Sunday, August 30, 2009

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I read a lot of fiction and I often chastise myself for not reading more non-fiction. Recently I decided to pick up a copy of Dave Eggers’ book that documents one family who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 2005. Eggers references Washington’s fear of terrorists possibly overcoming the city in the aftermath of the hurricane. But what surprisingly comes out of this story is less about social profiling of Islamic terrorists, and a whole lot about ‘the enemy is us.’ Abdulrahaman Zeitoun was born in Syria, a Muslim and a U.S. citizen, a well-respected contractor, and a rental property owner in New Orleans with a family. His journey of heroism to stay in the city during the hurricane in order to oversee his property and to help those left behind, people as well as animals, is counterbalanced by the absurd, mindless, heartless bureaucrats we usually associate with monolithic governments. Zeitoun’s wife Kathy and children leave the city. Sections of the book alternate her perspective with Zeitoun’s and deepen our empathy with the personal tragedy that this family experiences. Always keeping the reader immersed in the urgency of the hurricane and its aftermath, Eggers’ writing straddles the larger history of the Zeitoun family, across time and countries. It is a fascinating piece of writing. And it is journalism at its best, a cautionary tale about our democracy committed to protecting the rights of citizens, which in fact turns out to be a government more in tune with incarcerating prisoners than helping decent citizens trapped in the flood of New Orleans without food, water, medical help, and decent shelter. Thanks to the Zeitoun family’s survival, Zeitoun’s passion for building and generosity, and Dave Eggers’ journalism, we have a clear picture of how our government can fail its people. The strength of one large family can overcome adversity but not without a lot of pain and indignity. If one message of this book is clear it is that it is incumbent on all citizens to be vigilant and hold those in authority to be accountable.

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