On Reading Zeitoun

Title: Zeitoun

Author: Dave Eggers

Publication Year: 2010 (Paperback ediion)

Pages: 368

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Personal copy

I was slow in picking up this book, and I admit that is because of my own cowardice. Katrina itself was too much to comprehend. The notion of secret prisons and completely sidestepping human rights is not something I have the stomach to think about for too long. To think I was going to read a book that took on both subjects was almost too much to bear. But I had to read it. The book has made too much of an impact and I could no longer avoid reading it.

The job it does in bringing this story to light is absolutely remarkable. It has been praised in far more eloquent ways than I can ever hope to. So instead of describing/praising the story I’ll simply relate to my experience in reading it.

Strangely enough, the book had an addictive, engrossing, unputdownable quality. As another Goodreads reader has also remarked, even one who isn’t given to reading for lengthy amounts of time finds themselves finishing this in a day.

So during the exposition, the laying out of the playing ground, I hung back and took the story in the way I usually read books–little by little everyday. I knew it was building up to something big. I was about to see a dark side of the world and of America that was terrifying. So I wanted the initial part to last. And I made it last. Right until the point of Zeitoun putting down the phone and going outside to find himself surrounded by soldiers.

From that point onwards, I read the rest of the book straight through, without putting it down. It was difficult to read, but it seemed just as difficult and unjust to just put the book down and pick it up again, to turn off and turn on at will the narration of a such a story, a hell someone had actually lived through. The situation the Zeitoun family finds themselves truly pushes the boundaries of personal endurance and reveals how a the American legal system, supposedly designed to protect human rights and dignity, gets suspended in extraordinary circumstances.

As I was reading the book, I was also amazed the simple quality of its narration. Too many nonfiction accounts try to spice themselves up with statements like “He had no idea what he was in for,” breaking the readerly fourth wall by revealing that the narrator knows what happens later on. I loved the construction of the book, the focusing on Kathy’s suffering before switching over to Zeitoun’s side of the story. I loved the interludes where there were personal anecdotes about the family and its history, as they provided temporary relief to story being told.

The story manages to bring out the good side of humanity as embodied by the Zeitouns, but not in a way that is too cloying. Zeitoun’s adamant desire to help others is good to a fault, and is shown to be that way. He is romantic, but not too naive. I felt that the moments of peace and positivity and justification the Zeitoun couple do experience during their ordeal are as much a grand ability to look on the positive side of things, as a human mechanism to help them cope with an extremely difficult situation. They’re not saints. They continue to live New Orleans and they take part in rebuilding it and are working in fostering interfaith understanding. That doesn’t mean that they are not angry or disillusioned with the system or infuriated the havoc the war on terror has wreaked on their lives. They work on doing good in their home city, the place they have always known, because it’s the only way for something good to come out of that anger, and it’s the only way they can live with what happened.

Last but not least, God is called upon, His force shown, His presence celebrated and imminent, throughout the book. Beautifully and amazingly enough, it is not shown as separate from the narrative, something confined to Zeitoun’s beliefs. It forms the current and the colour of the story. And perhaps what I love most of all about this book is the fact that Allah is given a deep, enduring presence in a nonfiction account. Nonfiction books even dealing with religious matter–the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, for example–don’t resonate as beautifully with divine presence as this book does.

An absolutely wonderful read and testament to both the dark and compassionate sides of humanity.


6 thoughts on “On Reading Zeitoun

  1. Salam, great review. I read ‘Zeitoun’ a few months ago and echo everything you’ve said here. Credit to the author for really projecting the recognised importance of God in the lives of Zeitoun and Kathy. For this reason alone I chose it as an audiobook present for my Mum, who has had an unhappy knack of stumbling across literature that shows Muslims in a very bad light. Zeitoun, by contrast, loves and serves humanity and is one who fears and trusts in his Lord, even in unimaginable adversity.
    Much to be pondered in tackling this troubling but important book.


  2. She didn’t directly comment on this aspect but I’m hopeful it had some impact, however subtle!
    She said she was positively bristling at the injustice of what unfolded and was accordingly a little uncomfortable listening to it, although she found it totally gripping.


  3. I have Zeitoun sitting on my desk at work. A co-worker was reading it with her book club and lent it to me. I’m sad to say that I’ve also been slow in picking it up, as her review was, “meh. it’s ok. felt like the book was trying to convert me.” So it’s been collecting dust.

    But now that I’ve read your review, I’ll give it a go!


  4. I love your writing style as it captures the reader from the beginning and keeps them locked till the end. I can totally relate to not wanting to read a book about the happenings of secret prisions as I too have a weak stomach when it comes to reading or watching anything related to barbaric acts committed by human beings. Great post! 🙂


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