Eggars and the Zeitouns
Dave Eggers, (left), the Zeitouns and Jocelyn Hendrickson, assistant professor of religion.

WALLA WALLA – The 2010 Whitman College Summer Read program, mandatory for first-year students and open to members of the Walla Walla community, culminated Sept. 28 in a discussion with the author and the subjects of his book.

To a packed house of students, staff, faculty and area residents, all sitting in rapt attention, author Dave Eggers and book subjects Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun shared their all-too non-fiction stories.

The author’s story was of writing a book about the couple; the couple’s was of their harrowing survival of Hurricane Katrina – more so of surviving the harm caused by law enforcement officials rather than the hurricane itself and their experiences as Muslims.

In a hint of what was to come, Kate Kight, student academic advisor, opened the evening with an introduction of the book and participants saying, “By the incredibly generous act of sharing their story, the Zeitouns have given each of us an opportunity to learn the power of faith and love.”

Rather than a straight lecture, Jocelyn Hendrickson, assistant professor of religion, served as moderator, asking questions of the author and the Zeitouns.  She led Eggers and the couple to discuss the background of the book, the experience of sharing their story – particularly details of Abdulrahman’s arrest in the days after the hurricane – and an update on where they are now.

Eggers said when he first encountered the remarkable story of the Zeitouns he wasn’t looking for another big project but was drawn in by their seemingly improbably story and, “this image of a solitary man paddling around a devastated city looking to help.”

The book, titled Zeitoun, chronicles the family’s experience starting just before the hurricane hit, when Kathy fled New Orleans with their children and Abdulrahman, a Syrian American, stayed behind to tend to his paint contracting clients and the family home. With an evacuation order in place, he was arrested – allegedly on suspicion of looting, but in truth because of his religion and race, he believes.

Eggers talked about the time spent conducting research, in places as far as Spain and Syria, but mostly near the Zeitoun home in New Orleans, passing through the once-flooded streets that Abdulrahman had once paddled over, documenting these places and Abdulrahman’s stories with photos and video.  And, he said, a lot of time was simply spent sitting in the Zeitoun home, discussing their backgrounds, playing with the children and figuring out how best to share their story. 

Both Kathy and Abdulrahman expressed having concern over the book being published, not because they didn’t want to share their story, but rather because they were afraid no one would want to read a book about such “regular people.” 

As Eggers commented, one of the highlights of the book is that it exposes Americans to a portrayal of Muslims as “regular people.”

“I was intrigued by this story because it was an incredible example of personal heroism and taking responsibility in a moment when one man decides it’s his job to do right by his neighbors and his city.  The fact that the Zeitouns are Muslim American is part of it, but I knew that through Kathy’s conversion and being able to explain Islam through her eyes, readers can understand it and can see the faith through her eyes.  I think it’s been a nice byproduct that a lot of readers say this is the first Muslim American family they know,” said Eggers.

Abdulrahman agreed that the book helps give America a good view about who Muslim Americans are, expressing that they can be seen in all parts of our society, including hospitals and classrooms. He shared his feeling that “it is not fair” to tie the terrorist acts of a few people to the entire Muslim community. 

Eggers noted that Abdulrahman was only one of the victims of a system that is broken on many levels.  “It wasn’t just one thing that went wrong, it was all things conspiring together that made the situation so bad.  It has become clear that although we have a good system of justice, it is not without flaws.”

Eggers worked on the book together with the Zeitouns for three years. “What you hope at the end of it is that people might pick up the book and might learn something, might empathize a little bit, might meet people and walk a mile or two in the shoes of people that are in some ways different from themselves.”

“To have this chosen as a campus read here and by the greater Walla Walla community is like the ultimate validation and the ultimate gift.  We are incredibly gratified that you are all here and that you read this. I just love the fact that you get to meet the Zeitouns in person, that’s pretty cool,” Eggers said.

He ended the night with thoughts about Whitman College, sharing that he teaches a high school class and Whitman first-year student Jake Lindsay was once one of his students.  He said that to him Jake reflects the current generation – “together, inspired and idealistic. What’s so great about a school like Whitman is that is emphasizes global thinking.  It’s part of the culture and part of what draws people to a school like this, that has a strong liberal arts program with a global outlook.” 

Author David Eggers pays visit to Whitman sociology class

After enthralling a packed Cordiner Hall audience on Tuesday evening, Zeitoun author Dave Eggers experienced Whitman’s close, intimate academic environment by spending a class session with a handful of students.

On Wednesday morning, Eggers visited Maxey Hall to spend an hour with students in a “Social Problems” class, a sociology course taught by Noah Leavitt, visiting associate professor of sociology and general studies. One of two introductory courses in the sociology department, Leavitt’s class leads students through an in-depth look at Chicago, dissecting the city’s social problems as a way of learning how to view issues through a sociological lens.

Fortuitously, the class is currently discussing issues of law enforcement and state power – topics examined in great detail by Eggers, a Chicago native, in his book, “Zeitoun.”

“One of the ways we prepared for Dave’s visit was to pay close attention, in our current course text, to how law enforcement operates,” Leavitt said. “We have been looking at what happens when there’s an opportunity to have unlimited power over an individual, a family or a community, without any sanctions.”

Leavitt said that Eggers approach to research and writing closely mirrors the methodology of many sociologists. “Dave doesn’t talk about himself as a sociologist; he talks about himself as a journalist. But the way he does his journalism is very much consistent with how sociologists believe we should understand these issues,” Leavitt said. “He could have gone to half a dozen classes, across as many disciplines, but for my students it was great because a number of things he covers in “Zeitoun” are topics we’re closely examining right now.”

Students had the opportunity to ask Eggers a variety of questions, ranging from his personal beliefs about capital punishment to the effects Hurricane Katrina had on the Louisiana criminal justice system.

Each year, Whitman selects a book to be read by the incoming first-year class over the summer.  The Summer Read serves as common ground among the new students as they arrive in the fall and begin discussions of the book, with peers, with faculty and with the author. This is the fourth year the program has been extended to the Walla Walla community.

Related Links:

Summer Read Program

In the News: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Video: Faculty Panel Discussion of "Zeitoun"

Whitman Pioneer


                                                                     --Ashley Coetzee and Joe Gurriere