“His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will.” – Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

September 16, 2009 at 7:18 pm (Book review, books, Current affairs)

zeitoun Let me tell you about this book: during the entire second half of it, I was in a state of utter disbelief and rage! I’ve since calmed down, but if reading about the nightmare scenario described by Dave Eggers got me that angry, I hate to think of how the people forced to endure the experience actually felt. People like Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

Like most Americans, I was saturated with news of  New Orleans and Katrina around this time four years ago. I read about the convention center  and the Superdome, the pollution and the destruction, the deaths and the displacements. I also heard tales of lawlessness, but I assumed that this was more or less par for the course in the chaos that followed the hurricane. Often, in the wake of a catastrophe like Katrina, there is a period of civil disorder. I assumed that this period would be  short lived. I didn’t consider crime to be a major part of the story.

I know now that I was wrong.

Crime is a huge component in the story what happened to the Zeitouns, not because they committed it but because of what was done to them. Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun ran (and still run) Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, an extremely successful home repair and renovation business. Their work was known and respected throughout New Orleans. They were upright and compassionate in their dealings with their employees and their clients. Abdulrahman, a Syrian by birth and a Muslim, came from a large and loving family; Kathy, whose brief first marriage had ended in divorce, was a convert to Islam. At the time Katrina struck, they had four children; the oldest, Zachary, was Kathy’s son by her first husband.

I was not far into this book when I began to care deeply for these people; and to feel an anxiety on their behalf which, in the event, proved more than justified.

the Zeitoun family

the Zeitoun family

When Katrina began bearing down on New Orleans, Kathy and Zeitoun – he was called that by friends and clients who had trouble pronouncing his first name – faced an agonizing choice. They knew they should leave, but they felt responsible for their various rental properties and jobs in progress. There was the office to look after, and even more important, their home on Dart Street. With some reluctance, they decide that Kathy and the children would go to Baton Rouge and stay with family there, while Zeitoun remained behind in New Orleans. Then, they reasoned, either Kathy would return or Zeitoun would join the family in Baton Rouge. They were counting on the separation lasting no more than a couple of days.

As we crime fiction aficionados are wont to say, Had they but known…

Several years prior, Zeitoun had bought secondhand canoe, a standard aluminum model that a client no longer wanted. When he arrived home with his purchase tied to the top of his van, Kathy took one look and exclaimed: “You’re crazy.” But in the first few days after Katrina struck, the canoe proved to be a Godsend. Zeitoun rescued, or arranged for the rescue of, several elderly persons stranded by high water on the upper floors of their houses.  He also rowed to homes where dogs had been abandoned in order to feed and water the animals.

He began to  feel quite literally that the canoe had been sent by God and that it was God’s will that he stay behind in order to assist stranded individuals and animals in distress. And that is the work that he and some of his friends were engaged in when something happened that he could never have anticipated, never have thought possible, not in the adopted country that he loved…

If you have already read about Zeitoun, you’ll know what transpires at this point in the narrative. I did not know, so for me, the impact of the story was that much more profound.

I will say no more, except for this: Dave Eggers is directing all the proceeds from the sale of this book to the Zeitoun Foundation, which he and the Zeitoun family set up this year. This gesture on the part of the author is, I think, admirable and generous. (It reminds me of one made by Jon Krakauer in similar circumstances.) So by all means read Zeitoun – and consider purchasing the book as well!

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

I have never been to New Orleans. This chronicle of devastation and rebirth has made me want to go there.


  1. Steve Wolfinger said,

    Very good book ! Easy read although I ” read it ” via audio book. I can go thru more books w/ my type A personality if I can work as I ” read “. Thanks for the educational background about the middle east / religions, etc.

    Good Job !

  2. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes Zeitoun by Dave Eggers The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] detective – Kate Summerscale A Passion for Nature:  the life of John Muir – Donald Worster Zeitoun – Dave Eggers The Age of Wonder:  how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and […]

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