Zeitoun, Dave Eggers

When I first heard of the book called Zeitoun, and looked it up, I thought it was a story about one man’s survival during the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It takes place largely in New Orleans, during 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed the south. However, this book is so much more than a story of survival. It is a story of stamina, tolerance, injustice and stupidity. Sometimes I wondered what was Abdulrahmen thinking and sometimes I wondered, is this the United States of America we are talking about or some kind of a Twilight Zone of horror?
Zeitoun is from Syria, but is a naturalized citizen of the US. He loves America and is a fairly devout Muslim. Kathy, his wife, 14 years his junior, is a converted Muslim, originally a Christian. They are living the American dream and loving it. They both work hard and have provided a great life for themselves and their children. Then Katrina struck.
Kathy takes the children to safety and Zeitoun stays back to watch over their properties and his business. Both of them realized that the Dome was not a really viable choice for evacuation as in the past it was not able to provide for all the needs of the people housed there and this could be a far worse event. One has to wonder what the powers that be were thinking, when they failed to call for a mandatory evacuation until the last moment.
At first, all goes well, regardless of the mishandling of the disaster. Zeitoun even rescues families that never left and feeds some of the abandoned dogs which people had to leave behind. Because there are jittery hands, on the triggers of guns at Homeland Security and FEMA, a travesty of justice occurs. The story the book relates is of Zeitoun’s nightmare existence over a very short period of time, not at the hands of the hurricane, but at the hands of the representatives of FEMA, the National Guard, Homeland Security and disinterested people, in and out of the government, who should have had a whole lot more compassion, as he actually did before his private Hell began.
Zeitoun is a hardworking man who owns a paint company, and does construction work in addition to owning real estate. He is a considerate and concerned landlord and employer. One of the duties he performs is helping people board up their homes when a storm is coming. He also makes repairs and restores the homes of yesteryear paying careful attention to detail. Since his English is not the best, Kathy fields the phone calls, mans the desk and arranges the schedule for him. They are always relaying messages back and forth to each other during each day.
Both from large family backgrounds, they are extremely proud of what they have accomplished with their lives. Their work ethic is exemplary. I did briefly wonder if he employed illegals, since he does employ a lot of transient workers, but that was not addressed in the book although the fear of being targeted as an Arab was most definitely addressed. I also wondered about some of the political undertones but I was never sure about which side they were coming down upon. Zeitoun does feel that Muslims are unjustly targeted and after learning of his experiences, although it was during a rare and unusual situation, it does make you stop and think about that yourself.  The book definitely addresses issues of racism, Muslim profiling and the injustice of some of the newly enacted laws put in place to prevent terrorism.
The issue of the debacle that was Katrina is handled well; however, I do not think it came down hard enough on the lack of timely, assertive action by Mayor Nagen and Governor Blanco, until it was way too late to prevent disaster. The tragedy was overwhelming and there was no precedent then, as there is now, for the handling of such enormous flooding. Today, coincidentally, the spillways have been opened to relieve the rising flood waters. This will flood the Cajun country in Louisiana and, hopefully, prevent New Orleans and other major cities from the catastrophic effects of flooding, once again. The last time this occurred was 4 decades ago. Thousands will feel the effect and be displaced now too, and it was a tough choice to make. This President (Obama)may not be judged as harshly as the former one (Bush), even though he had no precedent to use as a guide and the new administration has not corrected the mistakes of the last flood, thus  requiring them to open the floodgates and to flood one area to prevent another from being damaged. At least they have learned an alternate way to handle the levees when they are about to be overwhelmed so that the fewest will be badly affected. However, I believe that the levees should have been shored up to prevent this from even being necessary.
Another issue I have with the book is that Kathy converts to Islam because she is disappointed with Christianity and the way her minister chastises Muslims publicly and then he actually humiliates her in front of the congregation for entertaining the idea of converting to it. Yet, she sees nothing wrong with many of the teachings of the Koran which call for the murder of infidels and does not afford basic human rights or equality to women. Although Imams have called for the death of Americans and the destruction of Israel, she remains faithful to their cause. On the one hand, she allowed a frivolous reason to take her from the Christian path while tolerating and staying faithful to a religion which honors men who rape women and behead infidels. Some of the comments she makes seem a bit ironic, too, in the face of current events. She believes that Syria may be a better and safer place to live than America, which leads one to wonder how much she can really know about the life of a Muslim woman in a Middle Eastern Arab country, especially now, in the light of what is happening in Syria, with human rights being trampled on and people being slaughtered every day. I also wondered at the naiveté of such a woman when she is given credit for sizing up a situation in light of how many guns the country might have and how many rounds of ammunition they would use, etc. It seemed highly unlikely that she would have that kind of knowledge; they didn’t own guns.  Also, her fear of Israeli soldiers and the comments made in the book seem not only anti Israel but a bit anti-Semitic, as well, falling prey to the very stereotyped thought she objects to about Muslims and Arabs.
There was also an awful lot of arrogance exhibited by Zeitoun and his friends, what Zeitoun eventually called his hubris, and for which he was ashamed. Yet no behavior on his part justified the end result he suffered. He was mistreated, mishandled and dishonored by stupid, misguided people. Zeitoun chose to disobey the evacuation order even when it became mandatory, thinking it was G-d’s will that he stay and rescue people in distress and also, he remained to protect the abandoned dogs. The fact that his messages about people needing to be rescued were ignored, by the authorities and other people, who could help, was unforgivable. The fact that the dogs he cared for were left to fend for themselves when he was unable to return, is also despicable. I know that the government had a lot to handle, but they built a prison which wound up housing many innocent people, who were afforded no access to the justice system. Then they provided for the needs of these prisoners, leaving the population at large to languish, the pets left behind, to starve, and the property forcibly abandoned was left to be looted and destroyed.
There was no excuse for such shameful behavior, especially when there were people who were willing to volunteer to help. The belongings of the people taken into custody, was rarely returned and the money they carried was often stolen. The behavior by those in charge was reprehensible.  Since I know someone personally, who was disabused by the authorities:  whose money and belongings were stolen, who had a dog he had to abandon whom he had stayed with because he had refused to leave it behind, whose rescue was not forthcoming although the person who rescued the others in the attic with him, shortly after the flood began, vowed to come back, who suffered irreparable health damage waiting for a rescue which took eight days, I know that the horrors of Zeitoun were not products of his imagination but were living nightmares. The man I knew, the man I gave money to so he could find a place to live and purchase a used car, eventually suffered a stroke and died a very untimely and unpleasant death.
For the first 200 pages or so, the book was too much about Islam for me, and not enough about Katrina. However, in the last third of the book, the pace picks up; the message is clarified.
I wondered about the background of the author, since he spent so much time defending the Muslim religion in kind of a one sided way and also I felt there was a kind of anti-American tone to the book. I wondered why he was so pro Syria, at the same time as he criticized the US. As with the books Three Cups of Tea and Little Princes, there is a larger purpose to the writing of the book. A foundation has been set up so that proceeds will benefit victims.
The catastrophe, and the way it was mismanaged, has left permanent scars on the whole family that can never be erased. Sometimes, the inability to see the whole picture, on both sides of the spectrum, can have tragic, long-lasting results. This family has returned to a semblance of their former existence, but, they will never be the same. The larger picture made those in command lose sight of the little guy. They never saw the forest for the trees. There were so many who were intimidated by the laws enacted by Homeland Security, that were afraid to act, and with good reason. I think of that now, since currently,  May 14, 2011, thousands of acres of farm land are being flooded, sacrificing the homes and livelihoods of one group of people, farmers, in favor of another in urban centers. Do we ever have the right to play G-d? Will anyone be brave enough to question the judgment of those in power today? Will it eventually be the right decision or will this President have to answer to a higher authority? Hindsight has been proven to be 20/20 while justice has been proven to be blind.

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About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Books for Adults, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zeitoun, Dave Eggers

  1. please can you touch a little on racism?? was told to research on it and am getting lean analysis..

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