I began reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, because I wanted to learn about Hurricane Katrina from people who were there when it happened. I had seen the news footage, but this could not come close to telling first-hand accounts: what was it like when the storm hit, how did everyday Americans deal with the devastation, and how were their efforts to rebuild helped or hindered by the U.S. government? Eggers approached the story of the Zeitoun family through a journalistic lens, which delved deep, explaining a struggle a reader may find hard to believe was possible for a family in this country to experience, while finding ways to maintain an empathetic perspective. Due to the author’s decision to tell a story that included both components of non-fiction and empathy, I had mixed reactions as a reader that eventually lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the situation being documented.
Eggers began the story by humanizing the Zeitoun family in the eyes of the readers by depicting a typical family, loving and struggling. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun were written as an American family similar to that of the reader, they highly value family and friends and felt lucky for their good fortune. But, Zeitoun, the father, while kind and well-liked by his wife, children, friends, and patrons of his business, was an Islamic Syrian immigrant. Reading about his five-time-per day prayer schedule and American- born and raised wife Kathy’s insistence on wearing a hijab, I thought, distanced them from a most white American readers. I admit, that as I learned more about Zeitoun’s past in Syria and Kathy’s conversion to Islam, I wondered why this family was chosen as a representation of a ‘New Orleans’ family. The differences between this family and many others were highlighted by the author, because they become essential to the story. They cause the reader to question his or her own stereotypical thinking and to reconsider how these thought processes affect the family and this country at it’s highest levels of government.
The storm arrived, and soon the levees holding back the flood water had broken. Many people were left behind on roofs and in seconds floors of buildings as contaminated water threatened to destroy the foundations of houses and businesses. Zeitoun, a former sailor, ready to battle the water, stayed behind to salvage what was left of the family home and business and to help those left behind. When his actions towards his fellow New Orleanians after the storm were revealed, Zeitoun immediately became an insider as opposed to an outsider in the eyes of the reader; his role became a rescuer, noble and brave. Then, the government sent armed militia into the city, and Zeitoun was arrested, jailed, and eventually imprisoned, all without having been provided Miranda Rights or Due Process. Next, the author combined the reader’s prior feelings of dissociation to Zeitoun due to race and religion with a newly evolved empathic relatability to the man and the unfairness of his situation.
After Zeitoun’s arrest, the reader began to comprehend that the same ideas he or she used to judge the Zeitoun family for being ‘a little less American’ than everybody else were the same stereotypes and racial profiling that the militia used to imprison Zeitoun. The fact that he was an innocent, and a good person, being held by the United States government for no documented crime, made him and his story relatable and terrible. What felt worse as the reality set in for the reader is that any person reading this story could have been a fellow prisoner. Since it could have been any one of us, the story matured into an American story.
Most Americans don’t even consider that horror stories such as this can or do happen in the United States. Still, almost ten years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in more ways than one, we have not escaped other similar stories of our freedoms being infringed upon. So, when we hear about the NSA tapping phone lines or Guantanamo Bay keeping people imprisoned for years without cause, it is stories such as this one that remind people who think they are immune to reassess that perspective.
Final Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars