Wrapping Injustice with A Bow–Zeitoun

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina isn’t as visible eight years later. The photos and stories of that tragic hurricane are for the history books now. The constant news cycle that spit out images left and right of victims on rooftops and charity programs dedicated to the relief aren’t in our headlines.

Many faces, many personal stories that unfortunately have been easily forgotten years later. Except perhaps, one. Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun focused on the struggle that one family had during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.

The book begins in two days before the hurricane, setting up the story of the Syrian-American contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy.  Zeitoun’s opinion on the storm echoes the thoughts of many during that time, claiming the storm would be nothing big or not even make it to the city.

Kathy leaves the city with their children traveling to relatives’ homes while Zeitoun stays in the city. After the storm hits, despite Kathy’s protests and concern, Zeitoun remains helping rescue others from their homes. At one point, he is taken into the He is taken into custody under the suspicion of being a terrorist, while being held he is unable to contact Kathy and she assumes he is dead.

In an effort to not spoil the book, I will not mention the end.  From this point on, I will discuss the details of the writing and the merit of their truth.

Eggers’ writing is the definition of “show not tell”. While describing a fire, he wrote, “As they watched, they glimpsed a few other watchers, faces orange and silent. There were no sirens, no authorities of any kind. Just a block of homes burning and sinking into the obsidian sea that had swallowed the city.”

He uses several pieces of the Zeitouns’ lives to build the characters, describing Kathy’s past before converting to Islam and Zeitoun’s relationship with his brothers. The descriptions move the story along and allow the sources to become characters that are multi-layered, something that a story like this needs.

Obviously for any journalist, throughout this book, while the writing is spectacular, I questioned the reporting and the details that made the book a strong read.  The details felt a bit too reported. I questioned what Eggers’ fact-checked outside of his two main sources. The dates that the Hurricane hit the area, the speeches given by then-President Bush and the mayor of New Orleans seemed to be things that could be easily verified.

There are subtle moments in the reporting and writing that place the events in prospective, for me, one of those moments came on page 238, “It was all the more remarkable given that while the construction was taking place, on September 2, 3, and 4, thousands of residents were being plucked from rooftops, were being discovered alive and dead in attics.”

Eggers states in his methodology that conversations in the book were recounted from his subject’s memory.  My problem with this, and maybe narrative journalism, is that by nature as journalists we are taught not to solely rely on memory and in a situation as sensitive as this one turns out to be at the end, how can we be sure in a traumatic situation as this one that all parties involved remember accurately.

Another issue I took with the book is the term, “bycatch” used to describe a fish caught by mistake in a fisherman’s net. Giving the heavy matter of the latter half of the book, this term is too cheeky. It’s almost disrespectful to the issues at hand and to the thousands of other people that face this same injustice everyday. The term is introduced through Zeitoun so perhaps he used it himself in interviews to describe his experience, but I don’t know if it should have been included in the book.  It simply wraps an injustice with a bow and says “Oops, this was a mistake.”

Despite that grave writing mistake, Eggers’ book is a classic and worth the read.


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