Dave Eggers is such a one-man industry – editor, publisher, founder of various good causes – that it’s easy to forget that he’s primarily a writer, and one who can write well, at that. This busybody status probably explains some of the criticism he attracts, but I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees whatever work of his I’ve read. One of the good causes, the Voice of Witness, is a series of books of oral history aimed at highlighting humanitarian causes around the world. It was a voice in one of these which bloomed into Zeitoun.
Zeitoun is a book named after a man: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, American businessman, celebrated painter, building contractor and property developer/landlord (but the good kind: you know, like a tart with a heart of gold) of New Orleans, Syrian-born and married to Kathy. August 2005 should be like any busy summer month – “with so many people leaving, fleeing the swamp heat … the work and worry never ended” – but the reader knows what lies in store, for Zeitoun is not a novel but an uninflected representation of its real protagonist’s real thoughts and experiences. Eggers has effaced himself from the prose (no bad thing for those who found the self-satisfaction of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius hard to take), but presumably directed the narrative, such as giving us cute snapshots of family life, to show how the Zeitouns – Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, their four children – are the perfect American family.
When she was five, Zeitoun came home from work for lunch one day and found Nademah playing on the floor. She looked up at him and declared, “Daddy, I want to be a dancer.” Zeitoun took off his shoes and sat on the couch. “We have too many dancers in the city,” he said, rubbing his feet. “We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need teachers. I want you to be a doctor so you can take care of me.” Nademah thought about this for a moment and said, “Okay, then, I’ll be a doctor.” She went back to her coloring. A minute later, Kathy came downstairs, having just seen the wreck of Nademah’s bedroom. “Clean up your room, Demah,” she said. Nademah didn’t miss a beat, nor did she look up from her coloring book. “Not me, mama, I’m going to be a doctor, and doctors don’t clean.”
Even the gaucheness of the anecdote – the ‘didn’t miss a beat’, the whole Kids Say the Funniest Things-ness of it – give it authenticity, as coming from Zeitoun’s lips and not Eggers’. Similarly, the foreshadowing of the disaster to come – “Neither of them [Zeitoun and Kathy] could operate their home, their company, their lives or days without the other” – is like the sunny preamble to an episode of Casualty.
The clearness of the prose, the concealed art, makes for a suspense more intense than a thriller. The reader knows approximately what happens but not exactly how, and is driven partly by a perverse interest in seeing how bad things will get for Zeitoun. The answer is very bad indeed (like, sorry to spoil it for you). This is in part because of Zeitoun’s stubbornness, “his unwillingness to bow before any force, natural or otherwise”, his insistence on remaining in New Orleans even as Hurricane Katrina is upgraded and the city authorities recommend evacuation. His family leaves but he doesn’t.
Zeitoun would not be a dramatic, disturbing book if its focus was simply on the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, or even on the scale of the devastation, “homes burning and sinking into the obsidian sea that had swallowed the city.” Its real aim is to illuminate and outrage on the subject of how the authorities did and did not respond to the disaster. Eggers says:
It’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants; a judicial system in need of repair; the problem of wrongful conviction; the paranoia wrought by the war on terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .
The last is present in Kathy’s conversion to Islam, some years before she meets Zeitoun. Although her conversion is ultimately spurred by personalities rather than dogma, she finds both openness and revelation in Islam that she didn’t expect. “She had no idea, for example, that the Qu’ran was filled with the same people as the Bible – Moses, Mary, Abraham, Pharaoh, even Jesus. She hadn’t known that Muslims consider the Qu’ran the fourth book of God to His messengers, after the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament. … The fact that the Qu’ran repeatedly reaches out to the other, related faiths knocked her flat.” She does not experience much reaching out toward her by her fellow townspeople after she adopts traditional Islamic dress.
This is a book of witness, a voice edited and professionally presented. Inevitably, therefore, Zeitoun is portrayed more or less angelically, and the authorities who deal with him are not. How accurate is this? I felt it would be interesting – albeit the job of a different book – to read an account from the viewpoint of the soldiers and government workers, trained and cultured by fear of terror, and fear of otherness, into robbing people of their humanity because they believe them to be their enemies. They are in their own way victims too.
The word “Zeitoun”, before reading the book, is an unknowable sound; while reading the book, it is the name of a man; after reading the book, it becomes a sound again, a signifier, a two-syllable yell of frustration representing what is wrong not just with one administration in one country, but with aspects of our civilization. It shows with clear eyes and plain talk that the agents of government could commit human rights abuses not ‘just’ in Abu Ghraib, not ‘just’ against “enemy combatants”, but on American soil, and against their own people.