Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, How We Are Hungry ( Mar/Apr 2005), and What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng ( Selection Jan/Feb 2007), is also the editor of McSweeney’s and the founder of 826 Valencia, a San Francisco nonprofit writing center for young people.
The Topic: As Hurricane Katrina approached, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian immigrant and longtime resident of New Orleans, evacuated his wife and children but chose to stay behind. When the city flooded, he paddled a canoe through the abandoned streets, protecting his property and helping trapped people and animals. A week later, he disappeared. Arrested by an armed squad and taken away at gunpoint, he was accused of being a member of Al Qaeda and imprisoned in a metal cage—all without being officially charged. Eggers explores Zeitoun’s Syrian roots and American marriage, his bureaucratic nightmare, and the contradictions of American freedom during the Bush era.
McSweeney’s. 342 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781934781630
NY Times Book Review
"What Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction." Timothy Egan
"[Eggers] doesn’t try to dazzle with heartbreaking pirouettes of staggering prose; he simply lets the surreal and tragic facts speak for themselves. And what they say about one man and the city he loves and calls home is unshakably poignant—but not without hope, since the proceeds from Eggers’ book are earmarked for the Zeitoun Foundation, which will help the victims of Katrina." Chris Nashawaty
"Eggers, compiling his account from interviews, sensibly resists rhetorical grandstanding, letting injustices speak for themselves. His skill is most evident in how closely he involves the reader in Zeitoun’s thoughts."
San Francisco Chronicle
"I was in New Orleans for the disaster, covering it for the New Yorker, and Eggers—who wasn’t there—not only captured it perfectly from Abdulrahman’s reminisces, he also taught me new ways of looking at it. … [It] would have been comforting, as a reader, to have Eggers’ most explosive accusations backed up by more than one source." Dan Baum
The New York Times Book Review called Zeitoun "the stuff of great narrative fiction," and critics agreed that Eggers tells Zeitoun’s tragic story without the postmodern trickery and tirades he has exhibited in previous works. Instead, he allows the story to tell itself while imbuing Zeitoun’s tragedy with deep sympathy and emotion. Although Eggers didn’t witness Hurricane Katrina’s devastation firsthand, he captures the experience through Zeitoun’s eyes and approaches his subject very intimately. A few critics noted that while this perspective was convincing, it required "faith on the part of the reader that everything in the book happened as it appears here" (San Francisco Chronicle). But this was a minor complaint in an overall unforgettable story.
Cited by the Critics
City of Refuge | Tom Piazza (2008): Piazza contrasts two stories of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—one of a white professional heading for divorce, and the other of a black Vietnam vet from the Lower Ninth Ward. Their fates reveal New Orleans’s racial and class tensions.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. “Notes About This Book” (xv) gives a sense of how the book was written, whose point of view it reflects, and Eggers’s efforts at accuracy and truth in his depiction of events. By choosing to portray the response to the hurricane through its effects on one family, what kind of story (or history) does he achieve?
2. The book opens with “Friday, August 26,” an expository chapter that introduces us to Zeitoun’s family life and his business life, the two very interconnected. What are some of the ways in which the descriptions here draw you in as a reader, and make these people and their situation real? Why is the timeline a good structural choice for this story?
3. Kathy has grown up as a Southern Baptist. Drawn to Islam through her childhood friend Yuko, she decides to convert. Why, when she comes to visit wearing her hijab, does her mother tell her, “Now you can take that thing off” (57)? Why does the prayer from the Qur’an quoted on page 51 have a strong effect on her? What does her reaction to the evangelical preacher who mocks Islam and says that Kathy’s temptation to convert was the work of the devil (65–66), say about Kathy’s character and intelligence?
4. Do Abdulrahman, Kathy and their children make up an unusual American family, or not? How would you describe the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy, in marriage and in business? What effect does their religion have on the way others in the community see them?
5. Why has Eggers woven into the story accounts of Zeitoun’s past in Syria, his upbringing, his brother Mohammed, the champion swimmer, his brother Ahmad, and their close bond? What effect does this framework of family have on your perception of Zeitoun’s character, his ethics, his behavior?
6. The plight of the neighborhood’s abandoned dogs comes to Zeitoun’s attention as “a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shards” (93). The next day, he sets out in the canoe and tries to do what he can for animals and people trapped by the flood. How does Zeitoun feel about what he is doing? How does he think about these days after he has been imprisoned (262–64)?
7. Discuss what happens when Zeitoun and the others are forced to get into the boat and are taken into custody. Is it clear why they are being arrested? What assumptions are made about Zeitoun and the other three men (275–87)?
8. Part IV (203–90) tells the story of Zeitoun’s imprisonment. Here we learn in great detail how Zeitoun is denied the right to call Kathy, how his injured foot is not attended to, how the other men are beaten, stripped, and starved, how he prays constantly, yet loses hope. What is the impact, as you read, of this narrative?
9. “Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics” (Timothy Egan, New York Times, August 13, 2009). Would you agree with this statement? Can Zeitoun be read as a contribution to the history of hurricane Katrina and the failure of government to handle the disaster effectively?
10. Discuss Kathy’s situation, and her actions once she learns where Zeitoun is. The aftermath is more difficult, and she still suffers from physical and psychological problems that seem to be the result of post-traumatic stress. What was the most traumatic part of her experience, and why (319)?
11. Given that the other men who were imprisoned with Zeitoun were held much longer than he was, and that Nasser lost his life savings, is it surprising that these men were not compensated in any way for their time in prison (320–21)?
12. What is Zeitoun’s feeling now about what happened? How does he move forward into the future, as expressed in the book’s closing pages (322-25)?
13. If you have read What is the What, Eggers’ novel about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, how does Zeitoun compare? Discuss Eggers’ approach to writing about traumatic regional and political events through the lives of individuals impacted by them.