Hero of Eggers’ ‘Zeitoun’ pleaded guilty in domestic abuse case


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Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the hero of Dave Eggers’ award-winning nonfiction book ‘Zeitoun,’ was arrested last year in New Orleans in a domestic abuse incident, The Smoking Gun has learned. Zeitoun pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of ‘negligent injuring.’

Kathryn Zeitoun, 40, told police she had separated from Abdulrahman Zeitoun, 54, because of finances, but they still lived next door to each other. He’d come to her home, while children were present, the police report says. It summarizes the incident:


The suspect Mr. Zeitoun enter the residence at [redacted] and began to argue with the victim Mrs. Zeitoun. After a short period the argument escalated and Mr. Zeitoun pushed Mrs. Zeitoun down to the floor, mounted her and began to strike her with a closed fist to the head. the oldest daughter of Mrs. Zeitoun heard her mother screaming for help, ran into the room, and struck Mr. Zeitoun in the neck with a kick forcing him off her mother. Mr. Zeitoun then fled the residence.

In the book, Zeitoun was portrayed as a good husband who stayed behind to face Hurricane Katrina. He paddled a canoe around the flooded city, helping those in desperate need. Yet after several days, when officials finally came to Zeitoun, they were not there to help him; they mistakenly arrested him as a suspected terrorist, and he went missing. His family thought he was dead.

Add to that trauma the added pressure of being the hero of a book that becomes a bestseller, and it’s impossible to imagine what life was like for the Zeitouns in recent years. This is not to excuse the violence -- there is no excuse for it -- but nevertheless, the family’s continuing story is tremendously sad. Could a book that pursuasively represented the complexities of America’s counter-terrorism efforts, FEMA, and Hurricane Katrina have adversely affected its heroes?

The NY Daily News’ Page Views blog asks what the incident may mean for the perception of Muslim Americans, but to me, it raises questions about literary nonfiction. What are the responsibilities of nonfiction? How much does someone risk when agreeing to become the subject of a book? Will the story of the book take different shape if subsequent events put its subjects in a different light?

‘Zeitoun’ won the 2009 L.A. Times Book Prize for current interest, along with many other accolades. It was also the recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg