Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I just finished Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2009.  335 pages) today, and it's still swirling around in my mind.  Eggers chronicles the lives of the Zeitoun family in the days just prior to and immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  The Zeitoun children - Zachary, Nademah, Aisha, Safiya, and Ahmad - play important cameo roles, but the narrative focuses on the parents Kathy and Abdulrahman.

The Zeitouns own a painting and contracting business in New Orleans.  Abdulrahman immigrated to the US from his native Syria.  Kathy, born and raised in Baton Rouge, converted to Islam before they met and married.

As Katrina bore down on the city, Kathy and the children left New Orleans, first to stay with her family in Baton Rouge but later to stay with friends in Phoenix.  Zeitoun elected to stay.  He wanted to guard his house, his business, his rental properties, and his client's properties.  When the storm hit on Sunday, 28 August 2005, it devastated the city.  What would happen in the days, weeks, and months to come would wreak more havoc on the Zeitoun family than anything that Katrina could muster.

I won't give away any more than this because I want you to read this book for so many different reasons.  Eggers has a mission, and it is to bring to light the wrongs of the world so that readers might act (you might recognize him as the author of What is the What.  Zeitoun makes one appreciate all that one has in life; it should make you angry (or else you probably aren't reading closely enough); it makes one wonder how things could have gone so terribly, inexcusably wrong in New Orleans.  The narrative is told from the perspective of Kathy and Abdulrahman, and their strength in the face of the chaos and madness is inspirational.

I spent some time in New Orleans last fall visiting my daughter and son-in-law, who live in the Marigny district.  Despite a tough time of it as a teacher in the Recovery School District, it's clear that my daughter loves New Orleans (see this posting for her departing-New-Orleans elegy).  While there, we spent time on Bourbon Street and  Jackson Square, and we spent some time visiting my son-in-law's sister in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward.  It is a remarkable city, unlike any other I have seen in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Architecture-wise, cuisine-wise, culture-wise, it's a  national treasure. 

That said, it's seems a messed-up city.  Institutional racism seems impenetrable.  Corruption seems endemic.

Yeah, yeah, I'm a Northerner with all of the naivete and distance that comes with that label.  Still, it's hard to argue with Eggers' description.

What happened in New Orleans?  What broke?  Why?

More importantly, how do we make sure that what happened never happens again?

Read Zeitoun.

Zeitoun jacket cover                                                                                   
McSweeney's Books

All other New Orleans photographs courtesy of the posting's author

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