August 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers

By Geordie Williamson

Dave Eggers first met Abdulrahman Zeitoun during a visit to New Orleans, following the launch of Voices from the Storm, a volume of oral history published by McSweeney’s in late 2006. Zeitoun was just one of many narrators to reflect on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in that book’s pages. What made his contribution unique, however, was the sense that Zeitoun’s narrative properly began only after the storm had well and truly passed.

In Zeitoun, a work of non-fiction written by Eggers in such close consultation with its subject that it sometimes feels like an elegant piece of ghostwriting, Abdulrahman’s story is told in full. It is the account of how an innocent man – in many respects an exemplary individual – found himself trapped at the point where some of the most fraught and contentious aspects of contemporary America intersected.

The Syrian-born immigrant’s mistake was to remain in New Orleans during the hurricane that, in August of 2005, breached the city’s levees and effectively drowned the city. After days spent in an aluminium canoe, rescuing neighbours and feeding stranded dogs, he was picked up in a police sweep – while the streets were still inundated – on suspicion of looting. At the hastily constructed detention centre that came to be known as Camp Greyhound, he was processed, along with three others, and then held, without recourse to any of the usual legal rights afforded to US citizens, for almost a month in a high-security prison.

Eggers reconstructs events using extensive interviews with Abdulrahman, his American-born wife Kathy, family members, friends and law-enforcement officials, and does a fine job of it. His former tendency to ironic excess is tamed by brute fact, while dreary chronology is fashionably mussed into dramatic disorder and biographical elements are polished to an epiphanic sheen. Homeland Security’s paranoid fancies and the Kafkaesque machinery of the FEMA bureaucracy are revealed in all their daft dangerousness by the objective reporting of Zeitoun’s ordeal.

Although the work occasionally suffers from an excess of piety towards its subjects, these moments are more than compensated for by the sheer gravity of Zeitoun’s tale. We are never allowed to forget that a diligent, able, strong and kind man was broken by his experience in Katrina’s wake, simply because he was a Muslim of Middle-Eastern descent, arrested at a moment of great confusion and fear.


Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


Cover: August 2009

August 2009