When you're a Muslim bookworm, you're always preparing yourself to be sucker-punched by your literary heroes. Though you may adore the novels of a certain author and the essays of a particular journalist, you accept that they are not written for you. You are a spectator on the edge of the intended audience, and it seems like that audience is always ready for a joke or a jibe at your expense. Most of us learn to separate these moments of animosity from the rest of our reading experience, but nevertheless, it's easy to feel isolated in the world of mainstream western literature.
The rare inclusive book is like a rescue operation. This world is a ship, Hafez tells us, and everyone with any sense wants to jump overboard at some point. This is why poets wait in the water below, with lifeboats. For the Muslim reader, Dave Eggers's gripping new book Zeitoun is a lifeboat of sorts. Zeitoun tells the story of an eponymous Syrian-American housepainter living in New Orleans with his wife Kathy, a convert to Islam and native Louisianan. Together they run a thriving home improvement business. When Hurricane Katrina hits, Zeitoun's wife Kathy obeys the evacuation order and takes their daughters inland to safety. Zeitoun, a true workaholic, stays behind to secure his job sites. As the floodwaters rise, he sets out in a canoe to help stranded neighbors. In the chaos that follows--the breakdown of security and basic services that every American watched with disbelief--Zeitoun is detained as a suspected terrorist. With spare, unsentimental language, Eggers chronicles Kathy's struggle to secure her husband's release, along with Zeitoun's own experiences during that dark interlude of American history.
Zeitoun is not a book about Islam or even about Muslims; it is a book about a storm and a rescue. It happens to have Muslims in it. This is probably why Muslim literati across the U.S. have been so enthusiastic. Against the broader tapestry of a raging hurricane and a government caught unprepared, Zeitoun's religion is uniquely contextualized. It is neither a plot device nor an excuse for a history lesson; it is not a factor in the clash of civilizations. Zeitoun was caught under the heel of a storm, and that storm, like all disasters before it, turned some people into heroes and others into barbarians. It is as simple as that.
When the water rose, Abdulrahman Zeitoun went out in a lifeboat. In his book, Dave Eggers has rowed out into another kind of storm, in another kind of boat. He's proven it's possible to write about Muslims as individuals with unique destinies, not as representatives of a conflict. For a Muslim reader, it's refreshing to feel like part of a greater narrative, a communal narrative, in which one is not a problematic outlier but a participant. The story that has been rescued in this book isn't just Zeitoun's--it's ours.
G. Willow Wilson is an American author and journalist who divides her time between New York and Cairo. Her articles about modern religion and the Middle East have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and the Canada National Post, as well as other North American and Egyptian publications.
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About G. Willow
Causes G. Willow Wilson Supports
Medicins Sans Frontiers, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund