In Zeitoun, Dave Eggers takes the reader to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He doesn't narrate from the point of view of the government or the many agencies involved. Instead, he tells the story through the eyes of a family that lived through the chaos and the horror.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun immigrated to the United States from Syria after a decade of working on ships and traveling all over the world. He married Kathy, an American who grew up as a Christian in
the U.S. but converted to Islam. Kathy and Abdulrahman built a life together in New Orleans:
they had four children, and worked together in a contracting business. Abdulrahman handled the workers and the actual jobs, while Kathy handled the business side. In addition to the contracting business, they owned several rental houses.
When Katrina headed for New Orleans and evacuation was recommended, Kathy and the children left, taking refuge with relatives. Although his family begged him to come, Abdulrahman decided to stay behind, ride out the storm, and watch over their properties. He expected a storm like most other hurricanes
- a few days without power and some cleanup from water damage and structures hurt by falling trees. Of course, Katrina was no ordinary hurricane. Abdulrahman found himself stranded in a city that was flooded beyond belief. It was a city torn by looters and crime, one that the mayor described as "animalistic".
Abdulrahman had bought a canoe years before at a yard sale as a reminder of his seafaring days. He paddled through the neighborhoods near his home, saving several neighbors stranded with no way out and distributing food and supplies to those he found. As the days went by, Kathy begged him to leave, and the city was under mandatory evacuation. Finally, he began to think about how he would leave and reunite with his family.
Fate intervened before he left. The police came to one of his rental houses, where Abdulrahman and some friends had gathered. All four men were arrested and taken to a holding facility at the city bus station. From there, they were transferred along with other prisoners under the authority of FEMA to a maximum security prison. The second half of the book tells the story of Abdulrahman's imprisonment and how he was treated there.
Eggers has chosen an effective method of portraying this natural disaster made worse by human decisions. Viewing the catastrophe through the eyes of a resident provides a different focus than seeing it through the focus of a state or federal agency which is focused on policy and the safety of property and survivors. It provides a window into how quickly government is willing to trample on basic human rights in an effort to restore order. That willingness is chilling, and Eggers portrays it convincingly.