“Zeitoun”: A Review

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It’s the story of a Syrian-American man and his American wife, who we find interesting because she converted to Islam before she married a Muslim, and their odyssey through Hurricane Katrina-New Orleans. This is a human-interest story. Yes, there is some disaster porn. Yes, Zeitoun paddles around a flooded New Orleans in a canoe rescuing people and dogs. And yes, there is a “Kafkaesque” nightmare when the police/National Guard decide that Zeitoun just might be a member of the Taliban.

No seriously, It’s quite alarming that part. Like Guantanamo Bay is not just in Guantanamo Bay…

That being said, this book lingers and could easily have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter. We hear about how the wife – Kathy – converts to Islam and meets Zeitoun. We learn about Zeitoun’s family in Syria and how Zeitoun got to be living in New Orleans. Eggers trips over himself stressing how much of a hard-working, religious, family man trying to live the American Dream Zeitoun is. It is primarily a story of an immigrant which has made good, but then is brought low by the forces of institutional racism and paranoia.

And oddly, this is one of the weakest point of the book. I found Zeitoun to be potentially a fascinating individual, but ultimately found him to be one-dimensional. Kathy personal journal from Baptist to Muslim rings shallow, in that one suspects she did it primarily because her friend did. Eggers tries very hard to give these people some depth of character, but one senses that Zeitoun and Kathy have a story to tell but could not for the life of them tell you what it means or what they actually think about it.

There is no academic or reflective depth to this book. During the climax of the story – Zeitoun’s imprisonment – we watch as a Guantanamo Bay is created in downtown New Orleans (the notorious Camp Greyhound). It’s barbaric and shameful. And yet Eggers at no point attempts to perform an expose, or explain who this could come to be, or that we need to do something now so that this sort of thing does not happen again. It was just a human interest story.

I will grudgingly admit there is a vague Odessey-esque whiff from the book. Some of the back story I found genuinely intriguing.   But I did not learn anything; I wanted either a Mark Twain adventure (as I was promised on the inside cover dammit!), a Kafka-esque twisted nightmare through the Department of Homeland Security’s dark innards, or a Zizek-inspired psychological discussion on the subtle link between the War on Terror and the Response to Hurricane Katrina.

In the largest possible sense, it felt like Eggers was attempting to tell the liberal and politically correct story of Hurricane Katrina. All events and actors are carefully polished to put their best foot forward. The entire story is carefully constructed so as to appeal to the widest possible readership (I am thinking here of the tiny old conservative lady who attends a book club), or the lowest possible denominator if you want to be more cynical. It is an attempt to tell both an immigrant’s story and the story of the people of New Orleans and their relationship to local and federal authorities. And in this sense, this book has some value.

Spoiler alert.

The most interesting part of the book for me was at the end where Zeitoun’s arresting officers are interviewed. Thus both sides of the story are presented, and the dichotomy is quite engrossing (or at least it was for me). For Zeitoun, its “Kafka-esque”; a perverse and shattering trip through the underbelly of America’s military/prison/security system. For the arresting officers, one is struck by the combination of “we were worked up psychologically by the media”, “it was just another day…nothing unusual about this”, and an odd ignorance and regret about Zeitoun’s experience.

Basically this “Kafka-esque” system is so twisted because everybody had their head down, narrowly doing their job. Everyone had their blinders set to maximum. The System, the Process was all anyone worried about. The two examples of individuals who make human gestures of help at the end of the book – a missionary at a prison and an assistant DA – happen after being begged or only after Kathy has made a huge emotional scene in front of the DA and reporters. These helpful acts seemed to be only the disappearing gestures of people manning their post in a vast, yet essentially malfunctioning System. Institutional paranoia engendered by the War on Terror splashed over into already broken and racist prison systems.

Finally, there is the role of the national Media. Practically every character says at one point that the media had presented New Orleans as “descended into chaos…rape and pillage and looting and drugs…now a Third World Country”. A specific media claim that is repeated was something like “babies being raped”. The fact that this obvious rumour gained so much credence for a week or so speaks volumes about our mindset and our assumptions.

This media presentation coloured massively the federal response to the crisis. Instead of responding to a genuine humanitarian crisis, the government mounted an invasion. Instead of rescuing and providing hospice, the government roared in, Apocalypse Now style, to restore Law & Order. The results are infamous. This is the real face of racism.

My soon-to-be wife, the lovely Ashley, and I started a tradition (of which we are on year II) of reading the same book and discussing it together as part of our respective birthdays. It is like a private book club. I would recommend this highly as it was led to some great conversations and some great examples of finding out something that you never knew before about the other person.  Zeitoun was my choice for this February.

Worth a read, but perhaps more suited for a dentist’s waiting room rather than your special, arm-chair and wine and soft music reading time book.

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