Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Land Of Opportunity: Dave Eggers' Zeitoun - The Best Book of The Year

Before you either jump for hipster glee or level your cold-wrought literary edge, let me say that there are a number of factors that are involved. The biggest of which is that Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a honest-to-goodness hero, which is incidentally something I think that the realm of story has lacked for a long, long time.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun, or the version of the man as portrayed by Eggers, is an American hero. Plain and simple. His story is worth knowing, like those of John Henry of Audie Murphy, exaggerated or unbelievably real. Johnny Cash would have written a song about him.

Yeah, that kind of thing.

Let's get to it.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s Books. Biography. Hardcover. $24. ISBN: 978934781630.

The first thing that requires saying is that this is the most stirring, most eloquent and by far the most important book I have read from this year’s releases. It is, I believe, a classic of American nonfiction.

I said that back in September and will stand by that remark today.

But before I let the superlatives fly let me fill you in on a couple of things that should convince you of my unassailable neutrality in deeming this book the best. Where to start...

Oh, yeah, Dave Eggers bothers me. In a nutshell, Eggers and McSweeney's always have seemed to me a little on the schizophrenic side. I am sure there is something of Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer in the seemingly random publications that the Eggers' imprints produce. I'm sure it's there but often I look at the imprint and the publications and scratch my head. So seriously capable and so incapable of being serious.

See how I did that? Reversed the... Nevermind.

Maybe my jeans aren't skinny enough. Maybe it's my lack of tattoos. Or my favoring button down shirts. I don't know. In any case I want to celebrate the man today and for some reason I felt the need to deride him in order to do so. Just know that I am not a fan. So much so that you should also be aware that I don't particularly care for Nick Hornby either. Yeah. I'm really not aboard the pirate ship. I'm old skool and serious and wear cargo pants everyday not because it's ironic but because I can carry useful things in them.

I almost sounded like Teddy Wayne right there. And that bothers me. So now you know that when I say Dave Eggers has penned the best book of the year, it very well could be. I mean it from the depths of my cargo pants left outer pocket. Right next to my pruning sheers and buck knife. That's right: I carry a buck knife at work. Okay, fine. I do think writing the word "buck knife" is kind of ridiculous but that shouldn't make you think I'm some sort of fawning Eggers fan with a yin yang tattoo on my forearm and throwaway lenses in carefully chosen black frames.

I really just want you to understand how good this book had to be in order to land itself here. I was bias at the start and it changed my opinions.

Rant shelved and subject at hand let's talk about the best book of the year.

At its core Zeitoun is about heroism. When a missionary worker handing out bibles in the correctional facility housing Zeitoun risks his ability to interact with prisoners in order to copy down Kathy’s phone number and promises to call her for Zeitoun, the man seems a saving grace. All Zeitoun wants to do is call Kathy, let her know that he is indeed alive and that he needs help escaping from a nightmarish imprisonment. Later, Kathy praises this anonymous man as a hero. Then sadly she reflects on this thought. Is this what it has come to in the United States? Surrounded by so much callousness and laziness, wickedness really, is merely doing the right thing heroic? She hopes not.

The story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family is a two sided affair, one of the bright American Dream and the dismal American Nightmare. It is one of potential fulfilled and dreams deferred.

Abdulrahman was born in Jableh, Syria to a long line of mariners. His father had forbidden Abdulrahman and his two brothers from ever going to sea. After a terrible wreck Abdulrahman's father had spent days drifting, clutching to a barrel for his dear life. Such a traumatic experience had led the man to conceive of different fates for his progeny.

Mohammed, his oldest son, became the world record holder in ocean distance swimming. Ahmad, the middle son, became a sea captain. Abdulrahman himself sailed the high seas for roughly a decade before settling, somewhat randomly, in New Orleans.

Already we have the stuff of legend. A father forbids his three sons to ever sail the seas and all three make it their livelihood. One of them even doing so without a boat.

In New Orleans Zeitoun quickly made a name for himself as a hard working and above all reliable day laborer. It was also in New Orleans that he was destined to meet his future wife, Kathy.

Kathy's family never quite understood her conversion from Christianity to Islam, something she had done before she met Abdulrahman. In fact, the decade older Abdulrahman did not exactly waltz right into her life. A bad previous marriage had left Kathy a little shy of commitment and the idea of marrying an older man did not help ease those anxieties.

Zeitoun, like a rock, placed himself always in her presence. At community outings and through their shared friends, Zeitoun persisted to demonstrate his interest in Kathy. Never too forward and never too hidden, Zeitoun's boyish crush marches on regardless of obstacles. In time Kathy begins to notice Abdulrahman's strength of character, not to mention his curly hair and green eyes.

Fast forward and the Zeitouns are running a respected painting and renovating business specializing in historical restorations. They've managed to buy and rent out several properties and through her clever administration and his skillful know-how they've gone beyond what is "ordinary" or "expected" out of a typical life. In short: The Zeitouns are living the American Dream.

Granted there are the small but nagging issues of Kathy's white, Christian family. They urge her to take off her hijab or indulge in a hot dog when Abdulrahman is not around. This of course annoys Kathy greatly, because it both portrays her husband as overbearing and belittles the fact that it was her choice to convert to Islam and that she did so before meeting the love of her life.

It is always a struggle for Kathy to coax her hardworking husband to take vacations and so when a somewhat enigmatic storm is headed toward the Gulf Coast she knows that any desire to evacuate will be met with resistance. As the days pass the storm looms more and more powerful. It is by the time that it is mere hours away that Abdulrahman says that his wife and three daughters ought to leave, but also that he will stay and wait it out like so many other storms.

They have too many properties to look after. There are peoples whose lives they are responsible for. He will stay behind and face this supposed maelstrom.

The storm was Hurricane Katrina and as you know it was nothing to be taken lightly.

The biography of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family is a story of people living exemplary lives. This is particularly the case of Abdulrahman, who despite the devastation of the flooding after the hurricane remains in the city he loves and helps people. Swimming into houses to save the elderly, paddling his canoe (which Kathy had made fun of when he bought at a yard sale) to checkpoints to procure bottled water for those who were still stranded, in short, Abdulrahman does the extraordinary.

When you combine exemplary with extraordinary you arrive at heroism. There is no other definition. A hero represents the aspirations and goals of a society and it is this manner that Abdulrahman Zeitoun is an American hero.

Soon though Abdulrahman encounters the sloth that was Katrina relief work. Overwhelmed police and soldiers, the bad ones callous or lazy and the good ones too overwhelmed with the insanity of New Orleans after the storm. In one case a police officer even lies to Abdulrahman, saying that he will go and pick up an elderly couple needing help (a wheelchair bound Pastor and his wife) that Zeitoun could not help in his canoe. That night he finds them still stranded on their porch. Their health is slightly worse than before. It is Zeitoun who rescues them, who figures a way, and who is furious that the police officer had made a false promise.

Promises, a person's word, to Zeitoun are supposed to be essential. Elemental. It is supposed to be a sanctity that no one would defile because to live with the shame of having done so is inconceivable. The paladin assumes all are just only to find out the world is full of wickedness.

It is also Zeitoun who is arrested in his own home, and slapped into a Guantanamo Bay style Homeland Security prison erected just hours after Katrina had subsided. Before aid logistics had even been scratched out on chalkboards the office of Homeland Security had built a prison to detain "persons of interest." Stripped of his American rights, it is Zeitoun who is accused of being a terrorist and who is strip-searched, cavity searched, fed meals only containing pork (as a Muslim his captors know he cannot eat pork and enjoy starving him) and who is beaten and eventually held for a month, without phone call or due process in a maximum security prison.

While being cuffed and sent away, Zeitoun feebly told one soldier that someone would have to feed the dogs in his neighborhood. The soldier said that he would but refused to note the addresses where the dogs were located.

How does a President who supposedly sought to win the hearts and minds of people in Iraq and Afghanistan believe he can succeed when he and his offices proved so incapable of doing so at home? The answer is probably that he didn't.

It is in this broader sense, beyond the incredible story of one exemplary man and his family, that Dave Eggers has penned the best book of the year. Zeitoun is the case study for the failures and wretched failure of American ideals during the 2000's. It sits atop the burnt rubble of a decade of polemics and nuanced dissections of presidential malfeasance. It achieves such a state simply by being an uplifting book.

Zeitoun is about heroism. It is about remembering what a nation wanted to be and therefore a reminder of what we should strive for. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is what every American should strive to be.

Dave Eggers may have written the most patriotic book of our time. And you know what? There isn't one mention of the Hill or the passing of legislation.

So next time I'm standing in my favorite bookstore and looking at the new releases I am going to buy the next Dave Eggers book without inspection.

Well, the next Dave Eggers book that doesn't come in a fuzzy special edition.

Kidding aside you should take a look at The Zeitoun Foundation, which was organized by the Zeitoun family in order to benefit the wrongly imprisoned. Like a said. Hero.


Dave said...

I am the sponsor of a Petition effort to bestow upon Audie Murphy, America’s Most Decorated Soldier of WWII, a posthumous award of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To view and sign the Petition, please go to this link,
or simply type the phrase “Audie Petition into Google to find links.
Dave Phillips

The Devil's Accountant said...

Just signed your petition. The story of Audie Murphy is one of the truly jaw-dropping tales of human courage...ever.

And it's not fiction.

Actually, I recommend To Hell And Back, Murphy's autobiography, to anyone who wants to read something truly amazing.

The guy was superhuman.