Before reading a book, the synopsis on the back of the book is what most readers take a look at first. However, the information provided in Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is very misleading. “The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disaster: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina” is what the back of the book reads (Eggers). While the book does mention the struggle of living with racism against Muslims in America and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it is hardly about family. The main character of this novel is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Muslim man who resides in New Orleans.
Though his work ethic is second-to-none, he is also stubborn and bullheaded which sometimes causes him to cloud his better judgment. When Hurricane Katrina was at its peak, a mandatory evacuation was issued, but Zeitoun decided to stay behind and care for the properties his company, Zeitoun Painting Contractors LLC, works on. His wife and children take the precautionary measures and evacuate. This causes a separation from them. Since Zeitoun does not demonstrate the true meaning of family and cares more for his self-interest, he cannot be portrayed as a hero.
Generally, it is accepted that families are headed by a strong male figure; this is no different in Zeitoun’s family. “So without a captain, the ship cannot navigate…Look above you, at the stars and moon. How do the stars keep their place in the sky, how does the moon rotate around the earth, the earth around the sun? Who’s navigating?” (Eggers 153). Based on this philosophy, Zeitoun is the captain in charge of navigating or guiding his family, but why
did he instead choose to let them fend for themselves? This action on Zeitoun’s end displays a lot about Zeitoun’s genuine characteristics. It was more of a priority for Zeitoun to stay back so he could look after his properties instead of being with his family. Even though Zeitoun had experienced many storms prior and did not think Katrina would be as devastating as it turned out to be, the fact is he decided work was more important than his family. “‘You must leave,’ Ahmad said. ‘No, no. I’m fine,’ Zeitoun said. Ahmad tried playing the big brother. ‘Go to your family,’ he said. ‘I really want you to leave. Your family needs you.’ ‘They need me here more,’ Zeitoun said, trying not to sound too grandiose. ‘This is my family, too’” (Eggers 130).
This dialog between Zeitoun and his older brother Ahmad exemplifies Zeitoun’s foolishness. Instead of agreeing with his brother, Zeitoun instead claims the remains of New Orleans is his family. While Zeitoun was busy paddling around in his canoe rescuing a prostitute he calls family, his wife is running around stressed thinking about his well-being. To Zeitoun, all that mattered is the prostitute was safe and at work. It’s evident that Zeitoun is unable to put his pride aside. Even though Zeitoun had the assets required to save himself, his ego gets in the way and he makes it a point for him to stay behind. If Zeitoun can hardly make the right decisions for himself, he’s definitely not making the correct choices for his family. His separation from them does not make this task any easier.
One of the reasons Zeitoun decided that staying behind in New Orleans was more important than evacuating with his family is because he felt he was destined to by Allah. Zeitoun accepts that Allah makes everything happen for a reason. Zeitoun had the notion he was obligated to stay behind and it was his calling. “Do you worship what you have carved yourself?” (Noble 37:95). Zeitoun carved himself as selfish, but that is not what he thinks of himself. The selfish attitude is shown with Zeitoun’s action of staying behind. He explains to Kathy that he is obligated to manage the properties of his customers’. This is further evidence that suggest materialism is more essential than the need to care for his family. Throughout the book, Zeitoun is portrayed as someone who is connected with his Muslim faith; even though family is a big part of faith, he leaves his family.
If faith is shown by actions, then Zeitoun verifies he does not have strong faith. Even though there are those who would like to believe Zeitoun is a hero, he is not. A hero is someone who illustrates braveness and honorableness. However, Zeitoun illustrates false braveness and honorableness by his acts and statements. Sometimes actions are misinterpreted, but in the case of Zeitoun’s he clearly acted with his mind. “Your family needs you more” (Eggers 130). Even after a plea for help, Zeitoun’s mind was unchanged and the thought of reuniting with his family was not even in consideration; he felt the individuals in New Orleans experiencing agony needed him more. Although, it wasn’t the suffering individuals he was helping.
Zeitoun was catering to dogs across the street more than anyone else. This shows the reasons behind his actions were false. If Zeitoun were in a position where he did not have the adequate resources to evacuate New Orleans, his acts would be justifiable. The fact is he did. Zeitoun made the decision to leave his family, and when the connection was gone and concern started to unhealthily rise, the more it should be evident that his self-justification was not valid. Zeitoun refused to confess that Katrina was a scapegoat for his personal gain, but this was established following the end of the storm when he purchased properties and leased them out to make a profit. The material goods and his large ego are the reasons behind his acts, as demonstrated by the occurrences during and after Katrina.
The conversation over the phone between Zeitoun and Ahmad is what forms the significance of this book. A tragic scene, whether derived from nature or man, never seems to bring out the best in people. Zeitoun’s justified staying behind by claiming it was his duty and responsibility. He believed this duty and responsibility was assigned to him by Allah. However, this situation and belief bestowed upon him by God rapidly turned into self-benefit. Zeitoun was exploiting his newly disoriented “family” to better his business. It is obvious that after a natural disaster, such as Katrina, the construction industry would flourish with all the new opportunities and jobs available. After Zeitoun returned home, he purchased properties which he then rented out to families coming back to New Orleans. The problem is that he raised property values to an enormous amount and people that were affected by the storm could not afford to pay. In essence, Zeitoun was taking advantage of the victims. Never is taking advantage of the needy for self-benefit an example of bringing out the best in someone.
In Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, the labeled protagonist Zeitoun time-after-time demonstrates his real desires during his Katrina experience. Though he did persevere through struggles, the phone call from Ahmad confirms the lack of support he was giving to his family and faith. Dismissing the fact that his family was in need of him displayed his selfishness. Even though Zeitoun believes that it was Allah’s will, he consciously made the decision to care for properties he was in charge of instead of his concerned and agonizing family. Whether deliberate or not, Zeitoun mislead his family during a time they needed him most. This is what forms the theme that tragic events never bring out the best in people. The author tried to represent Zeitoun as a hero, but his lack of bravery and honor during times of distress show that he is anything but a hero.