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Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun” enthralls Sacramentans

Dave Eggers spoke about his book, “Zeitoun,” at the Crest Theatre Wednesday in the feature event of the sixth-annual One Book Sacramento: Connecting Our Communities.

In her opening remarks, Sacramento Public Library Director Rivkah Sass mentioned the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29) and the flood threat to the Sacramento region as reasons the library selected “Zeitoun.”

Eggers took the stage in hiking boots and a pinstripe jacket. He was joined by interviewer Joseph Palermo, associate professor of American history at Sacramento State. Palermo has written two books on Robert F. Kennedy and blogs at The Huffington Post.

“Zeitoun” narrates the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Muslim father of four and owner of a successful contracting business who stays behind in New Orleans helping people escape the flood waters only to be wrongfully arrested as suspected al-Qaida and jailed without due process for three weeks.

A national bestseller, “Zeitoun,” published in 2009, has garnered numerous accolades, including New York Times Notable Book. Eggers received the “Courage in Media” award from the Council on American-Islamic relations for the book.

After querying the crowd on the score of the Giants game, Eggers launched into describing how he found Zeitoun’s story.

He had sent interviewers to the southeast to capture stories of Hurricane Katrina victims as part of the research effort for the second book in his Voice of Witness series.

Eggers founded Voice of Witness with physician and human rights scholar Lola Vollen in 2004. The organization publishes books reporting on human rights crises around the world through firsthand oral accounts.

Eggers said he was hooked when he read Zeitoun’s story, transcribed from tapes of field interviews in New Orleans mailed back to San Francisco.

The image of Zeitoun in his canoe, eventually commanding the cover of the book, resonated with Eggers.

Eggers traveled to New Orleans a couple of months later to meet the Zeitoun family.

“Immediately (the story) had a novelistic level of scope and depth,” he said.

“I knew that if I was going to take something on it needed to have so many compelling aspects because it was going to take years.”

Eggers’ prolific career thus far has included several other books beginning with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (2000), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

At the end of a three-year interviewing process including trips to New Orleans and a trip to Syria, Eggers had uncovered Zeitoun’s story, which became not only the tale of a Hurricane Katrina victim and hero, but also the story of his wife, Kathy, who converted to Islam as well as the support of his extended family in Syria, his Syrian childhood, and the legacy of his dead father and brother.

Eggers had experience with interviewing victims of trauma. His prior book, “What is the What” (2006), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It told the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war.

Eggers said victims open up and become comfortable telling their stories once they understand that someone truly is listening to their unique perspective and wanting to capture it authentically.

Worried that Zeitoun possibly could be the subject of hate crime, Eggers cautioned Zeitoun about using his real name and his real business in the book. Zeitoun told Eggers that he wanted to be correctly identified, though. For Zeitoun, the story, despite its humiliations, was a source of pride, a situation that was a calling from God for him.

Eggers learned about Islam and studied the Quran in order to accurately portray in the book Zeitoun’s deep spiritual belief.

Eggers said he thought it was “valuable and interesting for a lot of readers” to read portions of the Quran in the book.

Zeitoun’s wrongful incarceration ties in with Eggers’ previous work on that subject. The first Voice of Witness book published in 2005 was “Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated.”

Zeitoun’s arrest, one of many in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in which citizens were not given due process, was “a moment in time when we (as a nation) could have done better on a lot of levels,” Eggers said. “Ideally, we learn from it.”

Since the events of the book, Zeitoun has bought a second canoe (his first had disappeared by the time he returned home) and he and his wife have had another child. He also has rebuilt almost 200 homes, Eggers said.

The Zeitoun family has filed a lawsuit relating to their ordeal but doesn’t except compensation from it.

Eggers said the encouraging letters and e-mails Zeitoun and his family have received since the book was published have been "restorative and healing” for them.

Eggers said he is not taking any book royalties for “Zeitoun.” When he receives author proceeds, he splits them into 13 chunks to distribute among nonprofits focused on rebuilding and interfaith dialog in New Orleans.

When asked during a brief question and answer period how Eggers’s experience of Zeitoun’s faith has affected him and any subsequent writing plans he said “my own sense of faith/spirituality is, I hope, irrelevant.

“My job here is as a storyteller,” he said.

Eggers studied journalism at the University of Illinois and said he put on his journalist’s hat in writing "Zeitoun."

He said he studied Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” to assess how to “get out the way” of his story, admitting that “the humility involved is kind of burdensome.”

Eggers praised One Book Sacramento for keeping literary life and publishing alive.

He said he was “incredibly honored” that his book was selected. “It means the world to me.”

Starting in September, related One Book Sacramento events have included book club discussions, film screenings, art projects for school-aged children, writing workshops, a jazz concert, safety fairs, disaster preparedness information and emergency training.

Remaining One Book events are book club discussions on Oct. 28 at North Natomas Library from 7:30-8:30 p.m. and Oct. 30 at Rancho Cordova Library from 2 – 3 p.m.

Discussion questions are available for download from the Library’s website.

There will be a discussion of the audio book of “Zeitoun” on Nov. 13 at Carmichael Library at 10 a.m.

ArtWorks will facilitate Mardi Gras mask making on Oct. 27 at the Rio Linda Library at 4 p.m. and Oct. 28 at the Franklin Community Library in Elk Grove at 3:30 p.m.

Arthur Tricia Brown will discuss her book, “Salaam: A Muslim American Boy’s Story” on Oct. 23 at the Rancho Cordova Library at 1 p.m.

“Zeitoun” was selected for 2010 One Book Sacramento in March. Past books have included Steven Lopez’s “The Soloist,” Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time” and John Lescroart’s “The Suspect.”

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