Posted by: Jeanie F | August 21, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun is my book club’s reading selection for September. When we chose it last month we could never have foreseen how timely a selection it would be in light of the anti-Islamic hysteria springing up over the alleged “mosque at Ground Zero” (which is NOT a mosque and is not AT Ground Zero). I’d love to make this book mandatory reading for everyone so that we can all get a clear understanding of the difference between Muslims and terrorists.

This is the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American businessman living  in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Raised in Syria and immigrating to the US as an adult, he had a thriving painting and contracting business, a growing family, a stable and loving marriage. He was a devout Muslim who followed the practice of participating in five formal prayer times each day. He was fanatic in his insistence that his children get good educations. He was well known and respected throughout New Orleans.

When Katrina struck New Orleans, Zeitoun’s wife and children left the city to stay with relatives in Baton Rouge. Although his wife, Kathy, begged him to come with them, he felt he needed to stay in New Orleans to look after his business and rental properties. In the days following the storm, he insisted on remaining in New Orleans, believing that perhaps God had left him there for a purpose. Each day he set out in his second-hand canoe, carrying supplies to people who were stranded and notifying authorities of the locations of those needing assistance.

He discounted reports of the severity of the storm, stubbornly stayed in New Orleans following the mayor’s post-Katrina orders for mandatory evacuation, and ultimately paid a heavy price for it. The story of Zeitoun is the account of the price extracted. I’m not going to spoil the suspense by relating the ensuing events. The links that I’ve included here lead to full reviews of the story, should you want more information. Instead, I’d like to point out the important reasons why you should read this book:

  • It’s an outstanding example of nonfiction narrative. Those of us who are inveterate lovers of fiction often pass over nonfiction titles, but this book reads as well as any novel. I promise, you’ll find it an absorbing.
  • The up close and personal account of the family’s suspense anticipating Katrina’s arrival and the apocalyptic portrayal of the storm’s aftermath is the single best account of this tragedy’s impact on real people that I’ve read. Eggers doesn’t hit you over the head with statistics; he shows you individual scenes of terror, loss, and heroism. A single example, among many, is Zeitoun’s discovery of abandoned dogs in his neighborhood. Hearing their “wild, unmoored, spiraling” barking, Zeitoun realized that the dogs were “mad with hunger.” He set out in his canoe to find them, two dogs trapped on the second story of their home. Unable to reach the window that led to the dogs, he found a sixteen-foot plank that he could suspend between a tree and the house, about eight feet above the water line. Employing the plank to reach them, each day Zeintoun took meat from his freezer and provided food and fresh water to the terrified animals.
  • Egger’s careful pacing of the story, told from the point of view of one man, takes the reader into the world of the people of New Orleans in a way that no journalistic report could do.
  • As Andrew O’Hehir says in his review: “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.”
  • Through Egger’s – not Zeitoun’s – eyes, we see the mistrust and discrimination that all Muslims must endure in post-9/11 America. We’re reminded of our common humanity.

Criticisms of Zeitoun generally hinge on whether or not Eggers got the facts straight. In fact, The New York Times added an addendum to Timothy Egan’s review of the book to make a few corrections. Nevertheless, as Dan Baum, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle says, “But that’s a quibble. ‘Zeitoun’ is a warm, exciting and entirely fresh way of experiencing Hurricane Katrina.”


  1. I didn’t realize this is non-fiction. It sounds like a book I should read. It’s going on the TBR. Now I need time to read it… sigh!

  2. I highly recommend retirement as the way to make headway on the TBR list. It’s working for me!

  3. Hi, I just reviewed this book yesterday:

    That was a great qoute, the one O’Hehir. It sums up the book quite well.

  4. Yours is the first review I’ve seen of this book, and I’m absolutely sold! It sounds amazing, and I’m a fan of fiction and non, so it’s right up my alley.

    • I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! Let me know what you think.

  5. Great post. I’ve been curious about this book for some time, but it fell off my radar…until now.

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