Book Review: Zeitoun

zeitounAbdulrahman Zeitoun, namesake of Dave Eggers’ 2009 memoir about a Muslim man caught up in America’s broken justice system during the flooding of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, made news for the second time last summer. You probably caught wind of it. It was the kind of tragic, salacious news that devastates fans at the same time that it provokes critics to cry out en masse “I told you so!” I won’t get into it here, especially since some of you, like me, may want to give the book a fair shot. I encourage you to do so.

I finally read the news after finishing the book last week and, honestly, it didn’t spoil the book for me. If anything, it made an already heartbreaking story more real. Hearing that there had been some scandal associated with the book last summer, I purposefully turned a blind eye to the headlines. I’d been meaning to read Zeitoun because, like probably many Americans untouched by hurricane Katrina, I felt like I knew next to nothing about what really happened down there. I heard about the looting, the racist news coverage, FEMA’s regrettable failures at nearly every turn. I knew a boy in the Marines, a few year’s older than me, who went down to New Orleans after the flood for his first mission. He’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan since, but even today he won’t talk about New Orleans.

katrina dogI had a high school sophomore’s memory of Katrina, but I didn’t know about the thousands of citizens who were arrested on false charges of looting and kept in outdoor FEMA prisons, including a seventy eight year-old woman, made to sleep on a sewage-washed pavement for going to her car to retrieve provisions. Or how these same citizens were denied basic rights, like a phone call, and presumed dead by family members for weeks and months, and then made to pay inflated bail. Or how Americans of Middle Eastern decent were arrested falsely for looting (when many of them were pulling people out of flooded attics), and then accused of being Al Qaeda.

I don’t want to get all Democracy Now! on you in this post, but that is exactly the tone of the book. Very political. You’re suppose to be outraged when you read Zeitoun. You’re suppose to want justice when you finish. Heck, Eggers and the main characters set up a foundation to do just that. Which just makes the news about Zeitoun the man all the more heartbreaking. You should still be outraged because, yes, I do think the Zeitoun family’s current troubles are a direct result of their treatment during the flood. But my outrage, in light of the sad turn of events, has largely been replaced by a wordless sorrow.

eggerszeitounAnd so, instead of going round in circles about how effed up that whole Katrina situation was, I’m going to reign myself in with bullet points.

What I liked about the book:

  • Though the first half of the book is pretty slow going, I appreciated how Eggers introduced us to the Zeitoun family in happier times. In that way, the tragedy of their story comes as that much more of a surprise.
  • The way Eggers presents the Muslim faith with intelligence and realism. It’s done very matter of fact. He doesn’t explain every tenant of the faith, but rather refers to aspects of the faith as it applies to the characters in their daily lives. It’s not exotic. It’s their life.
  • Kathy Zeitoun’s conversion story. That alone, if all American school children were made to read it, would improve American-Muslim relations in the future.
  • The beautiful prayers excerpted from the Qur’an. Not only were they fascinating and beautiful to read, they helped breath life into Zeitoun the character.
  • Once the story picked up steam, Eggers’ writing becomes less stiff and more natural.
  • I loved the pictures.

Where I felt the book fell short:

  • Dave Eggers’ writing, especially in the first half of the book felt stiff and contrived. I’d only read Egger’s short short stories before this, so my guess is the lengthier, fact-based genre doesn’t suit his surgically precise skill with wordplay in its shorter forms. 
  • No matter what side you come out on with regards to the recent news, you do have to wonder how much Egger whitewashed the characters. Did he at all? Did he allow his affection for them, their story, and the issues sway how he portrayed the characters?
  • More pictures of the family, please.

Okay, enough of what I think. Please tell me your thoughts on the book (if you’ve read it), and if you haven’t, will you? Will you read the news first or after? Did the news sway you on the book when you heard it?

And more generally, how do you feel when nonfiction books you’ve read and loved turn out years later to be the center of controversy? I’d really love to hear y’all’s take on things.

1 comment
  1. Sara said:

    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is probably one of my top five favorite books. His writing in that book is raw, slightly offensive, hilarious, and truly heartbreaking. I definitely recommend it. I did start to read Zeitoun but didn’t get far I think because it was so different than Heartbreaking, and I did find it kind of stiff in the beginning. But, after your review, I think I’ll try again. Its an important topic to be reminded of, even in spite of the controversy you mentioned.

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