[Book Review] Three Lessons from 'Zeitoun'

Who could forget the scenes of New Orleans, underwater, following Hurricane Katrina?

Violence and looting in the streets, chaos in the Superdome and heroic rescues from rooftops; the images will remain with me forever. Whether it was knowing a number of friends from the area or having taken a group of students there on a service trip, it was really tough to watch.

So when a friend of mine recommended Zeitoun, a story of a Muslim man who decided to brave the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history, I was intrigued. Zeitoun is the last name of the main character. He is a husband, father to four kids, and a private business owner.

Three quick takes:

  1. Islam now has a face. I’d be lying if I said the events of 9/11 hadn’t altered my perceptions of people who practice Islam. Shame on me for not doing my homework. I know, intellectually, that Christians and Muslims have more in common than Christians and any other religion (save Judaism), but it hasn’t always been so in my mind. Zeitoun’s love, trust, and reliance on God, and his prayerful devotion put a face to Islam’s name. It is the only extended interaction I have had, albeit through a book, with a devout Muslim. And for this I am really grateful.
  2. Stuff is just stuff and you can always get more. Most of the time I couldn’t imagine my life sans iPhone, laptop, or my favorite Pacers hat. But it’s just stuff, right? It was made in a factory somewhere. Hurricane Katrina wiped out everybody’s stuff. And people’s stuff wasn’t what was at top of mind. Zeitoun was first a man on a mission to help people (and feed some dogs too). Things came second. As I reflected on this I remembered how nice it is to travel light or how much I enjoy leaving my phone at home when my family goes out together or how I love figuring out what to drop off at Goodwill. Stuff is just stuff, you can always get more.
  3. Never underestimate how small we really are. Nature is no respecter of people, places or things. An entire city (not so much the people), was rendered nil in the wake of this disaster. Our homes, buildings, cities are powerless in the face of nature’s strongest blow. Humility rises in moments like these and reminds me that we are pretty tiny fish in a really big strong ocean.

I applaud the resilience of the people of New Orleans. You took one to the chin but got right back up. Looking forward to coming back to the Big Easy one day - for jazz at Preservation Hall, beignets at Cafe Du Monde or a simple stroll around Jackson Square.

Bummer alert

Before we shut ’er down, it should be noted new information has come to light which calls into question the ‘real’ Zeitoun. In late 2012 he was on trial for attempted murder of his wife and ordering a hit on her while he was in prison. This is just awful. Even though he was later acquitted this is a black mark on a powerful story.

It’s not the first time I have read a book about someone to find out later things were not always as they seemed. I’m looking at you Greg Mortenson.

I read the whole book and wrote this review before finding this out. Even with this news I still stand by what I learned, but am crushed to hear what’s transpired in their relationship and marriage. Life is never easy, neat or tidy.

Lastly, this is my first entry in the emptyshelf challenge issued by Jon Acuff. My plan is to fill up a shelf by the end of 2014. We’ll see how it turns out.