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'Zeitoun,' by Dave Eggers, recounts a Syrian immigrant's Hurricane Katrina nightmare

Which makes you angrier: the authorities' handling of Hurricane Katrina or the treatment of Arabs since 9/11? Can't make up your mind? Dave Eggers has the nonfiction book for you.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is an immigrant from Syria who in 2005 owned a successful house-painting business in New Orleans. He lived a quiet, all-American life with his American-born wife, Kathy — who had converted from Christianity to Islam before meeting him — and their four children in a house they owned in the Uptown district. Life was good.

As Katrina approaches, Kathy and the kids flee to her sister's home in Baton Rouge, but Abdulrahman stays behind to keep an eye on the house, his business, the half-finished jobs of his clients, his rental properties and the neighborhood.

For the first few days he is elated to have stayed; he paddles around the city in a canoe, rescuing people, feeding abandoned dogs and feeling eminently useful. The reader comes to like Abdulrahman very much for his calm, his generosity, his devotion to his family. Then he is arrested and descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Anybody who has ever been thrown by Eggers' ego as a writer — the flowery, obscure tangents of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or his too-cool-to-be-understood journal McSweeney's — will be impressed by the plainness of his storytelling in Zeitoun. It's Abdulrahman, not Eggers, who is important here, and Eggers reveals a sweet, modest and poetic side that is appealing.

I was in New Orleans for the disaster, covering it for the New Yorker, and Eggers, who wasn't there, not only captured it perfectly from Abdulrahman's reminiscing, he also taught me new ways of looking at it with this accurate, sensual and readable account.

When Abdulrahman is suddenly and inexplicably arrested halfway through the book, Zeitoun turns from uplifting to dark. Along with another Arab immigrant, he is accused of being an agent of al-Qaida, singled out for abuse and isolation, and refused permission to make a phone call for weeks.

His wife and a brother in Spain become frantic when he seems to drop off the face of the Earth. It takes a whispered phone call from a pastor who has seen him in prison to tell them Abdulrahman is alive.

We've all read accounts of innocent Arabs being rounded up after 9/11; Eggers makes this account completely new, and so infuriating I found myself panting with rage. Abdulrahman is subject to casual racism throughout his ordeal, but it transpires that he wasn't arrested for being an Arab after all, but simply for being in the wrong place when a bunch of overzealous New Mexico cops — hastily deputized and terrified by rumormongering — happened by.

Eggers essentially ghostwrote the book for the Zeitouns. Although narrated in third person, their stories are told entirely through their eyes, and Eggers is donating all of his share of the proceeds to a human rights foundation named for the Zeitouns.

Telling the story through their eyes makes for a strong point of view but requires faith on the part of the reader that everything in the book happened as it appears here. According to his author notes, Eggers interviewed only three other people and visited the prison where Abdulrahman was held.

Memory is faulty, especially of traumatic events. New Orleans is not, to say the least, a fact-rich environment. Maybe it doesn't matter if every detail is correct, but Eggers swings a mighty indictment at post-Katrina law enforcement. Although there is plenty to criticize, it would have been comforting to have his most explosive accusations backed up by other sources.

But that's a quibble. Zeitoun is a warm, exciting and entirely fresh way of experiencing Hurricane Katrina.

Dan Baum is the author of "Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans," published in February by Spiegel & Grau.


By Dave

McSweeney's, 342 pages, $24

'Zeitoun,' by Dave Eggers, recounts a Syrian immigrant's Hurricane Katrina nightmare 08/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 1:20pm]
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