Model citizen

Dave Eggers speaks about his New Orleans flood story, Zeitoun, which is due to be translated into Arabic.

New Orleans was under several feet of water after hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.
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When Dave Eggers decided to write a book about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the first move was obvious. The pair took a drive around New Orleans, retracing the journey that Zeitoun had made around the city - his home for the previous 14 years - in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when he paddled through the quiet, flooded streets in a second-hand aluminium canoe, rescuing stranded people. Towards the end of the day, Zeitoun took Eggers to a bus station on the outskirts of town. Directed to one particular spot on a wall, Eggers peeled away a poster to discover a height chart: the kind that prisoners stand in front of when police take their picture. This station, Zeitoun explained, was the site of Camp Greyhound, the makeshift prison that was built with startling efficiency in the chaotic, hazy days following the storm. It was here, Eggers learned, that Zeitoun was incarcerated soon after armed National Guardsmen stormed into his still-flooded home, arrested him and accused him of being a terrorist.

In Zeitoun, Eggers tells the story of these events in the life of the Syrian-American Zeitoun, and of what happened next. But the remarkable events that the book recounts are more than the story of one family. They amount to a ferocious argument against the ideas at the heart of George W Bush's presidency, and Zeitoun surely deserves to be remembered as one of the non-fiction classics of the neoconservative era.

Eggers discovered Zeitoun through his Voice of Witness project, which collects first-hand testimony from human rights crises around the world. The project's Katrina book, Voices from the Storm, contained a 10-page account of Zeitoun's experience, which was enough to send Eggers to New Orleans. "I went out there to meet him, and right away I was struck by the scope of his story," Eggers says. "Even Zeitoun's background before Katrina, coming to America from Jableh in Syria, had an epic scope.

"I knew that everyone had heard about the storm in New Orleans. But no one had heard anything like this. It transcended the story of one guy who was victimised; it was something more." Eggers suggested a full-length book, and Zeitoun (Eggers, like all of Zeitoun's American friends, calls him by his last name) didn't take much persuading. "Zeitoun is not a guy that goes around complaining. Most of his friends had no idea what had happened to him in the days after Katrina. But once I suggested this project, he committed fully. "

When it comes to making literature from real life, of course, the 40-year-old author has form. A decade ago, he produced A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the highly stylised, show-offy, self-reflexive memoir in which he told how, at age 21, he was left to raise his younger brother, Toph, after their parents died from cancer. The book engendered a double storm of critical praise and commercial success, turning Eggers into that most rare of creatures: a serious writer with a place in the popular consciousness. But Eggers quickly moved to inhabit a new kind of literary territory: in 2005 he published What is the What, the lightly fictionalised story of Valentino Achak Deng, a young refugee from the Sudanese war.

The book is reportedly a favourite of the US president Barack Obama's, and that fact is perhaps the most economical summary of the position in American letters that Eggers now occupies: less the enfant terrible of A Heartbreaking Work, more boy wonder of the liberal east coast, an admired moral campaigner - via both Voice of Witness and Valencia 826, his high school literacy project - of seemingly limitless energy, an influential publisher of new fiction in his hip periodical, McSweeney's.

Even the spiky persona that Eggers supposedly once brought to interviews is nowhere in evidence these days. He speaks softly, in long, considered paragraphs, and with a disarming self-effacement. Indeed, that understated tone is carried through to the pages of Zeitoun, which is quietly told and devoid of authorial intrusion. "I was trained as a journalist, and my teachers were old-school Chicago newspaper men," he says. "They taught me that if you put yourself into a story, you'd better have a really good reason. Otherwise, get the hell out of the way.

"As angry as this story made me, there was no need for me to tell the reader: 'Isn't this awful? Wasn't Bush the worst president we ever had?' Better to just tell the facts, and let the reader connect the dots." The strategy pays. In the book's gentle opening chapters, readers are given the requisite background. They travel briefly - as Eggers did - to Syria, to see Zeitoun's hometown, where he grew up the eighth of 13 siblings. We learn of Zeitoun's days criss-crossing the globe on cargo ships. And we hear how he ended up in New Orleans, the husband to an American wife, Kathy, the father to three daughters obsessed by reruns of Pride and Prejudice, and the owner of a well-known and successful New Orleans house-painting business.

By the time Katrina is about to hit, readers know the protagonist well enough - hardworking, stubborn, self-reliant and principled - to be unsurprised by his decision not to join the evacuation. But Zeitoun's story is only just beginning. To reveal too much would be to do the brilliantly controlled narrative a disservice. It's enough to say that an entirely upright, middle-aged, well-known local businessman found himself first amid an absurdly dysfunctional official response to the disaster, and soon enough a prisoner whose police jailers told him: "You're with al Qa'eda."

So what went wrong in New Orleans in August 2005? How could Zeitoun's story happen in America? "So many factors came together to make it possible," Eggers says. "First, the New Orleans Police Department is notoriously corrupt and incompetent. "But then you have the political climate created by President Bush. After September 11, our government became obsessed with terrorism - to the point that Fema [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], which is the disaster relief agency, was folded into the Department for Homeland Security. Fema felt that it had to focus on how to stop terrorists exploiting a natural disaster, and somehow stopped planning for basic disaster relief: food, water, boats.

"Bush flooded the city with heavily armed soldiers who had seen inflammatory, mostly untrue television news reports that New Orleans had turned into a volatile war zone, with looting, rape and violence. They brought a war zone mentality." The last element of context - and perhaps the most important - was the strain of anti-Muslim feeling that ran through America in those years. It's this, after all, that causes Zeitoun to be singled out. But one could say such feeling arose naturally out of the atrocity in New York. Can Bush be blamed?

"I definitely think he heightened it," Eggers says. "It's one thing for some semi-ignorant citizen to suspect all people of one faith. But Bush's disdain for knowledge and learning, his limited exposure to other cultures, emboldened more people to take that position. "One of the points I wanted to make with Zeitoun is that it matters what our leaders say, the tone they set, because it trickles all the way down to an individual soldier walking past a man in a cage in New Orleans and saying: 'You're a terrorist.'

But Eggers is mindful that Americans of all political stripes find Zeitoun's story shocking. "Now that the book has been published, Zeitoun gets letters saying: 'You're a model American citizen. We're so sorry about what happened to you.' And these writers aren't flag-waving liberals. Many are conservatives who are appalled at what happened to a hardworking, all-American guy." Now, Zeitoun is due to be translated into Arabic: "Zeitoun really cares about people back in Syria being able to read it," Eggers says. Meanwhile, Eggers is ruminating on ideas for more non-fiction books.

"I'll continue to write fiction every now and then, but I've always been a research freak. It feels that these non-fiction books, where you address moments in our history through the eyes of one person, can be a powerful way of getting to the truth." As for the period of history covered in this book, Eggers is optimistic that Obama can recover America's better self. In the US in 2010, he says, the Zeitoun story wouldn't happen.

"The clouds have parted on the darkest political period in my lifetime," he says. "That year, 2005, was the nadir of the Bush era, and I've never been so ready to move to Costa Rica as I was then. Even now, I don't think Zeitoun's experience would be the same. "You have an educated man at the top now, with a multicultural background. And I think that makes people say: 'Oh, I guess it isn't OK to suspect people based on their name and the colour of their skin.'

"I know that people expect a lot of Obama. But I'm a little like the Nobel Committee," Eggers smiles. "For the moment I'm just glad that the climate has changed."