Zeitoun is the story of a good-hearted and hard-working Syrian-American painter/contractor named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and what happened to him and his family during the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. It is a true story, it is a horrible story, it is a shocking story, and it is a story which should set alarm bells ringing over how close this “land of the free and home of the brave” can veer to a fascist state. When Katrina conditions went from bad to worse in New Orleans, Zeitoun’s American-born wife Kathy wanted the family to leave for safer ground but Zeitoun—perhaps because of his strong identification with his adopted city or the fact that his company owned properties across New Orleans—opted to stay behind.
When the waters rose, Zeitoun took his canoe and paddled up and down the streets of his ravaged city, helping the sick and elderly to safety, feeding dogs, ferrying those in need, and trying to avoid areas that were reported as dangerous. His few encounters with National Guardsmen from both Louisiana and other states were not good: he was treated with suspicion and his efforts to secure help for abandoned homeowners were largely ignored. But he and some friends draw the wrong kind of attention from the military forces trying to secure the area, and they end up in a Guantanamo-style concentration camp—together with other random victims of martial law run wild–under unspeakable conditions, treated inexplicably as al-Qaeda terrorists, and denied every civil right. Kathy and his close-knit family abroad lose all contact with Zeitoun and presume his death, while Zeitoun’s health and mental state suffer breakdown. Zeitoun is ultimately released and re-united with his family, but nothing is ever the same
While Zeitoun’s case is just one of many such horrors that citizens of New Orleans were subjected to, it is a compelling story because of the terrorist angle caused by Zeitoun’s ethnic background. The horrible mis-treatment of many of the city’s poor black inhabitants is not addressed in this book, but is a reality known to those who have pursued this. Also not addressed in this book, but the most obvious question of all posed by the story, is why the city of New Orleans was not better protected both before, during and after Katrina—why were the levees not better maintained to begin with, why were better storm preparations not made, why was a proper evacuation never conducted, why was there such poor coordination among state and federal government and military agencies, why were the citizens of this city treated like an enemy at war-time by those who were sent to protect them?
Eggers’ book, a prime example of narrative non-fiction in that it was heavily based on interviews with the Zeitoun family, did a tremendous service in helping bring this story to light. It is up to the rest of us to make sure our government never allows such a travesty to happen again.