Dave Eggers has managed to achieve what thousands of journalists and authors have been eluded by: distil the countless tales of trauma from Hurricane Katrina into a single story. Zeitoun is the true story of Abdelrahman Zeitoun, a middle-aged Syrian-American Muslim father of four and the owner of a successful painting and contracting firm. Zeitoun takes pride in New Orleans and accepts his duty to stay behind during the impact of the category five hurricane, despite his family evacuating and a mandatory order being placed. Zeitoun purchases a second-hand canoe following the now infamous rupture of the levees and begins rescuing stranded neighbors from the rising infectious waters. If the tale of the Zeitouns ended here, this would not be a Dave Eggers book. Eggers has become a literary icon for his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What, the slightly fictionalized memoir of an actual refugee of the Sudanese civil war.
Zeitoun becomes a hero to residents in New Orleans and rescues from rotting and collapsing homes more people than FEMA and the National Guard could claim for themselves. The tension is slowly building in the story, and soon enough, Zeitoun is caught up in the middle of a city where law and order have ceased to exist. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina is marred with tales of racism, bureaucratic incompetence, misguided government-wide policies, and media warfare. Zeitoun reaches a boiling point when he and three of his friends are arrested by the National Guard and accused of being terrorists inside of Zeitoun's home.
Despite being concerned with the well-being and dignity of his neighbors, and fellow "refugees" as the media referred to residents of New Orleans, Zeitoun too would encounter extraordinary conditions that would reject affording him any rights and dignity. He is jailed for weeks without being charged or allowed a single phone call to his family, who fears he is dead. "Zeitoun had not been charged with a crime. He had not been read his rights. He did not know why he was being held. Now, he was being held in a small white room surrounded by soldiers in camouflage demanding he removes his clothes" (p. 226). Both the reader and Zeitoun are aware that the incidents that took place are a riveting examples of American dystopia in the twenty-first century and cannot be rivaled by even the Third World at its worst. Zeitoun appears to realize this later than the reader does; "Zeitoun was in disbelief. It was 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" (p.228).
Zeitoun, like his American-Born wife Kathy, are both devout Muslims, and this label comes with a significant price. They continue to lead an all-American life with their four children and enjoy being held in high esteem by their community. Zeitoun quickly descends from an uplifting story of hope to Kafka-esque nightmare. Along with Nasser, another Arab-American immigrant, Zeitoun is accused of being an agent of al Qaeda and is singled out from other prisoners for blatant abuse and isolation. Prison officials deny Zeitoun even a single phone call, and he spends weeks in jail without being made aware of the charges against him.
Eggers is the boy-wonder of fiction and reporting trauma and human rights violations in the 21st century; however, Zeitoun is told by Kathy and Abdelrahman, and incidents in the story have been verified extensively. Subsequently, Zeitoun is a profoundly read-able piece of history and journalism narrated by those forced to bear the brunt of disastrous policies that seem to purposefully induce mass panic and distrust at the cost of the marginalization of the minorities and poor. Zeitoun is not a novel; rather, it is an oral history of one of the darkest times in American history. The extraordinary and yet accepted events that took place to the Zeitoun family could have only taken place during 2005: when the War on Terror came home. Bush-era philosophy towards law enforcement and incarceration along with a philosophy of rejecting Habeas Corpus merged with militarized nationalism and corporate welfare during Hurricane Katrina, and the result is the story of Abdelrahman Zeitoun.
Eggers records the history of the Zeitouns in a flawless parameter and steers clear of the literary maneuvers that earned him accolades for his first two books. Instead, Zeitoun is told with as much restraint as possible and in the simplest of forms. Eggers portrays the inept and corrupt system in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans without the need to resort to a simple rhetorical prose, rant, or argument against the government. Kathy and Abdelrahman speak for themselves and the residents of New Orleans in narrating their trials and humiliation in Zeitoun.
In fifty years, historians will define Hurricane Katrina using the name Abdelrahman Zeitoun.