For The Phoenix
The first thing that requires saying is that this is the most stirring, most eloquent and by far the most important book I have read from this year's releases. It is, I believe, a classic of American nonfiction.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the loveable, stubborn subject of Dave Eggers' (What Is The What, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius) first piece of biographical nonfiction. The heroic tale of Abdulrahman and his loving family is one that will inspire you. It will also make you sick to your stomach.
Abdulrahman was born in Jableh, Syria to a long line of mariners. His father had retired from life at sea after surviving the sinking of a ship by clutching to a barrel for days. He had forbidden his boys to ever become sailors. Mohammed, his oldest, became the world record holder (and largely still considered the best) in ocean swimming. Ahmad became a sea captain. Abdulrahman sailed the high seas for roughly a decade before settling, somewhat randomly, in New Orleans.
There he met and fell in love with his wife, Kathy. Kathy had already had one failed marriage and marrying the decade older Abdulrahman was not something she found initially appealing. So after slowly being charmed by Zeitoun's stoic work ethic, conservative demeanor (he does not drink or smoke), and probably most of all his long-lashed green eyes and swarthy sailor's physique she couldn't help but succumb to his chaste advances. She brought with her a son from a previous marriage and would quickly give him four daughters.
Kathy's white family was uncomfortable with her marriage to Zeitoun. Despite the fact that she had already converted to Islam prior to meeting Abdulrahman, they would still quietly insinuate that she ought to be able to relax and be unfettered by Islamic customs when he was not around. This angered Kathy.
The Zeitouns ran a successful contracting and painting service in New Orleans for years. Over that time they purchased nine properties, which they rented. All around town Abdulrahman was a respected man whose honesty and workmanship won him not only return customers but friends. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a paragon of "the right way." He cut no corners, paid his people well and always showed up on time and did the job right. His work ethic is something from that other time. You know, the one that we lament has past and all but a few of us have given up on? Yeah, that one.
Zeitoun tells the story of Abdulrahman as he stays behind in New Orleans to look over his properties and home during the now infamous hurricane named Katrina. His wife and family safely with friends outside of town, Zeitoun navigates the post flood waters in a small canoe, feeding dogs stuck in houses, rescuing the elderly or infirm and ferrying bottled water to those that need it. He, along with his cousin and a tenant, work tirelessly.
Abdulrahman encounters the sloth that was Katrina relief work. Overwhelmed police and soldiers, the bad ones callous or lazy and the good ones too bogged down with the insanity of it all. In one case a police officer even lies Zeitoun, saying that he will go and pick up a elderly couple needing help (a wheelchair bound Pastor and his wife) that Zeitoun could not help in his canoe. That night he finds them still stranded on their porch, slightly worse off now than before. It is Zeitoun who rescues them, who figures a way, and who is furious that the police officer had made a false promise.
It is also Zeitoun who is arrested in his own home, and slapped into a Guantanamo Bay style Homeland Security prison erected just hours after Katrina had subsided. It is Zeitoun who is accused of being a terrorist and who is strip-searched, cavity searched, fed pork (as a Muslim he cannot eat pork) and who is beaten and eventually held for a month, without phone call or due process in a maximum security prison.
When being cuffed and sent away, Zeitoun feebly told one soldier that someone would have to feed the dogs in his neighborhood. The soldier said that he would but refused the addresses.
At its core Zeitoun is about heroism. When a missionary worker handing out bibles in the correctional facility housing Zeitoun risks his ability to interact with prisoners in order to copy down Kathy's phone number and promises to call her for Zeitoun, the man seems a saving grace. All Zeitoun wants to do is call Kathy, let her know that he is indeed alive and that he needs help escaping from a nightmarish imprisonment. Later, Kathy praises this anonymous man as a hero. Then sadly she reflects on this thought. Is this what it has come to in the United States? Surrounded by so much callousness and laziness, wickedness really, is merely doing the right thing heroic? She hopes not.
All Kathy Zeitoun need do is look to her husband and realize that it is not heroic merely to do the right thing. To represent the aspirations and values of a culture and to uphold them before the monstrosity of wicked men and insurmountable nature, well, that is heroism. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a hero and one we should celebrate.
Book Reviewed: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. McSweeney's Books. Biography. Hardcover. $24. ISBN: 978934781630.