I recently picked up a book at the library that I’d been eyeing over my past several visits. Glancing through the text quickly as I settled down for my usual late night laptop date, I decided to read the first few pages. The reading of the first few pages turned into a devouring of the entire book within the next few hours. Upon turning the last page, I sighed in contentment and knew that this would be an oft-revisited work whose ripples would probably stay with me forever.
Surprisingly, this amazing work was not my usual romantic fluff reading of choice—far from it, actually. It was a narrative nonfiction tale titled “Zeitoun” written by award-winning journalist Dave Eggers. From the first few lines, the reader is swept away by the lyrical writing style that Eggers employs in describing a typical Louisiana family. Okay—maybe not typical to everyone, but amazingly familiar to me. The Zeitouns who Eggers portrays in the book are a Muslim family living in New Orleans around the time of Hurricane Katrina.
Their lives immediately struck me as incredibly similar to the lives of the average Muslim community members that I know and count myself a part of. A respected member of New Orleans society, Zeitoun decides to stay behind to help his neighbors and friends battle the devastation of Katrina even as his wife, Kathy, and four children flee the area to stay with family in another town. Yet, in his altruistic and selfless concern for others, Zeitoun is rounded up and thrown into a makeshift prison as an assumed Al-Qaeda member in the wake of the government’s intended “clean-up” after Katrina. The harrowing tale that follows showcases the disintegration of a classic American city and a classic American dream as the façade of liberty and freedom are stripped away from the citizens of New Orleans.
As the story beautifully interweaves a picture of human heartache amidst the devastation of broken levees and a forgotten people, the reader is gripped by the reality of what happened in New Orleans and what can happen amidst an atmosphere of fear and destruction. The same methods of lawlessness that we as a nation tend to denigrate others for was clearly displayed in the aftermath of Katrina as fingers were pointed and blame cast every which way.
Eggers offers no excuses nor pleas for sympathy in his journalistic writing style. Instead, his book evokes insane emotions alternating between outrage, love, and fear for the incredible people he uncovers in his story. Neither fantasy demons nor vampires can compare to the true demons of hate, prejudice, and inhumanity that rule reality. As nice as it is to sometimes insulate ourselves with that warm cup of coffee and a great romantic fiction read, it’s just as important, if not more so, to force the flood gates of fact open and let our senses experience the inspiring tales of truth that surround us every day. Rather than drowning in a deluge of fantasy, let’s come up for air once in awhile with a serious dose of reality.-Suzy Ismail