Book review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

This is an extraordinary book about one family’s experience with Hurricane Katrina.

As long time readers of this blog may recall, I was furious at the way that the poor people of New Orleans were treated like scum during and after Katrina But Zeitoun is on the short list of ten books that are competing to be selected as the choice for my university’s common reading program for next year. Since I am on the selection committee, I feel obliged to read all of them. Once I started it, however, I could barely put it down, it is so well-written. It is written in a documentary style, using language that is spare and understated, yet extraordinarily compelling.

Dave Eggers tells the true story through the eyes of a devout Muslim couple in New Orleans caught up in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The husband Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone by just his last name which is pronounced ‘zay-toon’) was born in Syria but is now a long-time resident of the US. He is the co-owner with his American-born wife Kathy (who had converted to Islam before she met him) of a prosperous construction and renovation business.

After evacuating his wife and their four children to Baton Rouge at the last minute before the hurricane struck, Zeitoun stays behind to look after his own house and the rental properties he owns and those of his friends and neighbors. Using a canoe that he had bought earlier on a whim and which now turns out to be invaluable, he rows around the silent and submerged parts of the city and in the process discovers stranded people and animals and starts helping them out. By indiscriminately helping anyone in need he comes across, this generous and tireless man enters a calm and exalted state and begins to think that god has a plan for him and had placed him in that awful situation to be a good Samaritan to the people and animals in his adopted city and nation.

But then suddenly everything turns upside down. He and others are arrested by security forces who ignore their claims that they were on their own property and, in what can truly be described by the term Kafkaesque, he finds himself held for weeks in makeshift prisons under appalling conditions with cruel guards and indifferent officials, not allowed even a single phone call to his lawyer or to his frantic wife and family.

Zeitoun is a profoundly disturbing book. In a graphic demonstration of what the government’s real priorities are, it contrasts the ruthless efficiency with which the government and its security forces rounded up ordinary people and treated them like dirt, with the appalling inefficiency and incompetence it displayed when dealing with the real humanitarian needs of people facing implacable forces of nature. It is a gripping account of what it is like when all the protections we take for granted are thrown out of the window in the name of security aided by xenophobia, and the dangers that arise when security forces are trained to ignore normal human feelings and treat people as enemies. If the US security forces can treat ordinary American citizens in America this way, one can only imagine how they treat their perceived enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book shows the creeping power of the national security state and the danger of allowing governments the right to think that they can disregard constitutional protections and the basic human rights of people. We tend to think of the armed services of a country as being there to defend the country from external enemies, or even on occasion to attack other countries. This is how these extremely expensive institutions are sold to the public. But we must never forget that another purpose of a nation’s military is to enable the government to control its own people when it wants to, and in order to do that the soldiers must be trained so that if anyone, even members of their own local community and nation, is identified as a potential enemy, all human feeling is ignored and that person is treated like garbage. The fact that soldiers can be trained to be like that is a testament to how far we have gone along the road to becoming a national security state.

What happened in New Orleans during Katrina was compounded by the fact that the police in that city has long had a reputation of being highly corrupt and racist, preying on poor and black people, so that the police was seen by them as the enemy. Finally in July 2010, six police officers were charged with shooting people without cause during Katrina. The June 2010 issue of Z Magazine (not available online) has an article by Darwin Bond-Graham that gives the results of a long investigation into their practices. Titled The New Orleans Police Department’s Culture of Corruption and Repression, it gives the sordid details of how they and the local power elite operated with impunity. Fresh Air had an interview with one of the reporters who investigated the murders and which led to indictments against sixteen police officers for shooting, murder, and cover-ups.

Even though Zeitoun himself was a hard-working and prosperous businessman, whenever he and his wife had any encounter with the police such as a routine traffic stop, she would insist on doing the talking, hoping that her white skin and local accent would enable them to avoid trouble.

Zeitoun is not just the story of what happened to one family because of a hurricane. It is also a grim reminder of the dangers of creating a national security state, driven by fear and paranoia, in which people sacrifice the rule of law for a spurious sense of security. What happened in New Orleans occurred under the Bush-Cheney regime which sought the elimination of all the major constitutional provisions that safeguard our rights to due process.

I would liked to have said that Barack Obama has reversed these policies. But although expressing vehement opposition to the Bush-Cheney policies when campaigning for president, he immediately reversed course upon his election and has taken those draconian measures even further. While he has admirably spoken out against the xenophobia that is at the base of the ridiculous opposition to the proposed new Islamic Center called Cordoba House in New York City, he has not taken any steps to dismantle the national security state he inherited, and has in fact expanded its reach.

POST SCRIPT: FBI investigates peace activist

A mother of five children, a registered nurse, who happened to attend a demonstration in support of Palestinian rights, gets a visit from the FBI. She shows remarkable calmness and presence of mind by videotaping the encounter, which you can see by clicking on the link

Just in case you should ever be visited by the FBI for whatever reason, here are some guidelines that outlines your rights.

Do you think that you are safe from FBI harassment because you are a law-abiding citizen? The fact is that the modern state has all manner of vague and obscure statutes that all of us unwittingly break. Susie Madrak at the website Crooks and Liars describes one such case where a US Senator invoked such a law to harass someone who merely wrote him an angry email. Madrak also mentions the book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate who says that the average person now commits roughly three felonies a day without even knowing it. So if the government does not like you for any reason, they can always try and nail you for violating some law that you did not even know existed. Silverglate argues that this is now possible because the long-standing practice of prosecutors needing to show intent to commit the crime is vanishing.


  1. says

    I agree that it is appalling how law abiding citizens were treated during the natural disaster that was Katrina. What I don’t see often mentioned is that in addition to the atrocities you mention, the local law enforcement confiscated privately owned firearms from law abiding citizens, depriving them of the ability to defend their homes and families during the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of the storm. Even though the courts have ruled that this was unconstitutional, many people have yet to get their lawful, personal property back.

  2. says

    It never ceases to amaze me the depths to which we will descend in our dealings with one another.

    It is as if common sense and human decency have been forgotten, or never learned.

    Shame on us!

  3. says

    These are perhaps some of the most disturbing trends in modern society. This kind of thing had even started happening at the time of the Plague in Europe -- it was a perfect opportunity to police the streets -- have curfews -- etc. -- And the public welcomed it.

    Probably the best defense is an awareness of what is happening -- and spreading the word to as many as possible.


  4. says

    Every disaster is another tool in a corrupt governments shed to utilize and manipulate the peoples fears to justify their growing power and control. “Don’t let a disaster go to waste” is the unofficial motto of emergency relief bureaus.

    The only way to stop this from happening is by allowing the truth into the media and educating those who choose to remain ignorant to what is really taking place. I will be looking for this book in the library next time I go.

  5. says

    It never ceases to amaze me the depths to which we will descend in our dealings with one another.

    It is as if common sense and human decency have been forgotten, or never learned.

    Shame on us!

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