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Innocent until proven guilty.
Well, apparently, not if your surname is Zeitoun.
And you come from Syria.
And who better to tell a story of the injustice perpetrated upon ethnic minorities in the USA than Dave Eggers, the author of What Is the What?
Who Should Read “Zeitoun”? And Why?
If Shakespeare’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech gives you goosebumps and you believe in a common goal for humanity, then Dave Eggers’ books have certainly come onto your radar at least a few times in the past.
Zeitoun is merely one chapter; but it’s a powerful one, with a lesson for just about everyone.
About Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers is a critically acclaimed and bestselling American author and screenwriter.
He is the author several novels and novellas, short story collections, screenplays, as well as lauded and popular nonfiction books.
He debuted in 2000 with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir of Eggers’ stewardship of his younger brother Cristopher following the death of both of their parents. The book was an enormous success with both critics and the public, being nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and reaching #1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is widely considered to be one of the best books so far written in the 21st century.
Eggers followed the success of his debut book with three novels and two non-fiction books in the next five years. In 2006, he published What Is the What, a strange mixture of fiction and non-fiction, presented as an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
In 2009, Eggers worked with director Spike Jonze on adapting Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are into a movie; the screenplay was later novelized in The Wild Things, which works as a sort of a sequel to Sendak’s classic.
Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle was turned into a successful movie in 2017, directed by James Ponsoldt and starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.
Find out more at https://daveeggers.net/.
“Zeitoun PDF Summary”
As we are informed in by Dave Eggers himself in the Notes preceding Zeitoun, this book is a work of nonfiction, based primarily on the accounts of two people: Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. (In case you’re wondering, the surname is pronounced “Zay-toon”).
Eggers worked hard to find reliable and independent confirmations regarding everything from dates and times to locations and conversations.
So even though it sometimes reads—and even seems—like a novel, and even though it is necessarily subjective, Zeitoun is, in fact, a book-length account of one family’s actual experiences before and after the Hurricane Katrina.
So, even though we’ll skip the “Key Lessons” section this time, it is only fair for you to treat it as such. After all, the lessons from Zeitoun should be more than obvious.
The book is divided into five parts, the first four covering the day-to-day events between August 26 and September 29, 2005 (through both Zeitoun’s and Kathy’s eyes), and the last one serving as a sort of an epilogue, describing Kathy and Abdulrahman’s lives three years later (Fall 2008).
But, first – the run-up.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a real-life hero, is the main protagonist of Dave Eggers’s book. He had grown up in Jableh, a coastal town in Syria, with many brothers and sisters. His father had been a ship captain for most of his life; however, a near-death experience inspired him to settle down.
However, this didn’t change Abdulrahman or his brother Ahmad’s minds: they both spent more than a decade working at sea, whether as fishermen, engineers or musclemen. It had been more than exhausting for Abdulrahman, but it allowed him to travel and see the world.
Eventually—more specifically, in 1988—he settled in the United States. There, he developed a close friendship with a man called Ahmaad, a Lebanese American working at a gas station. One day Zeitoun asked Ahmaad if he knew any single woman appropriate for him.
But his wife Yuko did.
Kathy Delphine had grown up in Baton Rouge, in a Southern Baptist family.
At the time Abdulrahman entreated Ahmaad for a single, down-to-earth woman who wants a family, she had already gone through a failed marriage (which left her with a son named Zachary) and was promised to another friend of Ahmaad.
Also: inspired by Yuko’s peaceful and happy marriage to a Muslim and disappointed by the preacher at her church, she had, not that long ago, decided to convert to Islam.
After going out for a few months with Ahmaad’s friend, Kathy’s relationship came to an end. A year or two later, not wanting to be selfish and deny her son a father, Kathy started thinking more and more about the idea of marrying a nice, hardworking, family-oriented man.
It was at this time that she and Abdulrahman were introduced at a (not so) casual dinner at Ahmaad and Yuko’s house.
They hit off and, well, by 2005, the fifteen-year-old Zachary could call Nademah (10), Safiya (7), and Aisha (5) his half-sisters.
In addition, Kathy and Abdulrahman founded a successful business together: Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC.
Zeitoun Painting Contractors LLC
The painting business went well for the Zeitouns—with minor, and, in retrospect, quite ominous hiccups. Namely, from time to time, a person would call and look as interested as a would-be client can be—until finding out about the Syrian origin of the surname.
Since Kathy was the one answering phones, she was the only one to experience such incidents. But she rarely relayed them to Zeitoun, who had been so content in this country that he tended to shrug off events such as these all the same.
However, sometimes it got under his skin:
Since the attacks in New York, he would say, every time a crime was committed by a Muslim, that person’s faith was mentioned, regardless of its relevance. When a crime is committed by a Christian, do they mention his religion? If a Christian is stopped at the airport for trying to bring a gun on a plane, is the Western world notified that a Christian was arrested today and is being questioned? And what about African Americans? When a crime is committed by a black man, it’s mentioned in the first breath: “An African American man was arrested today …” But what about German Americans? Anglo Americans? A white man robs a convenience store and do we hear he’s of Scottish descent? In no other instance is the ancestry mentioned.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Part I (Friday, August 26—Tuesday, August 30): Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane…
Friday, August 26, was a regular day for the Zeitouns until Kathy began to hear news of a looming storm. It’s New Orleans, so she’s not worried at first; however, as the day goes by, more and more news arrived and she starts feeling a bit concerned.
Zeitoun couldn’t be more relaxed – even after receiving a phone call from Ahmad, at that time living in Spain.
“Doesn’t look good for you,” Ahmad had said.
Zeitoun replied that he was paying close attention.
“Why not leave, just to be safe?”
To Zeitoun, safety seems less important than his integrity, so he decides to stay, even though there are wide reports of a family lost at sea due to the storm.
Kathy, urged by the recommendations of the mayor, takes the children and leaves to her sister’s house at Baton Rouge.
Zeitoun stays behind, making sure that their home, in addition to every ongoing job site and rental property he’s responsible for will be left unscathed by the storm.
And, at first, it seems as if he had made the right choice: Kathy remained stuck on the highway for hours, and by the end of the weekend, the storm had passed causing no serious damage whatsoever.
Part II (Tuesday, August 30—Tuesday, September 6): The Flood Had Come
On Tuesday, August 30, 2005, Zeitoun was woken up in his daughter Nademah’s room by the sound resembling “the constant whisper of a river.”
There was no rain and no pipes leaking—so it had to be something else, something far more dreadful!
At that moment, Zeitoun realized that the levees holding back the water had been overtopped or compromised. “There could be no doubt,” he thought. “The city would soon be underwater. If the water was here, he knew, it was already covering most of New Orleans… He knew the flood had come.”
After informing Kathy, Zeitoun moved everything he could to the second floor and took an old canoe. Recreating his old seaman days, he started paddling around.
And he did much more than that!
Partnering with another Syrian immigrant and an acquaintance named Nasser Dayood, and one of his tenants, Todd Gambino, he started helping everyone who was in need of help: elderly couples, a woman trapped in her flooded home, the dogs left without owners.
Zeitoun calls Kathy every day from a rental property of his at 5010 Clairborne—where there is still a working telephone—but only to pacify her and tell her that, despite what the news says, instead of violence and lawlessness, the city is filled with people helping and people wanting to be helped.
Being one of the former, Zeitoun explains, despite her wish, it is all but his duty to remain.
On Tuesday, September 6, Zeitoun sees a blue-and-white motorboat tied to the porch of the telephone-house. It belongs to a certain man named Ronnie, who joins the gang.
Not for long, though.
Part III (Wednesday, September 7—Monday, September 19): Kathy’s Ordeals
Kathy’s family had never accepted her conversion to Islam.
That’s why she couldn’t stand being around them for more than a couple of days. Not too long after arriving in Baton Rouge, she called Yuko, whose husband Ahmaad took her and her children to Phoenix, Arizona.
It was here that she received the last call from Zeitoun on Tuesday, September 6, 2005.
She had no idea what to do with herself for the next two weeks. She couldn’t even grieve: Zeitoun’s family (in Syria, Spain, and elsewhere) was constantly on the phone, and she had no news to share with them.
Yuko tried comforting her, but, as the days passed, Kathy started coming to terms with the painful truth that Zeitoun may have died.
And on Monday, September 19, she received a completely unexpected call.
‘Is this Mrs. Zeitoun?’ a voice asked. The man seemed nervous. He pronounced Zeitoun wrong. Kathy’s stomach dropped. She managed to say yes.
‘I saw your husband,’ the man said.
Kathy sat down. An image of his body floating in the filth—
‘He’s okay,’ the voice said. ‘He’s in prison.’
The man, a missionary, had gotten the phone number from Zeitoun himself. He hung up just as soon as he shared the strange information: he wasn’t allowed to even make the phone call in the first place.
Part IV (Tuesday, September 6—Thursday, September 29): Zeitoun’s Nightmare
And this is what had happened to Zeitoun.
On September 6, his house had been visited by six policemen and military officers.
Even though Zeitoun owns the house and has an ID with him to prove it, they order him and the three other guys of the rescue gang to come with them.
The men are taken to Camp Greyhound, a temporary makeshift prison at the Greyhound Bus station. Contrary to the law, none of the four men is allowed to make a phone call or hire an attorney; in Zeitoun’s case, he doesn’t even know what the charges are against him.
In the days which follow, Zeitoun is submitted to humiliating physical searches and, before too long, he realizes that the four men are held in prison on account of suspicion for terrorist activities.
Nasser and Zeitoun’s fault?
Well, they are Syrians, i.e., suspicious by birth.
The fact that Nasser has his life savings with him (due to the catastrophe) and Todd Gambino has MapQuest printouts in his pockets (for delivering lost luggage) only makes the gang more suspicious.
To make matters worse, Nasser and Zeitoun have problems with the MREs they are provided with by the authorities: they often include pork and ham, and being Muslims, Nasser and Zeitoun only eat parts of their meals, giving the rest to Todd and Ronnie.
And it only gets worse from there, since on Friday, September 9, the prisoners are transferred to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison.
Soon enough, they are separated and Zeitoun is placed in solitary confinement. Fortunately, ten days later, he happens upon the missionary and gives him the number of Kathy.
On Monday, September 19, after receiving the phone call from the missionary, Kathy calls a lawyer, Raleigh Ohlmeyer.
The two do everything they can over the course of the next two weeks to get Zeitoun out of prison: paying money, gathering witness accounts, finding documents confirming Zeitoun’s ownership of the house…
Finally, on Thursday, September 29, the two are reunited.
Tears flood her eyes and a flash of anger overtakes Kathy as she sees her husband after a month or so for the first time: twenty pounds lighter, his hair longer, almost all of it white:
Goddamn those people. All of you people, everyone responsible for this.
Zeitoun saw her. He smiled and she went to him. Tears all over her face, she could barely see. She ran to him. She wanted to protect him… in the crescent of her arms and heal him.
Part V (Fall 2008): The Consequences
Three years later, Kathy and Abdulrahman’s lives are, at the face of it, back to normal: the Zeitouns are renovating and rebuilding their house, and the business is back on tracks.
However, Kathy is changed.
The traumas of September 2005 have made her forgetful and nervous, incapable of remembering numbers, names, dates. She doesn’t have only problems with concentrating, but is also just a few steps from going crazy.
Zeitoun, in the meantime, has accepted September 2005 as a test from God.
However, he has grown a bit disappointed and frustrated with his countrymen for not treating him as they would an American citizen.
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“Zeitoun Quotes”Be strong, be brave, be true. Endure. Click To Tweet Yes, a dark time passed over this land, but now there is something like light. Click To Tweet You don’t run the business, she would say. The business runs you. Click To Tweet If your hand doesn't work for it, your heart doesn't feel sorry for it. Click To Tweet What is building, and rebuilding and rebuilding again, but an act of faith? Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Unfortunately, the real epilogue of the story of the Zeitouns came three years after the book was published. Namely, in 2012, the Zeitouns divorced. In addition, Zeitoun was tried for solicitation of first-degree murder: of his wife and her son from the first marriage.
He was subsequently found not guilty for that, but three years later, on June 6, 2016, he was found guilty of felony stalking count; apparently, he “repeatedly violated a protective order barring him from getting near his ex-wife, Kathy Zeitoun, or properties they still owned together after their divorce.”
We don’t know to what extent the events of September 2005 affected this outcome. But we do know one thing: nobody should be treated the way Abdulrahman Zeitoun was.
And everybody should read Dave Eggers’ account of his 2005 ordeal before arriving at any judgment.
In fact, that’s the very point of this book.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.