to control the water rushing in. ”This had happened before, Zeitoun noted, so many times. The storms always raged across Florida, wreaking havoc, and then died somewhere overland or in the Gulf.” Kathy didn’t share her husband’s optimism, and so she took the children out of town while Zeitoun stayed behind to look after his company’s job sites and his tenants. When the storm hit and the levees broke, he slept in a tent on his roof and spent his days paddling through the city in a canoe. Eggers’ description of the washed-out city will call to mind the scorched-earth wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The difference is that Eggers’ New Orleans is real.

Still Zeitoun stayed. He helped some old folks escape from their homes and even delivered food every day to some neighborhood dogs whose owners had gone. He took tremendous pleasure in helping others, and he stayed even after the mayor called for a forced evacuation. “He had never felt such urgency and purpose. In his first day in his flooded city, he had already assisted in the rescue of five elderly residents. There was a reason, he now knew, that he had remained in the city. He had felt compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning. He was needed.”

The telephone still worked in one of his buildings. He returned every day to call Kathy until he got arrested, wrongly, for looting his own property. The police and National Guard imprisoned Zeitoun at a makeshift jail and accused him of being in al Qaeda. “Zeitoun was in disbelief. It had been a dizzying series of events — arrested at gunpoint in a home he owned, brought to an impromptu military base built inside a bus station, accused of terrorism, and locked in an outdoor cage. It surpassed the most surreal accounts he’d heard of third-world law enforcement.”

Eggers leads the reader deftly back and forth to between equally tense storylines. Unable to contact her husband for weeks, Kathy feared that he was dead. Zeitoun soon got transferred to a maximum-security prison, where his treatment at the hands of xenophobic guards didn’t exactly improve. He was not allowed a phone call or medical treatment.

The fact that this sort of crime could happen is nothing short of disgusting. The government’s mishandling of Katrina remains a national embarrassment. Large sections of the city remain devastated, but other issues have distracted us from the plights of Americans still living in atrocious conditions. That’s why we’re fortunate to have journalists like Eggers who are willing to do the muckraking necessary to keep the story in the news.

To his credit, Eggers appreciates that writers of privilege have the responsibility to speak for those whose voices might not otherwise be heard. In Zeitoun, he tells a story made more upsetting by the fact that although it surpasses our worst nightmares, it is absolutely true. It is a major achievement and his best book yet.