Zeitoun [NOOK Book]

Overview

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, longtime New Orleans residents Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun are cast into an unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water. In this startling and deeply humane work of nonfiction, readers will witness our country's worst natural disaster through new eyes, encountering all the hope and contradiction of a unique moment in American history.

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Zeitoun

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Overview

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, longtime New Orleans residents Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun are cast into an unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water. In this startling and deeply humane work of nonfiction, readers will witness our country's worst natural disaster through new eyes, encountering all the hope and contradiction of a unique moment in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

Timothy Egan
In Zeitoun, what Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It's the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. Eggers…has given us 21st-century Dickensian storytelling—which is to say, a character-driven potboiler with a point. But here's the real trick: He does it without any writerly triple-lutzes or winks of post­modern irony. There are no rants against President Bush, no cheap shots at the authorities who let this city drown. He does it the old-fashioned way: with show-not-tell prose, in the most restrained of voices.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) chronicles the tribulations of Syrian-born painting contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who, while aiding in rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was inexplicably arrested by military personnel and swept into a bureaucratic maelstrom of civil injustices. Audie Award nominee Firdous Bamji (The Enchantress of Florence) conveys the sense of pending disaster, the fear, the distress, and the ultimate sense of relief Zeitoun must have felt upon his release. This Kafkaesque story is sure to shock, horrify, and outrage listeners and will especially appeal to those who enjoy nonfiction survival stories. It should be required reading/listening to ensure that nothing like the events described here will ever be repeated. [The McSweeney's hc, published in July 2009, was a New York Times best seller; see also J. Sara Paulk's review of Eggers's The Wild Things, p. 60.—Ed.]—Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
From the Publisher
“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.” —Timothy Egan, The New York Times Book Review

“[A] 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 (New Orleans) 

Zeitoun is a riveting, intimate, wide-scanning, disturbing, inspiring nonfiction account of a New Orleans married couple named Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun who were dragged through their own special branch of Kafkaesque (for once the adjective is unavoidable) hell after Hurricane Katrina. . . . [It’s] unmistakably a narrative feat, slowly pulling the reader into the oncoming vortex without literary trickery or theatrical devices, reminiscent of Mailer’s Executioner’s Song but less craftily self-conscious in the exercise of its restraint. Humanistic, that is, in the highest, best, least boring sense of the word.” —James Wolcott, Vanity Fair
 
“A major achievement and [Eggers’s] best book yet.” —The Miami Herald

Zeitoun offers a transformative experience to anyone open to it, for the simple reasons that it is not heavy-handed propaganda, not eat-your-peas social analysis, but an adventure story, a tale of suffering and redemption, almost biblical in its simplicity, the trials of a good man who believes in God and happens to have a canoe. Anyone who cares about America, where it is going and where it almost went, before it caught itself, will want to read this thrilling, heartbreaking, wonderful book.” —Neil Steiberg, Chicago Sun-Times
 
“Which makes you angrier—the authorities’ handling of Hurricane Katrina or the treatment of Arabs since Sept. 11, 2001? Can’t make up your mind? Dave Eggers has the book for you. . . . Zeitoun is a warm, exciting and entirely fresh way of experiencing Hurricane Katrina. . . . Eggers makes this account completely new, and so infuriating I found myself panting with rage.” —Dan Baum, San Francisco Chronicle

“A masterpiece of compassionate reporting about a shameful time in our history.” —O, The Oprah Magazine 

“Eggers’s sympathy for Zeitoun is as plain and real as his style in telling the man’s story. He doesn’t try to dazzle with heartbreaking pirouettes of staggering prose; he simply lets the surreal and tragic facts speak for themselves. And what they say about one man and the city he loves and calls home is unshakably poignant—but not without hope.” —Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
 
Zeitoun is a story about the Bush administration’s two most egregious policy disasters—the War on Terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina—as they collide with each other and come crashing down on one family. Eggers tells the story entirely from the perspective of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, although he says he has vigorously double-checked the facts and removed any inaccuracies from their accounts. At first, as a reader, I felt some resistance to this tactic—could the Zeitouns possibly be as wholesome and all-American as Eggers depicts them?—but the sheer momentum, emotional force and imagistic power of the narrative finally sweep such objections away.” —Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307739438
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/15/2010
  • Series: Vintage
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 342
  • Sales rank: 36,318
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

DAVE EGGERS is the author of seven books, including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, How We Are Hungry, What Is the What and The Wild Things as well as co-writer of the film Away We Go, starring Jon Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. He is the editor of McSweeney's, a quarterly magazine and book-publishing company, and is cofounder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people. His interest in oral history led to his 2004 cofounding of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire and The Believer.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

FRIDAY AUGUST 26, 2005

On moonless nights the men and boys of Jableh, a dusty fishing town on the coast of Syria, would gather their lanterns and set out in their quietest boats. Five or six small craft, two or three fishermen in each. A mile out, they would arrange the boats in a circle on the black sea, drop their nets, and, holding their lanterns over the water, they would approximate the moon.

The fish, sardines, would begin gathering soon after, a slow mass of silver rising from below. The fish were attracted to plankton, and the plankton were attracted to the light. They would begin to circle, a chain linked loosely, and over the next hour their numbers would grow. The black gaps between silver links would close until the fishermen could see, below, a solid mass of silver spinning.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was only thirteen when he began fishing for sardines this way, a method called lampara, borrowed from the Italians. He had waited years to join the men and teenagers on the night boats, and he'd spent those years asking questions. Why only on moonless nights? Because, his brother Ahmad said, on moon-filled nights the plankton would be visible everywhere, spread out all over the sea, and the sardines could see and eat the glowing organisms with ease. But without a moon the men could make their own, and could bring the sardines to the surface in stunning concentrations. You have to see it, Ahmad told his little brother. You've never seen anything like this.

And when Abdulrahman first witnessed the sardines circling in the black he could not believe the sight, the beauty of the undulating silver orb below the white and gold lantern light. He said nothing, and the other fishermen were careful to be quiet, too, paddling without motors, lest they scare away the catch. They would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. A few hours later, once the sardines were ready, tens of thousands of them glistening in the refracted light, the fishermen would cinch the net and haul them in.

They would motor back to the shore and bring the sardines to the fish broker in the market before dawn. He would pay the men and boys, and would then sell the fish all over western Syria - Lattakia, Baniyas, Damascus. The fishermen would split the money, with Abdulrahman and Ahmad bringing their share home. Their father had passed away the year before and their mother was of fragile health and mind, so all funds they earned fishing went toward the welfare of the house they shared with ten siblings.

Abdulrahman and Ahmad didn't care much about the money, though. They would have done it for free.

Thirty-four years later and thousands of miles west, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was in bed on a Friday morning, slowly leaving the moonless Jableh night, a tattered memory of it caught in a morning dream. He was in his home in New Orleans and beside him he could hear his wife Kathy breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the hull of a wooden boat. Otherwise the house was silent. He knew it was near six o'clock, and the peace would not last. The morning light usually woke the kids once it reached their second-story windows. One of the four would open his or her eyes, and from there the movements were brisk, the house quickly growing loud. With one child awake, it was impossible to keep the other three in bed.

Kathy woke to a thump upstairs, coming from one of the kids' rooms. She listened closely, praying silently for rest. Each morning there was a delicate period, between six and six-thirty, when there was a chance, however remote, that they could steal another ten or fifteen minutes of sleep. But now there was another thump, and the dog barked, and another thump followed. What was happening in this house? Kathy looked to her husband. He was staring at the ceiling. The day had roared to life.

The phone began ringing, today as always, before their feet hit the floor. Kathy and Zeitoun - most people called him by his last name because they couldn't pronounce his first - ran a company, Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, and every day their crews, their clients, everyone with a phone and their number, seemed to think that once the clock struck six-thirty, it was appropriate to call. And they called. Usually there were so many calls at the stroke of six-thirty that the overlap would send half of them straight to voicemail.

Kathy took the first one, from a client across town, while Zeitoun shuffled into the shower. Fridays were always busy, but this one promised madness, given the rough weather on the way. There had been rumblings all week about a tropical storm crossing the Florida Keys, a chance it might head north. Though this kind of possibility presented itself every August and didn't raise eyebrows for most, Kathy and Zeitoun's more cautious clients and friends often made preparations. Throughout the morning the callers would want to know if Zeitoun could board up their windows and doors, if he would be clearing his equipment off their property before the winds came. Workers would want to know if they'd be expected to come in that day or the next.

"Zeitoun Painting Contractors," Kathy said, trying to sound alert. It was an elderly client, a woman living alone in a Garden District mansion, asking if Zeitoun's crew could come over and board up her windows.

"Sure, of course," Kathy said, letting her feet drop heavily to the floor. She was up. Kathy was the business's secretary, bookkeeper, credit department, public-relations manager - she did everything in the office, while her husband handled the building and painting. The two of them balanced each other well: Zeitoun's English had its limits, so when bills had to be negotiated, hearing Kathy's Louisiana drawl put clients at ease.

This was part of the job, helping clients prepare their homes for coming winds. Kathy hadn't given much thought to the storm this client was talking about. It took a lot more than a few downed trees in south Florida to get her attention.

"We'll have a crew over this afternoon," Kathy told the woman.

Kathy and Zeitoun had been married for eleven years. Zeitoun had come to New Orleans in 1994, by way of Houston and Baton Rouge and a half- dozen other American cities he'd explored as a young man. Kathy had grown up in Baton Rouge and was used to the hurricane routine: the litany of preparations, the waiting and watching, the power outages, the candles and flashlights and buckets catching rain. There seemed to be a half-dozen named storms every August, and they were rarely worth the trouble. This one, named Katrina, would be no different.

Downstairs, Nademah, at ten their second-oldest, was helping get breakfast together for the two younger girls, Aisha and Safiya, five and seven. Zachary, Kathy's fifteen-year-old son from her first marriage, was already gone, off to meet friends before school. Kathy made lunches while the three girls sat at the kitchen table, eating and reciting, in English accents, scenes from Pride and Prejudice. They had gotten lost in, were hopelessly in love with, that movie. Dark-eyed Nademah had heard about it from friends, convinced Kathy to buy the DVD, and since then the three girls had seen it a dozen times - every night for two weeks. They knew every character and every line and had learned how to swoon like aristocratic maidens. It was the worst they'd had it since Phantom of the Opera, when they'd been stricken with the need to sing every song, at home or at school or on the escalator at the mall, at full volume.

Zeitoun wasn't sure which was worse. As he entered the kitchen, seeing his daughters bow and curtsy and wave imaginary fans, he thought, At least they're not singing. Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he watched these girls of his, perplexed. Growing up in Syria, he'd had seven sisters, but none had been this prone to drama. His girls were playful, wistful, always dancing across the house, jumping from bed to bed, singing with feigned vibrato, swooning. It was Kathy's influence, no doubt. She was one of them, really, blithe and girlish in her manner and her tastes - video games, Harry Potter, the baffling pop music they listened to. He knew she was determined to give them the kind of carefree childhood she hadn't had.

***

"That's all you're eating?" Kathy said, looking over at her husband, who was putting on his shoes, ready to leave. He was of average height, a sturdily built man of forty-seven, but how he maintained his weight was a puzzle. He could go without breakfast, graze at lunch, and barely touch dinner, all while working twelve-hour days of constant activity, and still his weight never fluctuated. Kathy had known for a decade that her husband was one of those inexplicably solid, self-sufficient, and never-needy men who got by on air and water, impervious to injury or disease - but still she wondered how he sustained himself. He was passing through the kitchen now, kissing the girls' heads.

"Don't forget your phone," Kathy said, eyeing it on the microwave.

"Why would I?" he asked, pocketing it.

"So you don't forget things?"

"I don't."

"You're really saying you don't forget things."

"Yes. This is what I'm saying."

But as soon as he'd said the words he recognized his error.

"You forgot our firstborn child!" Kathy said. He'd walked right into it. The kids smiled at their father. They knew the story well.

It was unfair, Zeitoun thought, how one lapse in eleven years could give his wife enough ammunition to needle him for the rest of his life. Zeitoun was not a forgetful man, but whenever he did forget something, or when Kathy was trying to prove he had forgotten something, all she had to do was remind him of the time he'd forgotten Nademah. Because he had. Not for such a long time, but he had.

She was born on August 4, on the one-year anniversary of their wedding. It had been a trying labor. The next day, at home, Zeitoun helped Kathy from the car, closed the passenger door, and then retrieved Nademah, still in her carseat. He carried the baby in one hand, holding Kathy's arm with the other. The stairs to their second- floor apartment were just inside the building, and Kathy needed help getting up. So Zeitoun helped her up the steep steps, Kathy groaning and sighing as they went. They reached the bedroom, where Kathy collapsed on the bed and got under the covers. She was relieved beyond words or reason to be home where she could relax with her infant.

"Give her to me," Kathy said, raising her arms.

Zeitoun looked down to his wife, astonished at how ethereally beautiful she looked, her skin radiant, her eyes so tired. Then he heard what she'd said. The baby. Of course she wanted the baby. He turned to give her the baby, but there was no baby. The baby was not at his feet. The baby was not in the room.

"Where is she?" Kathy asked.

Zeitoun took in a quick breath. "I don't know."

"Abdul, where's the baby?" Kathy said, now louder.

Zeitoun made a sound, something between a gasp and a squeak, and flew out of the room. He ran down the steps and out the front door. He saw the carseat sitting on the lawn. He'd left the baby in the yard. He'd left the baby in the yard. The carseat was turned toward the street. He couldn't see Nademah's face. He grabbed the handle, fearing the worst, that someone had taken her and left the seat, but when he turned it toward him, there was the tiny pink face of Nademah, scrunched and sleeping. He put his fingers to her, to feel her heat, to know she was okay. She was.

He brought the carseat upstairs, handed Nademah to Kathy, and before she could scold him, kid him, or divorce him, he ran down the stairs and went for a walk. He needed a walk that day, and needed walks for many days following, to work out what he'd done and why, how he had forgotten his child while aiding his wife. How hard it was to do both, to be partner to one and protector to the other. What was the balance? He would spend years pondering this conundrum.

This day, in the kitchen, Zeitoun wasn't about to give Kathy the opportunity to tell the whole story, again, to their children. He waved goodbye.

Aisha hung on his leg. "Don't leave, Baba," she said. She was given to theatrics - Kathy called her Dramarama - and all that Austen had made the tendency worse.

He was already thinking about the day's work ahead, and even at seven- thirty he felt behind.

Zeitoun looked down at Aisha, held her face in his hands, smiled at the tiny perfection of her dark wet eyes, and then extracted her from his shin as if he were stepping out of soggy pants. Seconds later he was in the driveway, loading the van.

Aisha went out to help him, and Kathy watched the two of them, thinking about his way with the girls. It was difficult to describe. He was not an overly doting father, and yet he never objected to them jumping on him, grabbing him. He was firm, sure, but also just distracted enough to give them the room they needed, and just pliant enough to let himself be taken advantage of when the need arose. And even when he was upset about something, it was disguised behind those eyes, grey-green and long-lashed. When they met, he was thirteen years older than Kathy, so she wasn't immediately sold on the prospect of marriage, but those eyes, holding the light the way they did, had seized her. They were dream-filled, but discerning, too, assessing - the eyes of an entrepreneur. He could see a run-down building and have not only the vision to see what it might become, but also the practical knowledge of what it would cost and how long it would take.

Kathy adjusted her hijab in the front window, tucking in stray hairs - it was a nervous habit - while watching Zeitoun leave the driveway in a swirling grey cloud. It was time for a new van. The one they had was a crumbling white beast, long-suffering but dependable, filled with ladders and wood and rattling with loose screws and brushes. On the side was their ubiquitous logo, the words Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor next to a paint roller resting at the end of a rainbow. The logo was corny, Kathy admitted, but it wasn't easy to forget. Everyone in the city knew it, from bus stops and benches and lawn signs; it was as common in New Orleans as live oak or royal fern. But at first it was not so benign to all.
 
When Zeitoun first designed it, he'd had no idea that a sign with a rainbow on it would signify anything to anyone — anything oher than the array of colors and tints from which clients might choose. But soon enough he and Kathy were made aware of the signals they were sending.
 
Immediately they began getting calls from gay couples, and this was good news, good business. But at the same time, some potential clients, once they saw the van arrive, were no longer interested in Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC. Some workers left, thinking that by working under the Zeitoun Painting rainbow they would be presumed to be gay, that somehow the company managed to employ only gay painters.
 
When Zeitoun and Kathy caught on to the rainbow's signifying power, they had a serious talk about it. Kathy wondered if her husband, who did not at that point have any gay friends or family members, might want to change the logo, to keep their message from being misconstrued.
 
But Zeitoun barely gave it a thought. It would costa  lot of money he said — about twenty signs had been made, not to mention all the business cards and stationary — and besides, all the new clients were paying their bills. It wasn't much more complicated than that.
 
"Think about it," Zeitoun laughed. "We're a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such a good idea to turn away clients." Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.
 
So the rainbow remained.
 

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 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. They had grown up in a big stone house on the Mediterranean, and none had strayed far from the shore. Zeitoun made a note to call Jableh sometime that day. There were always new babies, always news. He only had to reach one of his brothers or sisters — there were seven still in Syria — and he could get the full report.
 
Zeitoun turned on the radio. The storm that people were talking about was still far down in Florida, moving slowly west. It wasn't expected to make it up the Gulf for another few days, if at all. As he drove to his first job of the day, the restoration of a wonderful old mansion in the Garden District, he turned the dial on the radio, looking for something, anything else.
 
  

Standing in her kitchen, Kathy looked at the clock and gasped. It was all too rare that she got the kids to school on time. But she was working on it. Or planned to work on it as soon as the season calmed down. Summer was the busiest time for the business, with so many people leaving, fleeing the swamp heat, wanting these rooms or that porch painted while they were away.
 
With a flurry of warnings and arm movements, Kathy herded the girls and their gear into the minivan and headed across the Mississippi to the West Bank.
 
There were advantages to Zeitoun and Kathy running a business together — so many blessings, too many to name — but then again, the drawbacks were distinct and growing. They greatly valued being able to set their own hours, choose their clients and jobs, and be at home whenever they needed to be — their ability to be there, always and for anything relating to their children, was a profound comfort. But when friends would ask Kathy whether they, too, should start their own business, she talked them out of it. You don't run the business, she would say. The business runs you.
 
Kathy and Zeitoun worked harder than anyone they knew, and the work and worry never ended. Nights, weekends, holidays — respite never came. They usually had eight to ten jobs going at any one time, which they oversaw out of a home office and a warehouse space on Dublin Street, off Carrollton. And that was to say nothing of the property-management aspect of the business. Somewhere along the line they started buying buildings, apartments, and house, and now they had six properties with eighteen tenants. Each renter was, in some ways, another dependent, another soul to worry about, to provide with shelter, a solid roof, air-conditioning, clean water. There was a dizzying array of people to pay and collect from, houses to improve and maintain, bills to deal with, invoices to issue, supplies to buy and store.
 
But she cherished what her life had become, and the family she and Zeitoun had created. She was driving her three girls to school now, and the fact that they could go to private school, that their college would be taken care of, that they had all they needed and more — she was thankful every hour of every day.
 
Kathy was one of nine children, and had grown up with very little, and Zeitoun, the eighth of thirteen children, had been raised with almost nothing. To see the two of them now, to stand back and assess what they'd built — a sprawling family, a business of distinct success, and to be woven so thoroughly into the fabric of their adopted city that they had friends in every neighborhood, clients on almost every block they passed — these were all blessings from God.
 
How could she take Nademah, for instance, for granted? How had they produced such a child — so smart and self-possessed, so dutiful, helpful, and precocious? She was practically an adult now, it seemed — she certainly spoke like one, often more measured and circumspect than her parents. Kathy glanced at her now, sitting in the passenger seat playing with the radio. She'd always been quick. When she was five, no more than five, Zeitoun came home from work for lunch one day and found Nademah playing on the floor. She looked up at him and declared, "Daddy, I want to be a dancer." Zeitoun took off his shoes and sat on the couch. "We have too many dancers in the city," he said, rubbing his feet. "We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need teachers. I want you to be a doctor so you can take care of me." Nademah thought about this for a moment and said, "Okay, then I'll be a doctor." She went back to her coloring. A minute later, Kathy came downstairs, having just seen the wreck of Nademah's bedroom. "Clean up your room, Demah," she said. Nademah didn't miss a beat, nor did she look up from her coloring book. "Not me, Mama. I'm going to be a doctor, and doctors don't clean."
  

 
In the car, approaching the school, Nademah turned up the volume on the radio. She'd caught something on the news about the coming storm. Kathy wasn't paying close attention, because three or four times a season, it seemed, there was some alarmist talk about hurricanes heading straight for the city, and always their direction changed, or the winds fizzled in Florida or over the Gulf. If a storm hit New Orleans at all, it would be greatly diminished, no more than a day of grey gusts and rain.
 
This reporter was talking about the storm heading into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 1. It was about 45 miles north-northwest of Key West and heading west. Kathy turned the radio of; she didn't want the kids to worry.
 
"You think it'll hit us?" Nademah asked.
 
Kathy didn't think much of it. Who ever worried about a Category 1 or 2? She told Nademah it was nothing, nothing at all, and she kissed the girls goodbye.

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Reading Group Guide

1. “Notes About This Book” (xv) gives a sense of how the book was written, whose point of view it reflects, and Eggers’s efforts at accuracy and truth in his depiction of events. By choosing to portray the response to the hurricane through its effects on one family, what kind of story (or history) does he achieve?

2. The book opens with “Friday, August 26,” an expository chapter that introduces us to Zeitoun’s family life and his business life, the two very interconnected. What are some of the ways in which the descriptions here draw you in as a reader, and make these people and their situation real? Why is the timeline a good structural choice for this story?

3. Kathy has grown up as a Southern Baptist. Drawn to Islam through her childhood friend Yuko, she decides to convert. Why, when she comes to visit wearing her hijab, does her mother tell her, “Now you can take that thing off” (57)? Why does the prayer from the Qur’an quoted on page 51 have a strong effect on her? What does her reaction to the evangelical preacher who mocks Islam and says that Kathy’s temptation to convert was the work of the devil (65–66), say about Kathy’s character and intelligence?

4. Do Abdulrahman, Kathy and their children make up an unusual American family, or not? How would you describe the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy, in marriage and in business? What effect does their religion have on the way others in the community see them? 

5. Why has Eggers woven into the story accounts of Zeitoun’s past in Syria, his upbringing, his brother Mohammed, the champion swimmer, his brother Ahmad, and their close bond? What effect does this framework of family have on your perception of Zeitoun’s character, his ethics, his behavior?

6. The plight of the neighborhood’s abandoned dogs comes to Zeitoun’s attention as “a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shards” (93). The next day, he sets out in the canoe and tries to do what he can for animals and people trapped by the flood. How does Zeitoun feel about what he is doing? How does he think about these days after he has been imprisoned (262–64)? 

7. Discuss what happens when Zeitoun and the others are forced to get into the boat and are taken into custody. Is it clear why they are being arrested? What assumptions are made about Zeitoun and the other three men (275–87)?

8. Part IV (203–90) tells the story of Zeitoun’s imprisonment. Here we learn in great detail how Zeitoun is denied the right to call Kathy, how his injured foot is not attended to, how the other men are beaten, stripped, and starved, how he prays constantly, yet loses hope. What is the impact, as you read, of this narrative?

9. “Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics” (Timothy Egan, New York Times, August 13, 2009). Would you agree with this statement? Can Zeitoun be read as a contribution to the history of hurricane Katrina and the failure of government to handle the disaster effectively?

10. Discuss Kathy’s situation, and her actions once she learns where Zeitoun is. The aftermath is more difficult, and she still suffers from physical and psychological problems that seem to be the result of post-traumatic stress. What was the most traumatic part of her experience, and why (319)?

11. Given that the other men who were imprisoned with Zeitoun were held much longer than he was, and that Nasser lost his life savings, is it surprising that these men were not compensated in any way for their time in prison (320–21)?

12. What is Zeitoun’s feeling now about what happened? How does he move forward into the future, as expressed in the book’s closing pages (322-25)?

13. If you have read What is the What, Eggers’ novel about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, how does Zeitoun compare? Discuss Eggers’ approach to writing about traumatic regional and political events through the lives of individuals impacted by them.
 
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 319 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2010

    Zeitoun: A Must Read for Every Citizen of the United States

    David Eggers records the horrific events that occur to Mr. Zeitoun and his family during and following Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Zeitoun, a highly trusted and successful building contractor and manager in New Orleans, attempts to keep his properties safe during the catastrophic deluge that hits the Gulf Coast. Sadly, Mr. Zeitoun is arrested and suffers grave mistreatment and endless indignities because he is a devout Muslim. That he is a peaceful man, an honest businessman, a loving family man, means little to his jailers who stereotype him as a Middle Eastern threat. David Eggers describes in riveting detail the atrocities suffered by Mr. Zeitoun while in the hands of American soldiers. That our country could resort to such lawless inhumanity is shocking, but that we have not heard the full story before is even more shocking. It is every citizen's duty to read this book and to know what happened.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2011

    Could have been better...

    While Zeitoun was an interesting story about a man who stayed behind during and through the aftermath of hurricane Katrina that it was lacking in components that make up a good story. Since the book was nonfiction I thought it was easy to find that the author was trying not to reveal too much in the beginning of the story so that readers would still be interested. While this is a god idea most of the time, it causes the story to slowly progress and puts off the reader from reading this book. He also dwelled a little too much in Zeitoun's past for my liking. He was constantly backtracking throughout the story and took to much time on his past. I also found it strange that he did not mention a lot about his son and in pictures of their family they do not include him. I believe he only mentions Zachary about 10 times in the story. And when he needs to get to school instead of taking him to school he is left to make breakfast and find a way to school on his own. Instead of taking Zachary to school they find it more important to take the daughters to school. Is he not important enough? I feel that he doesn't get enough attention because he isn't Zeitoun's real son. For the sake of Zachary I truly hope that this is not an actuality. Overall I thought this book had a good story but was not laid out very well at all.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2011

    American Nightmare

    When a man-made catastrophe met a natural disaster, the American Dream became an American nightmare. For the Zeitoun a low pressure center named Katrina exaggerated the bigotry and biases stirred by the events of 9-11. For anyone who is Muslim and of Middle Eastern descent, the misguided hatred of the last ten years has brought untold suffering to Americans. Dave Eggers successfully weaves the stories of a pending storm and a country in moral crisis.

    This is a book that feels fiction in its telling, and the sobering truth is it is really true. I am left saddened that this story is but one of many that could be told, if we wanted to hear about the America we currently are protecting with laws that take away freedom and rights that our forefathers and mothers died for us to enjoy.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2011

    Highly Recommend-a great read, and a strong message!

    What started as a simple story of a family living in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina turns into a memorable and compelling story of the United States' mistreatment and misunderstanding of other cultures in a time of crisis. Though parts of the book will fuel any readers anger towards the way our public figures handled the disaster, Zeitoun is a must read. Readers will become engulfed in the tribulations the Zeitoun family preserves through. Everything from the flooding of their house, the distance between husband and wife throughout the disaster, and the uproar caused by the US police department. Along with this account of Katrina comes the message to all of us that we must not judge another based on religion, race, or gender. Dave Eggers writes this story phenomenally and in a way that every person will connect with the Zeitoun family and have a new compassion for those families who undergo these types of struggles.

    3 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Good reading but...

    The story is no doubt interesting and the author attempts to keep the interest to the reader. Being a true story I can attest to the author trying to keep a balance of not revealing too much in the beginning which would make the story not worth reading. Unfortunately this is what I find the author doing. Right from the beginning in what I assume to be bait to the reader, the pace is far too slow with more than necessary detours. At some point you want to skip the pages so as to get to what the author wants to really say. Although I commend the author on his consistency, as I re-read the book I thought it may have been better if he kept to a minimum the "to and fro" writing style and instead completed one scene.if you like.

    The hardest thing after reading this book is to accept that this could be happening in America. Knowing that Zeitouni is from Syria, I think the picture I got from what he did was more of an over glorified person. Almost diminishing what the rescue teams did. In fact the book lacked a clear balance of the good the government did, and rather focused more on Zeitouni and his mini mission. I believe the author had done very good research but his delivery was rather 'selfish' and he leaves the reader not asking for more but with a bitter taste in the mouth. Something like ."really?"

    All in all, it's a good book to read, tells you how mean and tough the world can be at times. Sadly this can happened anywhere anytime.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2010

    Great Book for ALL ages!!

    Although the book started out a little slow, it was so much more than I ever expected. The entire time I was reading I was recalling my own memories of news reports during that horrible time in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. There were so many other topics to consider during this one family's ordeal (flood, famine, finances, religion, profiling, etc.). Who knew one book could have it all?! Enjoy!!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2011

    Great Book

    What national disaster outrages you more? The poor handling of the devastation of hurricane Katrina by our government or the outrages treatment of Arab American citizens after 9/11/2001? In Zeitoun Abdurrahman suffers from both the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina, and unrightfull discrimination by his own government, due to his race.
    Abdurrahman is an Arabic American citizen from a small fishing town in Syria. Living the first half of his adult life out on sea working ships with his older brother, Ahmed, Abdurrahman settles in New Orleans, where he picks up his nickname as Zeitoun. Shortly after coming to America Zeitoun marries a recent convert to Islam and starts his own painting and contracting business. In 2005 when hurricane Katrina began to threaten the New Orleans area Zeitoun decided to stay and look over his home as Kathy, his wife, takes the kids to safety.
    As the conditions get worst in New Orleans Zeitoun decides to stay and to help whom he can from a canoe he bought a few years prior. But as conditions escalate in New Orleans Zeitoun is taken by the US government for reasons unknown, and unwarranted.
    This book encompasses two very under publicized events and is very informative; as well as fantastic read. I highly recommend this college freshmen.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 3, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Exposes some unbelievable events and circumstances

    The low key writing style of this author is the strength of this book. It's a true story about a real family and the actual events they experience as a result of hurricane Katrina. As most residents of New Orleans struggle to exit the city, Zeitoun chooses to stay to protect his properties and investments. The first thing that resonates with this book is the character of Zeitoun. He's a hardworking family man who immigrated to the United States from Syria. The events that unfold in the aftermath of Katrina are told from his perspective in a straight forward no nonsense style. He experiences the devastation of the storm followed by another nightmare, more potent and with longer lasting scars. He recounts the devastating effect of a society regressing to substandard mores and the result of being a Syrian immigrant during a national disaster. While reading I had to constantly remind myself this was not fiction and found it hard to believe such events could happen in America. It's an amazing story that is equal parts haunting and inspiring and leaves you wondering what else happened that was not reported. Some of the sections that deal with Zeitoun's background information are a little to long, but don't let that deter you from reading this piece of work

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    As close to suffering through a disaster as I ever hope to encounter!

    Any review I can write can not do this wonderful book justice.

    The saga of the Zeitoun family before, during and after Hurricane Katrina told without sensationalizing details (as if that were possible!) gives a probing insight into human beings stripped down of all pretenses of 'civilized' behavior, dealing with a natural disaster of immense and unprecedented proportions. Circumstances can turn some men into heroes (helping to rescue trapped neighbors and feeding trapped animals left behind to fend for themselves). It can also turn others into something not quite so noble (depriving others of their basic human rights, taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit and simple prejudice).

    This is truly an eye opening look at the Katrina disaster from a unique perspective. We are truly on the inside riding out the storm in our own homes. What type of person would you become? I hope this is as close as I ever come to finding out!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 5, 2012

    Informative and eye-opening read

    I found Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun to be a thrilling and informative read. We all know about the great devastation that occurred to the city of New Orleans after the hurricane, but I myself and probably many others may not of known about the great devastation to New Orleans’ citizens. Every American has to read this book to ensure injustices and flaws in the system that were brought to my attention during this book do not reoccur.

    After the hurricane, New Orleans did become a third world country. People’s rights were forgotten and thrown aside. People were arrested against their will. Terrible events occurred that I never knew the extent of until reading this book. I heard all about the damage to the land but not the damage to the families and people that stuck around. Not the suffering and injustice they experienced.

    I knew about the people trapped and being rescued, but not about the arrests made without any reason for arrest at all. People like Zeitoun were taken against their will and locked up in a prison because they looked suspicious. These men were only trying to protect their belongings, but the police arrested them at gunpoint as if they were uncontrollable murderers. It is amazing to me that such a well-respected man as Zeitoun could experience such severe discrimination. When he was brought to the prison he was treated differently because of his ethnic background. Also, the fact that none of these men could even contact their families when arrested shocked me. Every prisoner has the right to their one phone call and I never knew that these suffering people were denied that.

    Overall the events that occurred and were explained in this book shocked me. I saw an ugly side of the situation down in New Orleans that I never knew about prior. This is why it is so important for people to read this book or books similar to this one. Then, next time a horrific disaster occurs such as Hurricane Katrina we can provide the help necessary. We can make sure the prisoners are well cared for and rescued properly, to spare as many lives as possible. I enjoyed reading this book; it opened my eyes to the world around me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2011

    Great!

    Spoiler Alert: Dave Eggers puts an intriguing twist on this nonfiction story by adding a dash of fictional allusion to the event. Eggers ability to make a true-life story so tangible is illuminated throughout this book as he zooms in on the Zeitoun family. The Zeitouns are one of the many families who were tossed into the whirlwind of events during hurricane Katrina. Kathy, Zeitoun's wife, who is the practical thinker in the family, evacuates New Orleans with their four children before the hurricane hits, while her stubborn, yet excessively compassionate husband remains behind as he refuses to leave. Unfortunately, the proliferating storm leaves considerable damage in its rampage throughout the city. People, dogs, homes, cars and anything else that were lucky enough to survive were all left behind in great danger. For days Kathy is unable to reach her husband and she tears herself apart with stress and agony as her wild imagination only paints the worst. While Kathy is miles away from Zeitoun, and is only hoping for the best, Zeitoun is paddling around in his canoe trying to ease the harsh reality by rescuing any living creature he encounters. However, just when you think that the story is taking a positive turn, Eggers throws a curve ball and the unexpected should most definitely be expected. Zeitoun is unrightfully arrested on false accusations and is thrown into a cage where he suffers for weeks on end with no way of contacting Kathy. Intertwined within the recollection of all these events, Eggers also highlights racial struggles that the Zeitoun family commonly encounters due to the 9/11/01 terrorist attack. Not only will you find a coalition of tragic events and triumphs within these pages, but you will also discover the hardships the Zeitoun's encounter in their search not only for freedom from behind bars, but also for their treasured morals and culture. Eggers powerfully portrays each realistic struggle by writing in a style that makes the story relatable to anyone, whether you were directly or indirectly affected by Katrina. Faith, persistence, and a yearn to continue building on are the themes you will be left hanging onto after laying this book down.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2010

    A Wonderful Story

    Zeitoun is the kind of book that, while reading, the events seem so unreal that you have to constantly remind yourself that it is a true story. The gripping tale of a man in the midst of disaster will have you on your toes the whole time, wondering what is going to happen next. As a biography of a different sort, the events that occur in Zeitoun will make you question both the government and even society itself. The book gives the reader an entirely different perspective of hurricane Katrina--it takes you through the unbelievable series of events that occur to an honest man, who is simply trying to help people and calm the storm.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Hard to believe this could happen in America

    This book was interesting and well written from the start. My first Eggers book, I plan to read more. Without giving away the story, I was shocked someone in the US could be treated like this. I had a hard time knowing it was a true story. Recently I took a trip to NYC and there were several middle eastern men on the flight, I am a nervous flier anyway but I kept telling myself I was being prejudice just like the people in this book and I had to stop! I Think this book will make me more aware how I react to people that dress or look different than myself, not a bad thing for anyone. I not only learned from the book, I enjoyed reading it from the start.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I loved this book. Couldn't put it down.

    I loved this book. Couldn't put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2013

    Book was a little drawn out, needed  a editor bad to clean up th

    Book was a little drawn out, needed  a editor bad to clean up the flow of the story. Be careful not to have a one  sided view in this story as the Zeitoun we see hear had a history of Domestic violence the Author doesn't mention before giving him this title of hero. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2013

    I love Zeitoun!

    This book is honestly one if the best books Ive ever read in my entire life. It changed my perspective on the world i live in. Eggers allows his readers to form their own opinions by refusing to insert his own. He has crafted a beautifully story that everyine should read at least once in their life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2013

    There is a story here but the author strained to stretch it out

    There is a story here but the author strained to stretch it out to book length. Parts of the story are chilling and compelling, but the extraordinarily drawn-out passages badly needed an editor to tighten it up significantly. I wanted to like it, after seeing the movie "Trouble the Waters" (highly recommended with first-hand footage). I did finish it but was exhausted and frustrated by the time wasted in unnecessary verbiage.

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  • Posted August 2, 2013

    A story about a man and his love for family and community

    Nicely done book which tells a family's story of their experiences before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. While I'm not surprised by what Zeitoun had to go through after the storm, it's still shameful and heartbreaking. Blame for it can go to all levels of government. But this book isn't about the political breakdowns in the aftermath of Katrina. It's the story of a man displaying love for his family and community, and performing heroics that almost no one would know about if not for the book. Unlike what was shown ad nauseum on TV post-Katrina, there are vastly more people like Zeitoun who make up the citizens of the great city of New Orleans.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    An important story that should not be missed.

    An engrossing story about Hurricane Katrina, humanity and inhumanity. Thankful that this story was told.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2013

    Zeitouns

    Loved this read

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