A Syrian-American Navigates New Orleans

Al Jadid Staff

The stereotyping and mistrusting of Arabs has existed before Sept. 11, but even more so after 2001. And no where can we find greater examples of this prejudice than in the depictions of Arabs in mainstream cultural mediums. So it comes as some surprise that a recent departure from this long-standing stereotype comes from mainstream American author Dave Eggers’s new novel “Zeitoun,” which documents the lives of a Syrian-American family and the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. In the book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun emerges as a man of dignity and heroism, effecting a quiet repudiation of the stereotypical characterization of Arabs while also giving American literature a new hero.

Opening on the Zeitoun family in Uptown New Orleans, the novel depicts the tragedies that befell the patriarch of the Zeitouns, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who finds himself victim to both Hurricane Katrina, and an unlawful arrest following the hurricane on suspicions that he is a terrorist.

After ignoring a warning to evacuate, Zeitoun stays in his family’s New Orleans home while his family leaves. He suspects, like many New Orleanians did, that the damages incurred to his home would be limited to a few broken windows. Waking later to find his city submerged, Zeitoun utilizes a canoe he purchased some years in the past to navigate the newly flooded streets. Eggers relishes these scenes and does not hold back in describing all of the strange details of flooded New Orleans like a vision of the apocalypse, even furthering the comparison by opening the novel with an epigraph from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”

Equipped with only his canoe, Zeitoun, referred to by his last name only in the book, travels through the city answering meek cries for help. With so many in need of help, and government organizations like FEMA so ill-equipped to respond, Zeitoun becomes a hero to a city that desperately needs one.

He rescues a 200-pound, 70-year old woman trapped in her house in one scene. He swims to her porch after hearing her soft cries for help. Once inside he finds her using her furniture as a make-shift floatation device, but barely able to carry on in that manner after nearly 24 hours. Realizing that he couldn’t possibly support her in the canoe, he leaves to find another boat to help. With reports that the city has turned anarchistic and violent, many are unwilling to help. A fan boat passes him by without so much as a glance, nearly toppling his canoe. But luckily a small fishing boat stops and he is able to use a ladder to get the old woman into the boat.

“The woman rolled into the bed of the boat. It was not a graceful landing, but she managed to sit up. […] Zeitoun shuddered to watch a woman of her age suffer like this. The situation had robbed her of her dignity, and it pained him to bear witness.”

In many ways “Zeitoun” is concerned with dignity, both robbed and gained. Despite his good efforts, Zeitoun is arrested and detained without charges by officers under suspicions that he is a terrorist. In prison he is subjected to humiliation and abject tortures in scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib prison. In these scenes the anger over the undignified treatment of Arabs since Sept. 11, becomes most apparent, but Zeitoun never loses dignity, and Eggers never loses his journalistic objectivity. Throughout the novel Zeitoun’s image is untarnished, and only the reputations of his torturers are damaged.

Eggers set out to “de-exoticize” the idea of a Muslim-American family in “Zeitoun.” He said in an interview with GOATMILK, an online blog, that in writing this story he “was seeking to just tell a story about an all-American family that happens to be Muslim.”

Based on a series of interviews Eggers conducted with the Zeitoun family, including the freed Abdulrahman Zeitoun, beginning in 2005, Eggers attempted to portray the events preceding and following the hurricane without inserting his own judgments or embellishing the story with too much style or sentimentality. His example was Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” which he found powerful for its lack of Mailer’s own voice. Rather, he let the events speak for themselves, which he believed would showcase the material’s power.

By choosing to tell a true story, Eggers has avoided the possibility of disbelief here. Also absent are any traces of stereotype and the usual notions about Arab characters to create a powerful and compelling story that effects a repudiation of the mistreatment of Arabs while also showing that Abdulrahman Zeitoun is an American hero.

Critics agree. Timothy Egan wrote in a cover story for the New York Times Book Review: “my guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to [New Orleans] during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

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