Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw
Reviewed by Chris Bradshaw
Summary: Just how wrong did the US authorities get the response to Hurrican Katrina? If the experience of the eponymous Zeitoun is anything to go by, the answer is very.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144848

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Flicking through the channels on the TV the other night I stumbled across an interview with George Bush's former Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove. After witnessing an especially cringe making hip hop turn at the Washington Correspondents' Dinner (if you haven't seen it take a look at here. It really is jaw droppingly awful) attention turned to weightier matters, most notably Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror and the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Needless to say the American right's very own Prince of Darkness was robust in his defence of the Republican Party's handling of both situations. His emphatic response to what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina particularly caught my eye as I'd just finished Dave Eggers' non fiction novelisation of the disaster in his rather excellent new book Zeitoun. To say that the two accounts contradict one another is something of an understatement.

The Zeitoun of the book is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian born painter, decorator, contractor and businessman. Muslim, married to American convert Kathy and with a young family Zeitoun worked hard, built a successful business and become a well known and respected member of his local community. In many ways Zeitoun could be a poster boy for the American dream. Work hard, take your opportunities and become a success.

When word arrives of the impending hurricane Zeitoun, ever practical and with properties and tenants to look after decides to stay in the city and ride out the storm. He's seen it all before, it's never as bad as the forecasters say. Except this time it is. With Kathy and the family safely (though unhappily) out of town, Zeitoun is forced to fend for himself as streets become streams and roads become rivers.

With his trusty aluminium canoe Zeitoun is able to navigate the devastated neighbourhoods, getting to places where the authorities can't reach and offering assistance whenever he can. He even manages to keep in touch with his extremely worried wife after finding what seemed like the only working phone line in the whole of New Orleans and finds company with a few stragglers who were either unwilling or unable to leave the city. Apart from one scene of looting Zeitoun largely manages to avoid the chaos that was engulfing much of his adopted home town. Until a visit from law enforcement officers that is.

Despite being in his own home Zeitoun and his friends are arrested and taken to a makeshift prison. Unable to contact an increasingly frantic Kathy, Zeitoun is left at the mercy of an out of control judicial system, his nightmare having just begun. I won't spoil the rest of the book by revealing what happened next. Needless to say it's not a textbook example of how a legal system under pressure should work.

Eggers is no stranger to the sometimes murky world of narrative non fiction. His grandstanding style has drawn criticism in the past but he's right on the money in Zeitoun, using an individual story to tell much larger truths. As a metaphor for the shortcomings of the Bush administration the tale of Zeitoun is subtle yet devastating. Stylistically, Eggers keeps it simple and book is all the better for it. The descriptions of Zeitoun, his family and growing up in Syria are nicely drawn as is the building of tension as Zeitoun's predicament worsens.

That's not to say that everything is perfect of course. Whereas the criticism to the response of the aftermath of Katrina hits the bullseye, the references to the war on terror seem slightly off target. Though Zeitoun suffered terribly at the hands of the authorities, his fellow white, American colleagues spent even longer in jail than he did. This is just a small quibble though.

Zeitoun's story says much about America under Bush and Dave Eggers deserves credit for telling it so well. Given the choice between his version of events and that of Karl Rove I know who I'd choose to believe.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this appeals whu not have a look at Interventions by Noam Chomsky?

Buy Zeitoun by Dave Eggers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Zeitoun by Dave Eggers at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Zeitoun by Dave Eggers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Zeitoun by Dave Eggers at Amazon.com.


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