Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is not like the books I usually choose. It spent so long staring at me from the bestseller shelves, though, that I finally gave in and borrowed the audiobook from the library. The book was certainly informative, and I learned a lot about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in a way that wasn’t dry at all.
Zeitoun chronicles the experience of one family throughout and immediately following Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. It focuses on Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone as simply Zeitoun) and his wife Kathy. Zeitoun is a Syrian-American and a Muslim, and Kathy is an American who had already converted to Islam before meeting Zeitoun. Though told exclusively in third person, the story alternates between Zeitoun’s story and Kathy’s.
The narrative begins with a scene from Zeitoun’s childhood, then shifts to a few days before Katrina hits. From that point on, Kathy’s and Zeitoun’s pasts are revealed bit by bit through flashbacks. As the storm brews, Kathy and Zeitoun are busy running their construction company, looking after their rental properties, and caring for their children. But when reports of the storm’s potential severity begin roll in, Kathy decides to leave with the kids, seeking shelter with family in Baton Rouge. She pleads with Zeitoun to accompany them, but he insists on staying behind to watch over the house and properties and to help out as needed. He’s never fled New Orleans in the face of a hurricane; why should he start now?
While Kathy and the kids wait for news, Katrina tears into New Orleans. Zeitoun weathers the storm well enough — until the levees break, flooding the first floor of his family’s house. Zeitoun begins sleeping in a tent on his roof. By day, he paddles around the city in a second-hand canoe, giving assistance where he can and keeping an eye on his rental properties. One of these properties still has a working phone, and he calls Kathy daily at an appointed time. Each time, Kathy begs him to leave the city and join them, but Zeitoun refuses. He feels too useful in New Orleans, like he has a purpose there.
Then, one day, the daily phone calls stop. When Kathy calls the rental house, the phone rings and rings, but no one answers. We learn what Kathy has no way of knowing: that Zeitoun and three other men have been taken away at gunpoint by law enforcement officers. To Kathy, her husband has simply vanished.
If you’ve already read about the Zeitoun family, then you know what happened. If you haven’t, I won’t tell you. There are plenty of summaries out there that continue with the story, if you’re curious. However, the second half of the story was where I really became immersed, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I’d only heard a synopsis up to the point where Zeitoun disappears.
The Zeitouns’ story reveals the post-Katrina mayhem in a personal, focused way. It’s different from the general news reports and statistics we’ve all seen. Here, the failings of so many systems and organizations in the wake of the storm are highlighted as they affected actual, individual people.
Eggers’s writing style is simple and clear, and though I could sense a commentary running under the story, on the surface he was quite restrained and factual. He must have embellished or imagined the parts of the story he could not know — private thoughts, minute gestures — but that is to be expected. He does so in a way that fits with the story and and the people in it.
The narrator for the audio production was Firdous Bamji, and while I did not find his reading to be stellar, it was easy to listen to and understand. My one issue is the way he tended to trail off at the ends of sentences, so that sometimes, for example, the “s” at the end of a plural was lost altogether and I was left puzzling over the resulting grammatical oddity. I noticed that this annoying habit was mostly gone by the second half of the recording, and it didn’t bother me enough to warrant switching to print.
If you’re interested in a very personal perspective on Katrina, I would recommend trying this book. It’s very accessible and interesting, and Kathy and Zeitoun are the kind of people you care about and root for. It’s true that Zeitoun’s case was, perhaps, a little extreme, but at the same time it brings attention to all sorts of terrible things that went on just after the storm. I am certainly glad I listened to this audiobook.