Dave Eggers is the very model of the engaged writer. Since publishing his first book, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he has branched out into all kinds of philanthropic literary activity. His organisation, McSweeney’s, has become a major imprint, championing emerging writers. In San Francisco, he has set up a community writing project, called 826 Valencia, which now has branches in six other cities.
In 2004, he created Voice of Witness, ‘a series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world’. In one project, people talked about their experiences in Hurricane Katrina and that was where he first read the story of Zeitoun, and was so struck by it that he has now converted it himself into a full-scale narrative, with all the royalties donated to ‘the Zeitoun Foundation’.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun came originally from a fishing village on the coast of Syria. After ten years crewing on ships, he arrived in the United States on an oil tanker in 1988 and found work as a builder’s labourer. A devout Muslim, he married a local woman, Kathy. Although brought up a Southern Baptist, after an unhappy early marriage she converted to Islam and wears the hijab.
By the time Katrina struck in August 2005, the couple had been happily married for 11 years, had four daughters, ran a successful painting and contracting business and owned a number of rental properties in New Orleans. Eggers picks up their story five days before the storm struck.
Although asserted to be non-fiction, based on lengthy interviews with Abdulrahman and Kathy and fact-checked, Zeitoun nonetheless reads exactly like a novel, the author assuming complete access to his main characters’ thoughts and feelings and scripting comprehensive dialogue for them.
Following increasingly urgent warnings, Kathy Zeitoun and her children left New Orleans to stay with family in Baton Rouge, a couple of days before Katrina arrived. Despite the mayor then ordering mandatory evacuation, Zeitoun chose to stay, to tend to his properties. In the days after the levees broke, he paddled around the flooded, mostly empty streets in an old alumininium canoe, helping people (and dogs) whenever he could, staying in touch with Kathy on a phone-line still working in one of his houses.
But after a week of this neighbourly activity, Zeitoun, with three acquaintances, was suddenly arrested by armed police and soldiers on erroneous suspicion of looting, and dumped into ‘Camp Greyhound’, the temporary prison that had been hastily built at the bus station. He got neither a phone call nor a lawyer, endured a rectal search and was given inappropriate food.
Kathy did not hear anything from him or about him for a fortnight and by the time a missionary rang to say where he was, she had begun to assume he was dead. It was another ten days more before he was released, having at last been interviewed, for half an hour by two courteous men in suits from the Department of Homeland Security, who then apologised to him and asked what they could do for him.
Happily, despite this disturbing experience, the Zeitouns have subsequently stayed in New Orleans, rebuilt their house and business, bought more properties and have had another child, a son this time, ‘a preternaturally content baby’.
It’s certainly a story that doesn’t reflect particularly well on the way the authorities in New Orleans behaved after Hurricane Katrina. They were inept and heavy-handed and they seem to have been concerned much more with establishing martial law than bringing actual aid to the people of New Orleans.
On the other hand, this was the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States, and if the authorities didn’t deal with it well, they didn’t cause it either. Overnight, more than three-quarters of New Orleans was under water. There was disorder and looting. At least 1,836 people died. Not many lawyers stayed around. Nothing much worked for a long time afterwards.
If Zeitoun was the victim of an injustice, it was one he could have avoided by the simple expedient of obeying the order to leave. If, once arrested, he was discriminated against because of his origins and faith, as his interview with Homeland Security suggests, his non-Muslim friends, arrested at the same time, seem actually to have fared considerably worse, serving many more months in prison, before being released without charge or compensation.
You begin this book with high hopes. It promises to be fascinating to read a close-up account of what it is like to live through such a natural catastrophe and its aftermath, through first-hand testimony so skilfully redacted into a smooth narrative. Eggers knows his business and Zeitoun is probably already on the syllabus in non-fiction writing classes.
Very soon, though, the book reveals itself to be quite enraging — and not in the way that Eggers obviously hopes. What we have here is a work of relentless bias, with all the subtlety of Soviet tractor fiction. Or put it another way: it’s like the world’s most right-on Ladybird book. An insult to the intelligence.
Zeitoun is portrayed throughout as, quite simply, a saint. He is perfect in every respect. He’s ‘one of those inexplicably solid, self-sufficient men who got by on air and water, impervious to injury or disease’. He prays five times a day and knows the Koran by heart. He’s a fantastic worker. One day, before he set up his own super-reliable business, he looked like being late for work when his bike got a flat. So he picked it up on his back and started running miles to the job, although ‘it was August and the humidity was profound’. His employer happened to drive by and pick him up:
It’s an anecdote that wouldn’t be out of place in a medieval hagiography, slotted in between the saint striking water from a rock and miraculously reviving a dead donkey.
Zeitoun loves his family: ‘The scene was almost too much, too beautiful. It was enough to burst a man’s heart wide open.’ And he loves America, even though he and hijab-wearing Kathy have encountered some little instances of prejudice since 9/11:
His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?
He also cares for dogs trapped in the upper storeys of houses, feeding them steaks from his freezer and bottled water:
Zeitoun was in high spirits. He felt invigorated by what he’d been able to do for the dogs, that he was there for those animals, and four dogs that almost certainly would have starved would now live because he had stayed behind, and because he had bought that old canoe. He couldn’t wait to tell Kathy.
It’s a strange emphasis, Zeitoun the dog-lover, perhaps meant to counteract the uncomfortable fact that dogs are commonly viewed as impure in Islam, permitted as working animals but not as pets living in the house?
In a similar way, to disarm any adverse presumptions, we are pointedly told early in the story that Zeitoun has an extensive gay clientele in New Orleans, and close gay friends too, as a result of having accidentally made his company logo ‘a paint roller resting at the end of a rainbow’. When he finds that the rainbow attracts gay customers, he and Kathy have a serious talk about it but they decide to stick with it. ‘ “Anybody who had a problem with rainbows”, he said, “would surely have trouble with Islam”.’
And then this paragon, this saviour of all, is brutally, unjustly arrested, by thuggish policemen and guardsmen. At this point, Eggers adroitly switches the narrative over to Kathy for the next few chapters, leaving us in suspense about his fate. Kathy has been having a hard enough time herself with her unsympathetic family in Baton Rouge, who have thoughtlessly offered her children hot dogs containing pork. Now she suffers terribly, not knowing for days if her husband is alive or dead.
And Zeitoun himself, in the improvised prison, in ruined New Orleans, is served barbecued pork ribs for dinner and then ham for breakfast and lunch, before getting a beef stew that he can eat. The guards use pepper sprays and bean-bag guns on recalcitrant prisoners and they are quite rude. One even tells Zeitoun: ‘You guys are terrorists. You’re Taliban.’ Zeitoun himself begins to think that ‘he, like so many others, might be taken to an undisclosed location — to one of the secret prisons abroad? To Guantanamo Bay?’
To ratchet up the tension, he begins to feel a terrible pain in his side, worse and worse, perhaps mortally dangerous? Later, doctors can find nothing wrong, the pain disappears — and ‘this convinced Zeitoun it had been caused not by anything visible on an X-ray, but by heartbreak, by sorrow.’
By this stage, any half-awake reader is likely to be feeling seriously below par too.
Both the Arab Cultural and Community Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have honoured Dave Eggers with awards that officially recognise Zeitoun’s help in transforming perceptions of Muslims and Arabs in America,