Zeitoun (book)

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The cover of Zeitoun, illustrated by Rachell Sumpter.
Author Dave Eggers
Country United States
Language English
Subject Hurricane Katrina
Genre Nonfiction
Published 2009 (McSweeney's)
Media type hardcover, paperback
Pages 351
ISBN 9781934781630
OCLC 332257182
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, but was arrested without reason or explanation at one of his rental houses, along with three others, by a mixed group of U.S. Army National Guard soldiers and local police officers. Zeitoun and the others 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, and were detained for 23 days. Zeitoun was refused medical attention and the use of a phone to alert his family. His wife and daughters, who were staying with friends far away from the city, only learned that he had disappeared.

Plot summary[edit]

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, 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 before being transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in nearby St. Gabriel, Louisiana. Zeitoun was held at Hunt for 20 more days without trial, but he was given a bond of 75 thousand dollars and read his charges. He was interviewed by officers and later by ICE officials and put in segregated cells. Like others in this predicament, he did not receive medical attention and could not contact his family.

Major themes[edit]

Zeitoun was arrested and taken into custody on his own property. 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 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 drivers license and permanent resident card because it was being "held as evidence." When he did get it back, his cash and credit cards were missing. All things considered, he fared better than the three companions 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 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 martial 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. However, two of the men taken into custody with Abdulrahman, as well as others caught 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 as well. Kathy and Abdul treat their friends as family, too, depending on them for food and shelter during the storm.

Writing process[edit]

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.[1] Eggers also visited members of the Zeitoun family living in Syria, as well as Abdulrahman's brother Ahmad, who lives in Spain.

Eggers said he would not personally make money from the book's publication; funds from the book would be distributed by the Zeitoun Foundation, a nonprofit set up by Eggers and the Zeitoun family.[1]


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."[2]

Zeitoun was nominated in the Creative Nonfiction category for the 2010 California Book Awards.[3]

Film adaptation[edit]

In 2009, an animated film based on the book was announced, set to be directed by Jonathan Demme.[4] However, in May 2014, The Playlist reported that the film was "percolat[ing] in development".[5]


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.[6] 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.[7][8] 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.[9] "An Orleans Parish judge on Monday [, June 6, 2016,] found Zeitoun, 58, guilty on a felony stalking count that carries a sentence of two to five years in prison. After a daylong bench trial, Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson found that Zeitoun repeatedly violated a protective order barring him from getting near his ex-wife, Kathy Zeitoun, or properties they still owned together after their divorce." [10]


  1. ^ a b Stephen Elliott (June 9, 2009). "The Rumpus Long Interview with Dave Eggers". The Rumpus. Retrieved January 6, 2011. 
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ "2010 Northern California Book Award nominees". San Francisco Chronicle. March 7, 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2011. 
  4. ^ Dave Itzkoff (October 28, 2009). "'Zeitoun' as Cartoon: Demme Plans Animated Film of Eggers Book". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2011. 
  5. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (May 16, 2014). "Daniel Radcliffe To Star In Adaptation Of Dave Eggers' 'You Shall Know Our Velocity' Directed By Peter Sollett". Indiewire. Retrieved March 22, 2016. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Brown, Robbie. "Katrina Hero Facing Charges in New Orleans," New York Times (Aug. 9, 2012).
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Martin, Naomi. "Zeitoun found not guilty on charges he tried to kill his ex-wife," New Orleans Times-Picayune (July 30, 2013).
  10. ^ http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_44f85201-e42f-50f0-983c-c9ab7ca5ba70.html

External links[edit]