Author Dave Eggers joined us here in Royce Hall last night as a sort of culmination/celebration of this year’s Common Book program. More than 6,000 incoming freshman and transfer students were given and asked to read and participate in discussions around Eggers most recent book Zeitoun, which chronicles the story of an American-Muslim family living in New Orleans when Katrina hit and their subsequent and eye-opening struggle within the maelstrom of what became an appallingly broken system of government.
There is power in a story, and there is power in truly listening to another person’s story, Eggers told an audience of UCLA students, staff, faculty and a smattering of UCLA Live patrons last night.
“If you give anyone your time,” he said. “You discover anyone is worth a novel.”
Eggers immersed himself in the story of the Zeitoun family after encountering their plight through his independent publishing company McSweeneys ongoing oral-history project “Voice of Witness” in a collection of stories around the theme “Surviving Injustice.”
If you’ve read the book, you know why the story of Zeitoun relates to the idea of “surviving injustice.” If you haven’t, here’s the plot in a nutshell.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born Muslim settled in New Orleans and married a New Orleans-native American woman who had converted to Islam prior to their meeting. Together they built not only a family, but an example of the American dream, with a thriving construction business in the city. He became well-known in New Orleans as a respected contractor and a devoted husband and father. When Katrina hit, his family evacuated and he stayed behind, paddling the flooded streets in an old canoe with a single paddle, trying to help fellow stranded storm survivors, feeding abandoned pets, sharing meager supplies with others, checking on his multiple properties in the town, until one day he and three other men (one a friend and fellow Muslim) were arrested for suspicion of looting and dumped in a makeshift prison at the Greyhound station that had miraculously sprung up just days after the levees broke, while most of the country was watching news reports of bungled FEMA deployment of disaster aid and people with no access to water or escape.
The system was broken.
Zeitoun and his friends were not officially charged, arraigned, given a phone call, access to a lawyer or access to information. Eventually they were transferred to a maximum security prison in the area, Hunt Correctional. Zeitoun spent more than three weeks in prison on no charges, granted no access to the outside world and given no opportunity to inform his frantic family (which included not only his wife and children, but his ten very concerned siblings spread across the world), until a compassionate preacher visiting the jail to deliver books to the inmates took pity on him and passed along a message to Zeitoun’s wife Kathy, who had been grieving her husband as possibly dead.
The book centers on the storm and the appalling aftermath from the perspective of this one family alone, but it also illuminates the larger back story of this family in particular, in their faith, their pasts, their hopes and dreams, their love for each other and their investment in their own community.
Eggers said he was intrigued by the Zeitouns from his first meeting with them several years before the book ever came to close to being published, sitting in their rebuilt home, surrounded by the “beautiful chaos” of the children underfoot, the coming and going of employees and the plethora of rescued animals the family is wont to take in.
He knew this was a story he could dive into for some time, and he knew that that’s what it would take to do it right. He had just spent four years researching and writing his previous mostly nonfiction work What is the What, about refugees from the Sudanese Civil War and subsequently spent nearly that much time immersing himself into the Zeitoun’s story.
“I’m not fast,” he said, slightly sheepishly. “I want to know someone’s whole life.”
Eggers knew the way to tell this story was to tell as much of the story of the Zeitoun’s life as possible, even the parts unrelated to what happened after Katrina.
“A story has to work on so many levels,” he said. “It has to intrigue the reader on many levels; it has to have a depth and a scope that is emotionally rewarding. I didn’t want [this book] to be just about the victimization of this man.”
Eggers spent years interviewing the Zeitouns, their friends and family members, listening to phone calls between Abdulrahman’s wife Kathy and his technophile brother living in Spain who had saved everything, effectively re-living the frustration and fear this family felt over the uncertainty around Zeitoun’s fate as he was cut off from them in prison. Eggers spent hours with the arresting officer who first picked up Zeitoun and his friends, finagled his way into visiting Hunt correctional facility and made periodic trips to the Greyhound station that served as a makeshift prison camp to get a visual image of the places Zeitoun was held. He repeatedly canvassed the New Orleans city streets with Zeitoun, recounting the people and places the man encountered in his canoe in the early days after the storm.
Eggers’ storytelling tactic pointedly and purposely does not ever step away from the spotlight of the Zeitoun family and their experience. It doesn’t leap to other external perspectives from the time.
Shining the light on this family would automatically bring to light the larger themes and issues our country was facing of the time, Eggers said he hoped.
He was right. Several UCLA Live staffers, myself included, served as Common Book “ambassadors.” We read the book and participated in discussion groups with incoming freshman. Harboring my own indignation at this story coupled with my personal remembrance of the news reports around the events of Katrina and my indignant reaction then, it was so interesting to hear these younger perspectives.
For most of them, Katrina and the subsequent governmental failures were rather remote. They were young teenagers at the time; many had no idea the extent of the damage and system failures until they encountered the story of the Zeitouns. Many admitted they had not paid much attention to the news at the time Katrina occurred.
Eggers said the original plan was to change the name of the family and fictionalize some of the locations. He was worried that shining too bright of a light including specifics on business and home locations on a Muslim-American family that was (and still is) embroiled in lawsuits “with everyone from the local police up to George Bush” would bring persecution or retribution.
But Abdulrahman Zeitoun wanted his name on this story. Working on this book had become a catharsis, an “unburdening,” a place to funnel anger and frustration and perhaps heal, Eggers said.
And in fact, when it came to public response to the book, the opposite of original expectations happened.
“All our fears were unfounded,” Eggers said, marveling as he recounted the outpouring of phone calls, letters, emails—even in one case, a personal visit from a Texas pastor—from so many average Americans expressing their disbelief, dismay and, surprisingly enough, even apologies for what happened to the Zeitouns.
It is a sense of responsibility, Eggers said. It was as though everyday people believe so strongly in the ideals of this country that, we feel responsible when the government falls short of those ideals.
And, Eggers hopes there is something to learn from this story and the thousands of others yet to be told from this time and place in our modern history. He specifically cited the example of two high-school teachers from Ohio who were arrested the day before Katrina hit for public drunkenness, caught up in the storm and shuffled through the broken system, where they months in maximum security prison, simply because the normal process of paperwork and organization that would have freed them had become nonexistent. Just a few weeks ago, Eggers said, this couple was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit. They are the first two people of many outstanding cases to find retribution from this broken system.
There are still “deep scars” in New Orleans, he says. But the Zeitoun family is still there. They won’t leave. They are committed to rebuilding.
“You can’t budge him,” Eggers says of Abdulrahman. All proceeds from the book Zeitoun go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which spreads funds among nonprofits working to rebuild New Orleans.
Having this book be part of the UCLA Common Book program helps that effort, Eggers said. And he hopes it also just might help us all become better listeners and more aware.
It is our job as humans to listen, to remain constantly vigilant over the maintenance of our ideals to ensure that one day there might just be a shortage of stories such as this to tell, Eggers said.
“We can’t ever assume that [the system] doesn’t require our constant attention,” he said.