Zeitoun (Eggers)

Zeitoun 
Dave Eggers, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307387943


Summary
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared.

Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy—an American who converted to Islam—and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible.

Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research—in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—March 12, 1970
Where—Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Reared—Lake Forest, Illinois
Education—University of Illinois
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California


Dave Eggers is the author of four books, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, How We Are Hungry, and What Is the What. He is the editor of McSweeney’s, a quarterly magazine and book-publishing company, and is cofounder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people.

His interest in oral history led to his 2004 cofounding of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Believer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter. (From the publisher.)

More
Eggers was born in Boston, Massachusetts, grew up in suburban Lake Forest (where he was a high-school classmate of the actor Vince Vaughn), and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lives in San Francisco and is married to the writer Vendela Vida. In October 2005, Vendela gave birth to a daughter, October Adelaide Eggers Vida.

Eggers's brother Bill is a researcher who has worked for several conservative think tanks, doing research on privatization. His sister, Beth, claimed that Eggers grossly understated her role in raising their brother Toph and made use of her journals in writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius without compensating her. She later recanted her claims in a posting on her brother's own website McSweeney's Internet Tendency, referring to the incident as "a really terrible LaToya Jackson moment". On March 1, 2002, the New York Post reported that Beth, then a lawyer in Modesto, California, had committed suicide. Eggers briefly spoke about his sister's death during a 2002 fan interview for McSweeney's.

Eggers was one of three 2008 TED Prize recipients. His TED Prize wish: for community members to personally engage with local public schools.

Eggers began writing as a Salon.com editor and founded Might magazine, while also writing a comic strip called Smarter Feller (originally Swell, then Smart Feller) for SF Weekly. His first book was a memoir (with fictional elements), A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). It focuses on the author's struggle to raise his younger brother in San Francisco following the sudden deaths of their parents. The book quickly became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The memoir was praised for its originality, idiosyncratic self-referencing, and for several innovative stylistic elements. Early printings of the 2001 trade-paperback edition were published with a lengthy, apologetic postscript entitled "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making."

In 2002, Eggers published his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, a story about a frustrating attempt to give away money to deserving people while haphazardly traveling the globe. An expanded and revised version was released as Sacrament in 2003 and retitled You Shall Know Our Velocity! for its Vintage imprint distribution. He has since published a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry, and three politically-themed serials for Salon.com. In November 2005, Eggers published Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, compiling the book of interviews with exonerees once sentenced to death. The book was compiled with Lola Vollen, "a physician specializing in the aftermath of large-scale human rights abuses" and "a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of International Studies and a practicing clinician." Novelist Scott Turow wrote the introduction to Surviving Justice. Eggers's most recent novel, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (McSweeney's, 2006), was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Eggers is also the editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, an annual anthology of short stories, essays, journalism, satire, and alternative comics.

Eggers is the founder of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house. McSweeney's produces a quarterly literary journal, McSweeney's, first published in 1998; a monthly journal, The Believer, which debuted in 2003 and is edited by wife Vida; and, beginning in 2005, a quarterly DVD magazine, Wholphin. Other works include The Future Dictionary of America, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, and the "Dr. and Mr. Haggis-On-Whey" children's books of literary nonsense, which Eggers writes with his younger brother. Ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Eggers wrote an essay about the US national team and soccer in the United States for The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a book published with aid of the journal Granta, that contained essays about each competing team in the tournament.

Eggers currently teaches writing in San Francisco at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center and writing school for children that he cofounded in 2002. Eggers has recruited volunteers to operate similar programs in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, all under the auspices of the nonprofit organization 826 National. In 2006, he appeared at a series of fundraising events, dubbed the Revenge of the Book–Eaters tour, to support these programs. The Chicago show, at the Park West theatre, featured Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Other performers on the tour included Sufjan Stevens, Jon Stewart and David Byrne. In September 2007, the Heinz Foundations awarded Eggers a $250,000 Heinz award given to recognize "extraordinary achievements by individuals". The award will be used to fund some of the 826 Valencia writing centers. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
In Zeitoun, what Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It's the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. Eggers...has given us 21st-century Dickensian storytelling—which is to say, a character-driven potboiler with a point. But here's the real trick: He does it without any writerly triple-lutzes or winks of post­modern irony. There are no rants against President Bush, no cheap shots at the authorities who let this city drown. He does it the old-fashioned way: with show-not-tell prose, in the most restrained of voices.
Timothy Egan - New York Times Book Review


Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) chronicles the tribulations of Syrian-born painting contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who, while aiding in rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was inexplicably arrested by military personnel and swept into a bureaucratic maelstrom of civil injustices. This Kafkaesque story is sure to shock, horrify, and outrage listeners and will especially appeal to those who enjoy nonfiction survival stories. It should be required reading to ensure that nothing like the events described here will ever be repeated. —Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
1. “Notes About This Book” (xv) gives a sense of how the book was written, whose point of view it reflects, and Eggers’s efforts at accuracy and truth in his depiction of events. By choosing to portray the response to the hurricane through its effects on one family, what kind of story (or history) does he achieve?

2. The book opens with “Friday, August 26,” an expository chapter that introduces us to Zeitoun’s family life and his business life, the two very interconnected. What are some of the ways in which the descriptions here draw you in as a reader, and make these people and their situation real? Why is the timeline a good structural choice for this story?

3. Kathy has grown up as a Southern Baptist. Drawn to Islam through her childhood friend Yuko, she decides to convert. Why, when she comes to visit wearing her hijab, does her mother tell her, “Now you can take that thing off” (57)? Why does the prayer from the Qur’an quoted on page 51 have a strong effect on her? What does her reaction to the evangelical preacher who mocks Islam and says that Kathy’s temptation to convert was the work of the devil (65–66), say about Kathy’s character and intelligence?

4. Do Abdulrahman, Kathy and their children make up an unusual American family, or not? How would you describe the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy, in marriage and in business? What effect does their religion have on the way others in the community see them?

5. Why has Eggers woven into the story accounts of Zeitoun’s past in Syria, his upbringing, his brother Mohammed, the champion swimmer, his brother Ahmad, and their close bond? What effect does this framework of family have on your perception of Zeitoun’s character, his ethics, his behavior?

6. The plight of the neighborhood’s abandoned dogs comes to Zeitoun’s attention as “a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shards” (93). The next day, he sets out in the canoe and tries to do what he can for animals and people trapped by the flood. How does Zeitoun feel about what he is doing? How does he think about these days after he has been imprisoned (262–64)?

7. Discuss what happens when Zeitoun and the others are forced to get into the boat and are taken into custody. Is it clear why they are being arrested? What assumptions are made about Zeitoun and the other three men (275–87)?

8. Part IV (203–90) tells the story of Zeitoun’s imprisonment. Here we learn in great detail how Zeitoun is denied the right to call Kathy, how his injured foot is not attended to, how the other men are beaten, stripped, and starved, how he prays constantly, yet loses hope. What is the impact, as you read, of this narrative?

9. “Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics” (Timothy Egan, New York Times, August 13, 2009). Would you agree with this statement? Can Zeitoun be read as a contribution to the history of hurricane Katrina and the failure of government to handle the disaster effectively?

10. Discuss Kathy’s situation, and her actions once she learns where Zeitoun is. The aftermath is more difficult, and she still suffers from physical and psychological problems that seem to be the result of post-traumatic stress. What was the most traumatic part of her experience, and why (319)?

11. Given that the other men who were imprisoned with Zeitoun were held much longer than he was, and that Nasser lost his life savings, is it surprising that these men were not compensated in any way for their time in prison (320–21)?

12. What is Zeitoun’s feeling now about what happened? How does he move forward into the future, as expressed in the book’s closing pages (322-25)?

13. If you have read What is the What, Eggers’ novel about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, how does Zeitoun compare? Discuss Eggers’ approach to writing about traumatic regional and political events through the lives of individuals impacted by them.  
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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