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Zeitoun Dave Eggers Essays

The story’s intended audience is the government of United States, which according to the author, seemingly believes that military actions is the solution to humanitarian crisis that faces the global population. More importantly, the author targets misplaced priority that normally cripples in whenever a tragedy that affects larger population occurs. It can also be interpreted to mean that the author wanted to challenge those who have been involved in efforts to find solutions to problems that affects the global world- that their approaches to these problems have been historical failures.

For a person who is devoted to helping his fellow flood victims, a staunch Muslim Zeitoun ends up being arrested, purportedly for looting his own house. The family goes through unimaginable sufferings, and ends up with shocking news and exaggerated media stories about her husband. The public are made to belief that the drowned city is just but a war zone, comprised of people out to loot property rather than help. The use of force to disperse people, shoot to kill orders and political statements from the governor shifting attention to the people who are vividly miserable tells how the leaders can be heartless and careless with their actions. It clearly illustrates the author’s intention of vilifying the government’s traditions of using force and tragedy to torture innocent people. Precisely, Eggers targets President Bush’s administration policies on wars and humanitarian issues.    

The book has some important messages that the target audience should be in a position to learn. First, the government’s role should be to protect its people, irrespective of race, religion, color, and gender. In clear that Zeitoun was vilified for reasons not related to his mistakes. His was a case of misplaced aggression, as the fact remain that he was not guilty of anything and instead his humanitarian acts suggest how he was involved in helping Katrina victims during the disaster. He was being labeled an al-Qaeda, something that many have gone through since 9/11 terrorism act. It’s traumatizing enough for those who have experienced such events, but issues need to be tackled with much sobriety. That is, the attack that was carried out by Muslim fundamentalists should never be used as the excuse for levying every Muslim a terrorist.

The other important message this story brings us to is that America was tested indeed, but due to lack of visionary leadership, we failed. The inability of United States as the world’s sole superpower to avert certain crisis clearly suggests how we as a nation can be trounced within a second without much help from our own national leaders. The ability of a nation to protect its people was put to test, but the end result justified otherwise. Although this may sound as a bitter fact, it is clearly illustrated by the story of this Syrian immigrant, and a clear testimony of what can become of a lapse in leadership and misuse of military. 

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His wife, Kathy, has Southern Baptist big-family roots, but drifts after a failed early marriage until she finds a home in Islam and a doting husband in Abdul. Her hijab is a problem for her family, and for many citizens in post-9/11 America. Yet her charms and his smarts make for a good pairing at home and at the office — which is often the same place, an old house in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.

Eggers starts things out at a slow simmer, two days before the storm arrives, with tension in the air, people fleeing, anxiety as heavy as the humidity. It’s Hitchcock before the birds attack. Once he starts to turn up the gas, he never lets up. Kathy flees with the children, first to a crowded, anxious house of relatives in Baton Rouge and then west to Phoenix. She begs Zeitoun to join them. But he’s been through storms before, he says, and besides, somebody needs to stay behind and watch the fort.

Katrina hits in the early hours of Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, the day after the mandatory evacuation ordered by the mayor. It’s a Category 5 storm before landfall, with winds over 150 miles an hour. Zeitoun expects his house to leak, maybe some windows to shatter, but he’ll be fine. As a precaution, he fetches a 16-foot aluminum canoe that he had purchased second­hand for $75.

Day 1, post-storm, no problem: about a foot of storm sludge in the streets.

Day 2, the world changes. Zeitoun wakes to a sea of water, after the levees have failed. He’s neck-deep in a city of a thousand acts of desperation.

“He knew it would keep coming, would likely rise eight feet or more in his neighborhood, and more elsewhere,” Eggers writes. At that point, Zeitoun reaches into his aquarium, knowing his fish won’t survive there. “He dropped them in the water that filled the house. It was the best chance they had.”

Kids: that’s the kind of reporting detail that makes a book like this come alive.

Thereafter it’s an odyssey with the quality of an unpleasant dream, at times surreal, in which Zeitoun paddles around New Orleans in his canoe for a week, an angel of mercy. This section, which takes up the middle third of the book, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic fiction, with the added bonus of proper punctuation.

Zeitoun saves elderly and dehydrated residents trapped in rotting, collapsing homes: “Help me,” comes the voice of an old woman. “Her patterned dress was spread out on the surface of the water like a great floating flower. Her legs dangled below. She was holding on to a bookshelf.” In his first day in the canoe, Zeitoun assists in the rescue of five residents. “He had never felt such urgency and purpose,” Eggers writes. “He was needed.”

At night, Zeitoun sleeps in a tent on the flat part of his roof. By day, he’s out among the killing waters that buried New Orleans, polluted with garbage, oil, debris, the scraps of people’s lives. “It smelled dirtier every day, a wretched mélange of fish and mud and chemicals.”

But within a week, the sense of menace and edgy despair becomes overwhelming. Now Zeitoun’s days are like a watery version of Dante’s “Inferno,” with flood and disease and tough moral choices around every bend: rescue or paddle on?

The book takes a sudden turn when six armed officers show up at Zeitoun’s house. He thinks they are there to help him, and he’s happy to point them to people in need of assistance. Wrong assumption: Zeitoun is taken away at gunpoint.

After that he goes missing, with no contact with the outside world. His wife assumes, after six days without communication, that he’s dead. This is perhaps the most haunting part of the book, and Eggers’s 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?

Only a spoiler would reveal anything beyond this point. Suffice it to say that Zeitoun is mistaken for a terrorist and subjected to a series of humiliations, locked in a cage, then a prison, all the while without being charged with anything or even being allowed to make a phone call to his wife.

The Bush war on terror had come home. FEMA, once a model of government disaster response, is in this account a band of paramilitary thugs, seeing everything through the dark lens of counterterrorism. Zeitoun was Syrian-American and loose in New Orleans. That’s all the authorities needed to know.

In the end, as mentioned, “Zeitoun” is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics. That is in large part because Eggers has gotten so close to his subjects, going back and forth between Syria and America, crosscutting to flesh out the family and their story.

“This book does not attempt to be an all-encompassing book about New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina,” Eggers writes in his author’s note. Of course not. But my guess is, 50 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.

Continue reading the main story


By Dave Eggers

Illustrated. 351 pp. McSweeney’s Books. $24

Correction: September 6, 2009

A review on Aug. 16 about “Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers’s account of the experiences of a New Orleans contractor, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, referred imprecisely to some aspects of the storm. While there were strong winds and heavy rain at Zeitoun’s house on the evening of Aug. 28, the hurricane didn’t “hit” on that date; it made landfall in Louisiana in the early hours of Aug. 29. And while Katrina was at one point a Category 5 storm, by the time of landfall, it was Category 3.

The review also referred incompletely to the subsequent flooding of New Orleans. While some of it was indeed the direct result of overtopping of the levees, a larger portion was due to their structural failure.