The cover of Zeitoun, illustrated by Rachell Sumpter.
|Media type||hardcover, paperback|
|Preceded by||The Wild Things|
|Followed by||A Hologram for the King|
Zeitoun is a nonfiction book written by Dave Eggers and published by McSweeney's in 2009. It tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company in New Orleans, Louisiana who chose to ride out Hurricane Katrina in his Uptown home. After the hurricane, he traveled the flooded city in a secondhand canoe rescuing neighbors, caring for abandoned pets and distributing fresh water. Soon after the storm, Zeitoun and three others were arrested without reason or explanation at one of his rental houses by a mixed group of U.S. Army National Guard soldiers and local police officers. At the Napoleon Ave. spot where the four were taken, they were made aware they were all being charged with looting, according to the officer driving the van. The reason he gave for their detainment was that an officer had witnessed all four of them leaving a Walgreens with nonpurchased goods. Zeitoun and the other detainees were accused of terrorist activities, presumably because of the large amount of money found in their possession as well as maps of the city and a storage disc. Zeitoun was refused medical attention and the use of a phone to alert his family as were the rest of the Katrina accused. His wife and daughters, who were staying with friends far away from the city, only knew that he had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Muslim who grew up in Syria. After a few years of apprenticeship in the Syrian port city of Jableh, Zeitoun spent twenty years working at sea as a muscleman, engineer and fisherman. During this time he traveled the world and eventually settled in the United States in 1988. There he met his wife Kathy — a native of Baton Rouge who had converted to Islam — and with whom he founded their business, Zeitoun Painting Contractors LLC.
In late August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached the city, Kathy and their four children left New Orleans for Baton Rouge. Zeitoun stayed behind to watch over their home, ongoing job sites and rental properties. Once the storm made landfall, their neighborhood (although miles from the nearest levees) was flooded up to the second floor of most houses. Zeitoun began to explore the city in a secondhand canoe, distributing what supplies he had, ferrying neighbors to higher ground and caring for abandoned dogs.
On September 6, Zeitoun and three companions were arrested at one of Zeitoun's rental houses by a mixed group of U.S. Army National Guardsmen, local police and police from out-of-state. They were detained in a makeshift jail in a Greyhound bus station for three days time before being transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in nearby St. Gabriel, Louisiana. Zeitoun was held at Hunt for 20 more days without having stood trial, but he was given a bond of 75 thousand dollars and read his charges, during that time he was interviewed by officers and later by ICE officials and put in segregated cells, like others in this predicament he was not receiving medical attention and the use of a phone to alert his family.
The key theme of the book is the fragility of constitutional rights in the face of a state of emergency. Zeitoun, while on his own property, was arrested and taken into custody by a law enforcement group pulled together from local and out-of-state police, national guard, and possibly mercenaries. He was treated brutally and denied due process: no attempt was made to secure the alleged crime scene or gather evidence, and he was held in a maximum security prison for three weeks, denied medical treatment, a phone call and a lawyer, all without formal charges being brought against him. Throughout the ordeal, he was the victim of verbal and physical abuse and witnessed its regular infliction upon other detainees. When he was finally charged, it was for looting in the amount of $500, and bail was set at $75,000, ten times the normal amount for the crime. In a Kafkaesque twist, three different officials of the judicial system refused to disclose to his wife the location of his public hearing on the grounds that the information was "private".
After finally being released on bail, Zeitoun found that his house, left unlocked by the arresting officials, had been looted. Officials refused to return his wallet with his driver's license and permanent resident card because it was being "held as evidence". And when he did get it back, his cash and credit cards were missing. All things considered, he fared better than the three companions who were taken into custody with him. They were incarcerated for even longer periods, while one, who was trying to evacuate New Orleans carrying his life savings, $10,000 in cash, never saw his money again.
The author describes with no small amount of irony the speed and efficiency with which the city of New Orleans was able to convert a Greyhound bus station into a Guantanamo-style prison even as it proved incapable of handling the logistics of food and sanitation for the refugees at the Superdome. Through the story of Zeitoun, the author invites the reader to contemplate abuse of power, in particular, the ease with which those with marshall authority can slip into police state mentality once the normal checks and balances are breached by disaster.
Anti-Islam sentiment is another issue addressed throughout the book. It is not only Abdulrahman who is discriminated against, but also his wife Kathy, a convert to Islam who wears a hijab. It is mentioned several times in the text that she is looked at differently for her Muslim attire everywhere, from the grocery store to the DMV. She shares her experience of being laughed at by her family, who did not raise her as a Muslim and do not respect her choice to convert. Although anti-Islamic sentiment is a theme, it should be noted that two of the men taken into custody with Abdulrahman, as well as others caught up in the same net, were not Muslims and also had their rights to due process abrogated. For example, the author describes the case of Merlene Maten, a 73-year-old diabetic arrested for looting as she was retrieving food from a cooler in her car and incarcerated for 13 days despite the efforts of her family and the AARP to secure her release. The main function of anti-Islamic sentiment in the book was to show the prism through which Abdulrahman viewed his incarceration, that because of his nationality and religion in post-9/11 America, he could not feel confident of receiving justice, and so his ordeal was especially terrifying.
The importance of family and close relations is also stressed. Abdul's family, although resident across the world, are terribly worried about him when he goes missing. They are mentioned often as being interactive in the lives of Kathy and Abdul. Kathy depends not only on her own family but on Abdul's side of the family as well. Kathy and Abdul treat their friends as family, too, depending on them for food and shelter during the storm.
Eggers began work on the book in 2006, after meeting Kathy and Abdulrahman through another McSweeney's project called Voices from the Storm. He worked closely with the Zeitoun family while researching and writing the book, meeting with them multiple times in New Orleans and letting them read six or seven versions of the manuscript. Eggers also visited members of the Zeitoun family living in Syria, as well as Abdulrahman's brother Ahmad, who lives in Spain.
Eggers says he will not personally make money from the book's publication; funds from the book will be distributed by the Zeitoun Foundation, a nonprofit set up by Eggers and the Zeitoun family for this purpose.
Entertainment Weekly put it on its end-of-the-decade, "best-of" list, saying, "He kicked off the decade as the look-at-me stylist behind 2000's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The fact that Eggers bookended it with this gut-wrenchingly poignant and selfless Katrina story proves that even boy wonders can grow up."
Zeitoun was nominated in the Creative Nonfiction category for the 2010 California Book Awards.
The book is currently being made into a movie, set for release in 2014. The film will be an animated film and is being directed by Jonathan Demme, the director of films such as The Silence of the Lambs.
The book describes the difficulty Kathy had in the years afterward coping with the stress of the jailing and related events. The couple's relationship deteriorated in subsequent years, and they were divorced in 2012. In July 2012, Abdulrahman was arrested for allegedly attacking Kathy on a public street. In August 2012, he was charged with plotting to have Kathy Zeitoun, her son, and another man murdered. An inmate who was serving time with Zeitoun notified officials that he was asked to participate in this plot. In July 2013, Zeitoun was tried and found not guilty of charges of attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder. The state's main witness, who had an extensive multi-state criminal record, was found not credible.
- Stephen Elliott (June 9, 2009). "The Rumpus Long Interview with Dave Eggers". The Rumpus. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
- Geier, Thom; Jensen, Jeff; Jordan, Tina; Lyons, Margaret; Markovitz, Adam; Nashawaty, Chris; Pastorek, Whitney; Rice, Lynette; Rottenberg, Josh; Schwartz, Missy; Slezak, Michael; Snierson, Dan; Stack, Tim; Stroup, Kate; Tucker, Ken; Vary, Adam B.; Vozick-Levinson, Simon; Ward, Kate (December 11, 2009), "THE 100 Greatest MOVIES, TV SHOWS, ALBUMS, BOOKS, CHARACTERS, SCENES, EPISODES, SONGS, DRESSES, MUSIC VIDEOS, AND TRENDS THAT ENTERTAINED US OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS". Entertainment Weekly. (1079/1080):74-84
- "2010 Northern California Book Award nominees". San Francisco Chronicle. March 7, 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
- "Zeitoun (2014)". imdb.com. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
- Dave Itzkoff (October 28, 2009). "‘Zeitoun’ as Cartoon: Demme Plans Animated Film of Eggers Book". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
- Simerman, John (2012-10-18). "Alleged beatings, hit job by subject of best-seller 'Zeitoun' aired in courtroom". nola.com | The Times-Picayune. Advance Publications. Retrieved 2013-02-06.
- Brown, Robbie. "Katrina Hero Facing Charges in New Orleans," New York Times (Aug. 9, 2012).
- Simerman, John (2012-11-09). "Famed Hurricane Katrina protagonist Zeitoun indicted in alleged murder attempts on ex-wife". nola.com | The Times-Picayune. Advance Publications. Retrieved 2013-02-06.
- Martin, Naomi. "Zeitoun found not guilty on charges he tried to kill his ex-wife," New Orleans Times-Picayune (July 30, 2013).
- Ed Pilkington, "The amazing true story of Zeitoun", The Guardian, 11 March 2010. An interview with Abdulrahman Zeitoun
- How a Hero in Hurricane Katrina Was Arrested, Labeled a Terrorist and Imprisoned - video report by Democracy Now!