Monday, November 2, 2009

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I’m glad I didn’t realize that Dave Eggers wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius before I read his book, Zeitoun. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have read Zeitoun, and that would have been a shame because I liked it, a lot.

Zeitoun is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans painting contractor, a pretty successful one actually, who just happens to be Syrian born, and a married father of two, who finds himself in a horrible predicament –stranded in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and eventually arrested and put in prison as a suspected looter and/or terrorist. I found this story fascinating on several levels.

First, it’s one-man’s story about living through Katrina. We’ve all heard the stories, but Zeitoun’s account feels more realistic, less generic. He pitches a tent on top of his carport and lives there for a week. He paddles around in his canoe, rescuing people, feeding stranded dogs. Although his story doesn’t feel like a diatribe, he does see and recount the gross ineptitude, and sometimes just impossibly difficult efforts of the government to help people during the flood.

I also found Zeitoun’s story of his Syrian family, and their practice of the Muslim religion, very interesting and insightful. I think I learned more about Muslimism in this book than I’ve managed to glean from any other single source. Again, it didn’t seem to be written with that in mind, but it happened nevertheless.

Finally, was the story about Zeitoun’s arrest and incarceration, which was painful to read about, enraging, and provocative. On one hand, I could understand that the American military and the local law enforcement were under pressure to restore order and prevent crime during Katrina, but it seemed brutal and illogical at the very least. Of course, we only hear one side of the story, so who knows for sure. But Zeitoun had a demonstrated history of being a law-abiding, well-regarded citizen, so I can’t see him embellishing the story about how horribly he was treated when he was arrested and incarcerated. I don’t have any experience from which to draw, and obviously there are bad apples in every bunch, but it did seem a bit odd to me that the military and law enforcement personnel that Zeitoun encountered were uniformly harsh. But that is a long discussion for another day.

Bottom line, I was inspired by Zeitoun’s story, because Zeitoun, the man and the book, are what the American dream is all about.


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