The unabridged version of this interview is exclusively on GOATMILK.
One rarely imagines the quintessential image of an American hero having a
Resembling a modern day Noah, Zeitoun, fueled by an unshakable faith in destiny and purpose, paddles the flooded waters in his simple canoe giving refuge to abandoned neighbors and animals. Like the Biblical prophets, however, Zeitoun’s reward for such bravery is senseless persecution.
Despite his heroic efforts, his own government falsely suspects Zeitoun and his friends as thieves after witnessing them on one of Zeitoun’s rental properties. FEMA subsequently arrests the men with force, accuses them of being “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda,” and brutally detains them for weeks in a hellish, makeshift prison resembling Guantanomo Bay.
In this exclusive, unabridged interview, Pulitzer nominated author Dave Eggers discusses the Zeitoun family’s amazing journey as their faith in the American dream and each other sustains them with hope and strength an era of paranoia, fear and madness representing the nadir of Bush’s America.
ALI: Here you are, Dave Eggers, a respected author and publisher who is not Muslim, Syrian or Arab American, but all of a sudden you spend three years of your life tackling the story of the Zeitoun family. How and why did you become involved in this fantastic story about a Muslim American family that endures tragedy and discrimination with hope and resilience?
EGGERS: It started back in 2005, when we put a book together called Voices From The Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. We have a series called Voice of Witness, where we use oral history to explore human rights crises. The second book in the series was about Katrina and the people neglected before and after the storm.
One of the stories in the book was about the Zeitoun family. I immediately took an interest because of my interest in wrongful incarceration, because I had edited a book called Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated — the first book in the Voice of Witness series. Also, the fact Mr. Zeitoun was called “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda” and put in an outdoor prison; it seemed so extreme, surreal, and improbable but it was also so emblematic of that time – the darkest years of the Bush administration. The most absurd violations of human rights and dignity and due process were all possible.
I got infuriated hearing about this and what had happened to him. I was in New Orleans later in 2005 and met with the Zeitoun family and we sat down, had lunch and almost immediately we went into his life growing up in Syria.
He told me about his [deceased] brother Muhammad, who was a very famous Syrian swimmer. There were so many aspects of his history that were fascinating right away that it sort of piqued the interest of the journalist and novelist in me.
Slowly, we approached the idea of making his story, and the story of the Zeitoun family as a whole, into a book. In late 2006, we decided to undertake it.
ALI: First, how did you gain their trust considering what the family has endured? Secondly, as an author, what was your role as the storyteller? Was it to simply step back and be a vessel for them, or was it to also add some stylistic flair? Continue reading