“Zeitoun” is a strong reminder of why one of the fundamental, bedrock features of the judicial system in the United States of America is the concept of due process. Hurricane Katrina was hard enough to fathom—and by “Katrina,” I mean the government’s response to the disaster. But “Zeitoun” reveals a dark underbelly to the government’s response. Dark, in fact, and scary. Rules were scrapped amid the chaos and uncertainty of the disaster. Basic principles of our society were, quite simply, ignored.
You couldn’t ask for a more compelling central figure to illustrate this story than Abdulrahman Zeitoun. In the first half of the book, you are asking yourself if you could do what Zeitoun did—weather the storm, stay in his New Orleans house and spend many days during the flood helping others. In fact, going out to look for ways to help out and taking others under his wing, providing shelter. “Good neighbor” doesn’t begin to describe Zeitoun’s character. The choice to portray a Muslim man and his family from the Middle Eastern is brilliant—especially to underscore and demonstrate that giving, caring and reaching out to others are not traits that belong to one religion or one faith.
Zeitoun’s heritage and the many references to fish, water and making supplies stretch to help others will make you think of another religious figure is revered around the world. In fact, religion plays a central role in the entire story, from the Greek captain of a tanker who sparks conversations about the existence of God to the missionary passing out Bibles in the makeshift prison where Zeitoun is trapped. There’s something Old Testament and heartwarming about the first half of “Zeitoun,” something dark and menacing about the second-half as Eggers makes the reader feel as trapped, voiceless and powerless as Abudulrahman Zeitoun. The writing style is simple and so is the straightforward device he uses to illustrate the black hole into which Zeitoun falls.
As Eggers said in an interview (www.rumpus.net), the themes in “Zeitoun” are “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.”
In combination, “Zeitoun” is even more than the sum of its parts. It presents a kind of post-apocalyptic vision and you can’t quite believe that order, civilization and society can devolve so quickly, but there it is, in black and white.
Read this book. You’re not fattening Eggers’ wallet. All proceeds go to the Zeitoun Foundation, founded in 2009 by the Zeitoun family and the author to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans and to promote respect for human rights in the United States and around the world. I say let’s start with the United States.