If you’re reading about Abdulrahman Zeitoun in 2018, 13 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and four years after Dave Eggers published his narrative nonfiction book “Zeitoun” under his independent press McSweeney’s, you know that Abdulrahman Zeitoun has become a milkshake duck for stalking his ex-wife Kathy and for other alleged abuses.
He’s since been exonerated, but that unfortunately colors your reading of Eggers’ book, which I imagine in my head as a graphic novel in the vein of other nonfiction works like Didier Lefèvre and Emmanuel Guibert’s “The Photographer” or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.”
As portrayed in the book, the Zeitouns were a hardworking Muslim family who’ve grown a semi-successful painting and contracting business in New Orleans, banking clients including gothic writer Anne Rice. Kathy and Abdulrahman had four children, three girls who could quote “Pride and Prejudice” in their sleep and a boy who liked to disappear with friends. They were happy in their co-existance. Then Katrina hit.
The Zeitouns were among the people interviewed in McSweeney’s “Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath (Voice of Witness),” a project used to highlight civil right abuses through oral story telling. After listening to their story, Eggers expanded on the Zeitouns’ interviews, producing a book whose proceeds directly benefit various non-profit groups rebuilding New Orleans.
With this lens, we begin to see Abdulrahman as a larger-than-life superhero, who stayed in New Orleans to secure his house and properties, rescued elderly women stranded in houses and fed stray dogs with meat from his freezer, but others like frightened out-of-state police mistook him for a villain, housed him in makeshift prisons and shuffled him around an unorganized FEMA-run criminal justice system. Abdulrahman spent 23 days in prison, the victim of racial profiling and civil rights abuses. His wife Kathy spent days unable to reach her husband only to find out that he was locked up in prison for suspected looting and terrorism because of his language, religion and background.
“Zeitoun’s” a good comic book story starring unlikely heroes and villains: a hardworking Syrian American family man and a government that failed its citizens. You just can’t help wondering how much of it was embellished even if you wish the story were all true.