On Zeitoun, and sorrow

We’re back in hurricane season. That wasn’t the reason I just read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, but it provides a timely peg to talk about it. 

Zeitoun is a masterpiece of what, in j-school, we called “literary journalism.” It’s factual, well-researched reporting that is written in a narrative style that is as readable as a good novel. 

Without being heavy-handed, Zeitoun is also powerful social commentary. It’s an example of how one person – one writer – can bear witness to injustice and make a difference. 

Zeitoun follows the story of a Syrian-American small business owner and his wife through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun own a respected painting and construction business in New Orleans. When the hurricane approaches, Kathy flees the city with their children but Zeitoun (as his New Orleans friends call him – it’s easier than saying his first name) opts to stay behind to keep an eye on his home and business. 

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

The first half of the book tells the story of Zeitoun’s experience during the hurricane and levee breach – how he used a secondhand canoe to paddle through the flooded streets, explore the eerie landscape, and rescue people. In the quiet canoe, he could hear cries for help that the motorized army boats didn’t notice. He shuttled elderly neighbors from flooded homes to safety; he brought meat to dogs who had been abandoned by their owners; he checked his rental properties to make sure tenants were gone or safe. At first he is transfixed by the strangeness of the watery landscape; he is elated by his ability to help people and feels that his decision to stay behind (which Kathy opposed) was actually the hand of God at work. 

The second half of the book tells what happens when Zeitoun is suddenly, inexplicably arrested, strip-searched and imprisoned – for looting? as an Arab terrorist? No one tells him, no one arraigns him, no one lets him make a phone call or talk to a lawyer, although guards berate him for being “Al Qaeda.” 

For over three weeks he is held incommunicado in ad hoc and then regular maximum security jails by FEMA and the Dept. of Homeland Security.  Kathy tries frantically to track him down but can’t find a trace of him and starts to accept that he is dead. Zeitoun ultimately is released, but the two other New Orleans men who were imprisoned with him remain in jail for five and six months before their charges are dropped. 

The Zeitoun family had the misfortune of being at the confluence of the Bush administration’s two worst policy blunders – the Katrina debacle and the heavy-handed excesses of the war on terror. 

Eggers does a great job of writing this all up without preaching, simply letting the Zeitouns’ personalities and story speak for themselves. And it’s an easy read! I tore through it in about two days. 

Meanwhile, a note that is unrelated to the main thrust of the book: 


Eggers describes how Zeitoun develops a piercing pain in his side, possibly in a kidney, while in detention. He is unable to get any medical attention for it and fears he may die. Later, Eggers writes that after Zeitoun’s release “the pain in his side dissipated, and this convinced Zeitoun it had been caused not by anything visible on an X-ray, but by heartbreak, by sorrow.” 

As I read that, it struck me how rarely these days we use the word “sorrow”. 

We talk a lot about feeling sad, bummed out, down, disappointed, unhappy, miserable. We say we are depressed (I’m talking colloquially, not clinically here). 

But we don’t talk about sorrow. 

Sorrow has a very different connotation. Those other words – sad, unhappy, miserable —  convey intensity but short duration, almost a melodramatic state of being. “Bummed out” and “depressed” convey a dampening of feeling, a tamping down or muffling. 

Sorrow is different. It is deep and it endures. It’s not something you feel intensely for an evening and then set aside. You live with it; you get to know its nuances and its creases; it becomes part of you. There are good reasons for it. It’s not a whim, a mood, something that can be banished by positive thinking or a nice glass of wine or even a warm evening with friends. I think of it as similar to mourning, and am reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. 

We’re not comfortable with that. We want problems to be solved, things to be made better. We want troubled marriages to heal with an appearance on Oprah, guilt to be assuaged with words of apology, past mistakes to dissolve with the decision to turn over a new leaf. 

We’re proud of our feelings in America these days. We like to FEEL things, intensely! And then a minute later, we want to FEEL something else! 

The idea that sometimes we have to live with quiet sadness and regret – for a long time – is alien to us. 

But sometimes we do have to live with sorrow. And not just because we can’t find the right activity or drug or incantation to make it go away. 

Sometimes we have lost something so meaningful – a person in the case of mourning, a belief or ideal in the case of Zeitoun – that sorrow is the only appropriate reaction.

Anything less would be unjust, a disservice to ourselves and what has been lost.

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2 Responses to “On Zeitoun, and sorrow”

  1. Susie M Says:

    Thanks, Ilana. Great post. I want to read the book! I was compelled to read Didion’s a couple years ago. That feeling of feelings…BEING with our feelings…is something we’re darn good at avoiding. Today I’m struggling with that: feeling it or avoiding it. Somewhere in between.

  2. What books would you give as holiday gifts? « Midlife Bat Mitzvah Says:

    […] Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here. […]

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