The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a house-painting business in New Orleans. In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy evacuates with their four young children, leaving Zeitoun to watch over the business. In the days following the storm he travels the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping elderly neighbors. Then, on September 6th, police officers armed with M-16s arrest Zeitoun in his home. Told with eloquence and compassion, Zeitoun is a riveting account of one family’s unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water. – Goodreads
New Orleans isn’t like other cities. I mean, there’s the obvious: the music, the food, mardi gras, jazz funerals… all the things that you associate with The Big Easy. But there’s a foundation upon which all these things were built, a foundation that is both socio-political and geographical. It is a city built on extremes that somehow still thrives. Socio-politically speaking, the cultural influence is obvious. It was one of the major ports for both the slave trade and all kinds of smuggling, not to mention the landing point for immigrants from all kinds of backgrounds and countries.
It is also built between two major bodies of water – Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. Not only that, but much of the city is below water level. Being in a part of the world that is also prone to hurricanes, New Orleans is a city that faces the possibility of annihilation one season out of every year.
Something about how the culture of the city has evolved around and through these factors has made it a thoroughly unique place.
As you guys probably know, I visited New Orleans for the first time a few weeks ago. Traveling to a new place always leads me to seek out books about or set in that city. But with New Orleans, my desire to re-visit it after coming home has been much stronger than usual. As a result, when my boss recommended Zeitoun, I pounced on it. We went on a Katrina tour while we were there, and I was curious to learn more about the hurricane – what made it different from others that hit the city, why people decided to stay in New Orleans and what it was like.
Zeitoun is the story of a man who stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane and his family, who did not. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Muslim who was born and raised in Syria. He grew up in a large family, many of whom took to the ocean (Abdulrahman included) to see the world. He traveled for much of his young adulthood before finally settling in New Orleans. Shortly thereafter he met his wife, Kathy, originally from Baton Rouge and a convert to Islam. He eventually set up his own home repair business and slowly, with the help of his wife, built up his business and became a vital member of his community.
Not a man to give up easily or take the easy way out, when Hurricane Katrina was heading towards New Orleans, Zeitoun was determined to stay in town. He had clients and friends who relied on him to prepare their homes for the weather, and he wanted to be on hand in case he could help anyone during the storm. Kathy packs up the kids and heads to stay with family.
When the hurricane hits, Zeitoun isn’t too concerned. He’s been through worse, and he has no doubt that he’ll be fine. His house is well-stocked and sturdy. He waits it out. When the winds finally die down, he is pleased that other than some leaks, the house isn’t in bad shape. He expects his family will be able to return within a couple of days, and when he next talks to Kathy, he gives her the good news.
He goes to bed at night, and by the next morning, the water has begun to rise. This isn’t normal post-hurricane flooding. A levee has broken. He moves as much of their valuables to the top of the house as he can, and watches as the water rises.
Eventually the water stops, but the most difficult times are still to come. With a small rowboat he bought in a yard sale, Zeitoun patrols the neighbourhood, helping transport those who are stranded and get help for those who are trapped or disabled. Over the next several days he continues to help where he can, using the landline in a building he owns and rents out to keep in touch with Kathy. Finally, he reaches a point where he knows there’s nothing more he can do. He is ready to leave the city and join his family to wait for the water to recede.
But before he can make his way to land, he is erroneously arrested by a patrol of police and military, thrown into a makeshift jail in the parking lot of a Greyhound station, and then transported to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center where he is held for nearly three weeks without medical attention, a single phone call to his family or legal counsel. He is treated brutally and stripped of dignity, all because of a misunderstanding that led to him being arrested on his own property.
The book is narrative non-fiction, based on a true story, yet told as engagingly as the best novels. I was completely hooked from the first chapter, and could barely force myself to put it down. It left me with a lot of questions, both about how the hurricane caused such damage, and about how things got so bad in the days following the floods.
If you’re interested in learning more about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, or just interested in reading first-person accounts of true events, I’d definitely recommend reading this book, but before you do, watch this video because it will give you an idea of what it was like to be in New Orleans during Katrina:
I warn you that neither this video nor Zeitoun are easy going. The images are shocking and the stories chilling, and the reality of surviving a disaster of this magnitude is unsettling. But there are aspects you don’t even think about that will shock you the most.
For me, it was the animals. New Orleans is full of them – dogs, cats – even the horses that pull tourist buggies through the French Quarter. Many of these animals were abandoned, and many died trapped in houses or trying to swim through polluted, fast-moving waters. If you know me at all, you know what a sucker I am for our furry friends, so this was almost harder for me than the destruction. It was worth it, but you’ve been warned – it’s not easy going.
This was the first of Eggers’ books I’ve actually managed to get all the way through. I’m not sure if it was the subject matter, that the story was non-fiction, or just that I haven’t given his books a fair shot in the past, but I was impressed by his story-telling. I’ll definitely be picking up some of his other works in the future.
Author: Dave Eggers
Published By: Vintage
Released: June 15, 2010
Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction, Biography, Natural Disaster, Survival
Date Read: February 7-10, 2015