Read Beans On Monday: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers



by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun is difficult to review because recent scrutiny has raised the possibility that this could be yet another work of fictionalized non-fiction falsely aggrandizing a flawed protagonist into a larger-than-life champion of justice, and it is difficult to judge a book you’re not sure you can trust. Dave Eggers’ portrayal of post-Katrina heroism meet government corruption and incompetence is certainly fact-based as human rights violations under a marshal law fervor swept the city; thus outrage rings true. Abdulrahman Zeitoun (Zay-toon) was a successful and well-known contractor in New Orleans whose civil rights were violated, as were those of countless others who were arrested without evidence, denied a phone call, and detained under execrable conditions in ‘Camp Greyhound,’ a chain link prison hastily constructed in a grease soaked parking lot used for parking buses. The maze of outdoor cells each held only a single portable toilet, forcing prisoners to sleep on the filthy asphalt while being harassed by guards for infractions real and imagined. Camp Greyhound has entered local lore as part of a systematic breakdown of government and citizen protections; however, recent events have tarnished the image of the chivalric hero that Eggers plucked from the flood waters and spun to national fame to draw attention to this atrocity, leaving many wondering if the author embellished his hero to suit his tale of good and evil. Few observers doubt the government deserves the harshest criticism for its handling of Katrina, but Abdulrahman Zeitoun (commonly called simply Zeitoun) has proven to be something far removed from the gentle soul portrayed in the book, leaving critics wondering if traumatic experiences altered the man’s character or if the author altered his character’s character to make his story more sympathetic.

The story itself is told in two parts. The first half of the book deals with Zeitoun’s decision to stay in New Orleans after Katrina to protect his home and various properties despite repeated calls for mandatory evacuation. While some argue that Zeitoun ‘had it coming’ for not leaving, the lack of competent government intervention leads most to side with him, especially since he spent much of his time on humanitarian work in the absence of organized intervention. Using a canoe he’d bought in a yard sale, Zeitoun navigates the city in the days after the storm feeding stranded dogs and rescuing several residents as indifferent police and National Guard troops appear more concerned with building make-shift prisons and quelling looting of ruined businesses than rescuing elderly residents drowning in their own homes. There seems to be ample proof that Zeitoun performed such heroic deeds and he was even interviewed by a news crew as he went about his mission.

Any moral complexity that enters the story surrounds Zeitoun‘s confessions about his own ego. As he camps out on the roof of his house grilling the meat thawing in his freezer and tools around in his canoe, the story purposefully reads like an exciting adventure rather than a massive tragedy that took thousands of lives and nearly destroyed an entire city that stands as one of the word’s great cultural treasures. Zeitoun admits to finding an odd beauty in the watery highways that suddenly inundated the city and relishing his role as rescuer. Later, as he is harassed and imprisoned while unable to call his wife and children to tell them he’s alive, he wonders if such hubris had led God to punish him thus. Still, pride in one’s own heroic acts is a minor sin, especially compared to the violent and sadistic tendencies that have recently come to light.

This adventure story takes a dark turn when Zeitoun visits one of his property where the resourceful tenant has stayed, also helping out with a motor boat he ‘found.’ Two other friends, one a practicing Muslim of Syrian birth like Zeitoun, also seek shelter there since there’s running water and a working phone when local police and National Guard troops rush in and arrest them all without warning, accusing them of looting. Thus begins an ordeal of abuse and imprisonment with overtones of post-911 paranoia as Zeitoun and his fellow Syrian are automatically under suspicion of terrorism.

Again, the human rights violations that occurred post-storm are widely documented, but Zeitoun is presented as meek, compassionate, and non-combative. No matter his personality, confinement in the U.S. with assumption of guilt and without proof is inexcusable and FEMA was so mismanaged under the Bush administration that it boggles the mind.  However, recent revelations leave you wondering if Zeitoun and his companions were completely innocent. Were they randomly targeted or did they do something to warrant suspicion? By possibly overlooking conflicting evidence or complex truth, Eggers may ultimately do more harm than good in his call for government accountability and religious tolerance.

Since it’s publication, Zeitoun has been heaped with praised. It’s won multiple awards, become standard reading in many curriculum, and is widely regarded as the most revered work of literature to emerge from Katrina. Yet in the past couple of years its ‘gentle’ hero has been arrested twice for abusing the loving and devoted wife portrayed as working tirelessly to find and free him. While sitting in jail for his second arrest, he was charged with trying to pay another inmate to murder her. He was ultimately found not guilty because the informant who made the allegations has an established history of perjury, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he lied–he just can’t be trusted. Liars do sometimes tell the truth, it’s just hard to tell when. What does appear to be true is a pattern of sadistic abuse which spilled into public thus providing witnesses. The last arrest was for punching Kathy in the back and assaulting her with a tire iron. Acquittal on murder chargers doesn’t erase such shocking cruelty. Per several articles, Kathy claims the book’s portrayal is accurate and that his violent streak accompanied with religious radicalization emerged only after the storm. PTSD is common amongst Katrina survivors who suffered far less than the humiliation and mistreatment of Zeitoun, so it is feasible that anger and grief led to radical personality changes, yet apparently his wife has also testified that the abuse began soon after they were married.

Such revelations do not negate the larger failings that this book addresses, but they do cast doubt on the book’s accuracy in addressing them. Although imprisoned without proof or due process, were Zeitoun and his companions engaging in questionable behavior or were they innocently targeted as portrayed? Did Eggers embellish Zeitoun‘s meekness on purpose? Did he simply fail to do due diligence when presented with such a fantastic narrative despite the fact that the subjects had a stake in inflating their story? Or did Eggers get it right and Zeitoun‘s ordeal stoked a simmering anger lying dormant beneath in his once passive personality? We may never know, but it makes it difficult for me to recommend the book without reservation.

What I can comment on is the quality of the writing, which eschews moral complexity in order to create a simplified narrative of good versus evil. It is a quick and easy read, and thus a good book, though even without the recent revelations I wouldn’t characterize it as great. Its writing is skillful but not artful. The short sections, simple language, and absence of layers make it read more like a good work of young adult fiction than the lauded grownup fiction it’s been hailed to be. I read it because I kept encountering such high praise, but while it’s a compelling and entertaining story, it is not as deeply stirring or thought-provoking as something like Dan Baum‘s Nine Lives (though again you have to question the reliability of Baum’s subjects–it’s human nature to present yourself in the most positive light possible.)

Ultimately I’m disappointed by another heroic figure whose deeds have seemingly been inflated beyond their good intentions and whose self-aggrandizement supersedes boasts of selflessness. I’m reminded of Three Cups of Tea and the revelations of how this amazing story was largely fabricated. Although Greg Mortenson built several schools in Afghanistan and has done some good, his charity is apparently mismanaged with much of the money he raised going to him and his associates while many of the schools sit as empty shells in the desert, good only for a good story. Some of his schools have succeeded, but his hubris and crimes overshadow his accomplishments. Similarly, the proceeds from Zeitoun supposedly go to charity, but the message is undermined by questions of the reliability of the messengers.




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