Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Do you remember being in university, and how when it came time to buy textbooks, the new ones were really, really expensive, and sometimes you couldn’t find it used and you just had to bite the bullet? Especially in political science and international relations, it didn’t take me long to figure out that many of the authors had one little idea, and they stretched it, kneaded it, elaborated upon it, made each different iteration a new chapter – but essentially, they took this one little idea, stretched it into a book and charged $30-$40 bucks for what might have made a good essay in Foreign Affairs or the New Yorker.

I often felt so cheated. I often find that when I look at the New York Times list of Best selling Non Fiction, most of the books look just like that.

When I bought Zeitoun, that day I just needed an escape, I didn’t know it was non-fiction. I had seen Zeitoun mentioned, even advertised in my very favorite magazine, The New Yorker. I fell in love with The New Yorker when I was a kid, even though I didn’t understand half of the comics, I thought they were hilarious. I still do. 🙂 When my New Yorker arrives, I read it cover to cover, and I often order books reviewed or recommended there.

I started Zeitoun shortly after watching the HBO series Treme´ about life just after Hurricane Katrina, so this book was timely and relevant. Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant to the US whose wife is a Moslem convert, has a thriving painting and contracting business. When Katrina threatens, his wife and kids leave town, but he stays to watch over his multiple properties and businesses.

He survives the hurricane, and actually finds the change of pace enjoyable. He has a canoe he bought at a yard sale, and he rows around the neighborhood feeding dogs locked inside his neighbors houses, checking on his friends, rescuing stranded people or notifying rescue services where people need their help – he has a feeling he is exactly where he is meant to be, that he stayed on in New Orleans as part of God’s purpose for his life. He feels valuable and useful.

Then, one day, as he is checking on one of his rental properties, he is arrested, along with three friends, in the one house they know has water for showers and a working land line, which they all use to call their families. It is Zeitoun’s property. They are arrested by the National Guard.

One of Zeitoun’s friends, Nassar, has ten thousand dollars with him. Any of us who are expats can laugh – every expat has his cache of emergency escape money. Nassar, on hearing the hurricane was coming, withdrew his savings from the bank so it would be safe. The National Guard arrests them and takes all their money, wallets, identification and sends them off to jail, and in the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans/ Louisiana bureaucracy, there is no paperwork and their families have no idea where they are.

Nassar and Zeitoun come into the worst of it, because they have Arab names, because of the large amount of cash Nassar has, and Homeland Security advisory that terrorist organizations could try to take advantage of the post-disaster confusion. It is seriously Kafka-esque; they are good men who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong last names. Most of the meals served in the prison contain ham or bacon or pork. The system just stops working, and they never even get to telephone people who could clear their names and get them out.

I couldn’t stop reading. Eggers captures the sensual aftermath, the sewage, the foul water, the stink of rotting food and rotting bodies, and the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to prove you are innocent when you don’t even know the charges against you, and people are being picked up on mere suspicions.

While Zeitoun is eventually released from prison, and his construction and painting business flourishes, his family is not left untouched by the post-traumatic stresses the events surrounding Katrina. Every life resounds with the impact of Katrina and the damage inflicted on New Orleans. His friend Nassar never got his ten thousand dollars back.

I love books about people who come to America, create a business, and make a go of it. Zeitoun is one of the best – he isn’t afraid of hard work, and he loves his life and family. His story is well worth a read.

Zeitoun is available from for a mere $10.85 plus shipping, and while I own stock in Amazon, I don’t get any kind of payment for mentioning them in reviews. 🙂

August 2, 2010 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Civility, Community, Counter-terrorism, Cultural, Environment, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Financial Issues, Hurricanes, Law and Order, Living Conditions, Social Issues, Weather | 7 Comments