FRIDAY AUGUST 26, 2005
On moonless nights the men and boys of Jableh, a dusty fishing town on
the coast of Syria, would gather their lanterns and set out in their
quietest boats. Five or six small craft, two or three fishermen in each.
A mile out, they would arrange the boats in a circle on the black sea,
drop their nets, and, holding their lanterns over the water, they would
approximate the moon.
The fish, sardines, would begin gathering soon after, a slow mass of
silver rising from below. The fish were attracted to plankton, and the
plankton were attracted to the light. They would begin to circle, a
chain linked loosely, and over the next hour their numbers would grow.
The black gaps between silver links would close until the fishermen
could see, below, a solid mass of silver spinning.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun was only thirteen when he began fishing for sardines
this way, a method called lampara, borrowed from the Italians. He had
waited years to join the men and teenagers on the night boats, and he'd
spent those years asking questions. Why only on moonless nights?
Because, his brother Ahmad said, on moon-filled nights the plankton
would be visible everywhere, spread out all over the sea, and the
sardines could see and eat the glowing organisms with ease. But without
a moon the men could make their own, and could bring the sardines to the
surface in stunning concentrations. You have to see it, Ahmad told his
little brother. You've never seen anything like this.
And when Abdulrahman first witnessed the sardines circling in the black
he could not believe the sight, the beauty of the undulating silver orb
below the white and gold lantern light. He said nothing, and the other
fishermen were careful to be quiet, too, paddling without motors, lest
they scare away the catch. They would whisper over the sea, telling
jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise
and spin beneath them. A few hours later, once the sardines were ready,
tens of thousands of them glistening in the refracted light, the
fishermen would cinch the net and haul them in.
They would motor back to the shore and bring the sardines to the fish
broker in the market before dawn. He would pay the men and boys, and
would then sell the fish all over western Syria - Lattakia, Baniyas,
Damascus. The fishermen would split the money, with Abdulrahman and
Ahmad bringing their share home. Their father had passed away the year
before and their mother was of fragile health and mind, so all funds
they earned fishing went toward the welfare of the house they shared
with ten siblings.
Abdulrahman and Ahmad didn't care much about the money, though. They
would have done it for free.
Thirty-four years later and thousands of miles west, Abdulrahman Zeitoun
was in bed on a Friday morning, slowly leaving the moonless Jableh
night, a tattered memory of it caught in a morning dream. He was in his
home in New Orleans and beside him he could hear his wife Kathy
breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the
hull of a wooden boat. Otherwise the house was silent. He knew it was
near six o'clock, and the peace would not last. The morning light
usually woke the kids once it reached their second-story windows. One of
the four would open his or her eyes, and from there the movements were
brisk, the house quickly growing loud. With one child awake, it was
impossible to keep the other three in bed.
Kathy woke to a thump upstairs, coming from one of the kids' rooms. She
listened closely, praying silently for rest. Each morning there was a
delicate period, between six and six-thirty, when there was a chance,
however remote, that they could steal another ten or fifteen minutes of
sleep. But now there was another thump, and the dog barked, and another
thump followed. What was happening in this house? Kathy looked to her
husband. He was staring at the ceiling. The day had roared to life.
The phone began ringing, today as always, before their feet hit the
floor. Kathy and Zeitoun - most people called him by his last name
because they couldn't pronounce his first - ran a company, Zeitoun A.
Painting Contractor LLC, and every day their crews, their clients,
everyone with a phone and their number, seemed to think that once the
clock struck six-thirty, it was appropriate to call. And they called.
Usually there were so many calls at the stroke of six-thirty that the
overlap would send half of them straight to voicemail.
Kathy took the first one, from a client across town, while Zeitoun
shuffled into the shower. Fridays were always busy, but this one
promised madness, given the rough weather on the way. There had been
rumblings all week about a tropical storm crossing the Florida Keys, a
chance it might head north. Though this kind of possibility presented
itself every August and didn't raise eyebrows for most, Kathy and
Zeitoun's more cautious clients and friends often made preparations.
Throughout the morning the callers would want to know if Zeitoun could
board up their windows and doors, if he would be clearing his equipment
off their property before the winds came. Workers would want to know if
they'd be expected to come in that day or the next.
"Zeitoun Painting Contractors," Kathy said, trying to sound alert. It
was an elderly client, a woman living alone in a Garden District
mansion, asking if Zeitoun's crew could come over and board up her
"Sure, of course," Kathy said, letting her feet drop heavily to the
floor. She was up. Kathy was the business's secretary, bookkeeper,
credit department, public-relations manager - she did everything in the
office, while her husband handled the building and painting. The two of
them balanced each other well: Zeitoun's English had its limits, so when
bills had to be negotiated, hearing Kathy's Louisiana drawl put clients
This was part of the job, helping clients prepare their homes for coming
winds. Kathy hadn't given much thought to the storm this client was
talking about. It took a lot more than a few downed trees in south
Florida to get her attention.
"We'll have a crew over this afternoon," Kathy told the woman.
Kathy and Zeitoun had been married for eleven years. Zeitoun had come to
New Orleans in 1994, by way of Houston and Baton Rouge and a half- dozen
other American cities he'd explored as a young man. Kathy had grown up
in Baton Rouge and was used to the hurricane routine: the litany of
preparations, the waiting and watching, the power outages, the candles
and flashlights and buckets catching rain. There seemed to be a
half-dozen named storms every August, and they were rarely worth the
trouble. This one, named Katrina, would be no different.
Downstairs, Nademah, at ten their second-oldest, was helping get
breakfast together for the two younger girls, Aisha and Safiya, five and
seven. Zachary, Kathy's fifteen-year-old son from her first marriage,
was already gone, off to meet friends before school. Kathy made lunches
while the three girls sat at the kitchen table, eating and reciting, in
English accents, scenes from Pride and Prejudice. They had gotten lost
in, were hopelessly in love with, that movie. Dark-eyed Nademah had
heard about it from friends, convinced Kathy to buy the DVD, and since
then the three girls had seen it a dozen times - every night for two
weeks. They knew every character and every line and had learned how to
swoon like aristocratic maidens. It was the worst they'd had it since
Phantom of the Opera, when they'd been stricken with the need to sing
every song, at home or at school or on the escalator at the mall, at
Zeitoun wasn't sure which was worse. As he entered the kitchen, seeing
his daughters bow and curtsy and wave imaginary fans, he thought, At
least they're not singing. Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he
watched these girls of his, perplexed. Growing up in Syria, he'd had
seven sisters, but none had been this prone to drama. His girls were
playful, wistful, always dancing across the house, jumping from bed to
bed, singing with feigned vibrato, swooning. It was Kathy's influence,
no doubt. She was one of them, really, blithe and girlish in her manner
and her tastes - video games, Harry Potter, the baffling pop music they
listened to. He knew she was determined to give them the kind of
carefree childhood she hadn't had.
"That's all you're eating?" Kathy said, looking over at her husband, who
was putting on his shoes, ready to leave. He was of average height, a
sturdily built man of forty-seven, but how he maintained his weight was
a puzzle. He could go without breakfast, graze at lunch, and barely
touch dinner, all while working twelve-hour days of constant activity,
and still his weight never fluctuated. Kathy had known for a decade that
her husband was one of those inexplicably solid, self-sufficient, and
never-needy men who got by on air and water, impervious to injury or
disease - but still she wondered how he sustained himself. He was
passing through the kitchen now, kissing the girls' heads.
"Don't forget your phone," Kathy said, eyeing it on the microwave.
"Why would I?" he asked, pocketing it.
"So you don't forget things?"
"You're really saying you don't forget things."
"Yes. This is what I'm saying."
But as soon as he'd said the words he recognized his error.
"You forgot our firstborn child!" Kathy said. He'd walked right into it.
The kids smiled at their father. They knew the story well.
It was unfair, Zeitoun thought, how one lapse in eleven years could give
his wife enough ammunition to needle him for the rest of his life.
Zeitoun was not a forgetful man, but whenever he did forget something,
or when Kathy was trying to prove he had forgotten something, all she
had to do was remind him of the time he'd forgotten Nademah. Because he
had. Not for such a long time, but he had.
She was born on August 4, on the one-year anniversary of their wedding.
It had been a trying labor. The next day, at home, Zeitoun helped Kathy
from the car, closed the passenger door, and then retrieved Nademah,
still in her carseat. He carried the baby in one hand, holding Kathy's
arm with the other. The stairs to their second- floor apartment were
just inside the building, and Kathy needed help getting up. So Zeitoun
helped her up the steep steps, Kathy groaning and sighing as they went.
They reached the bedroom, where Kathy collapsed on the bed and got under
the covers. She was relieved beyond words or reason to be home where she
could relax with her infant.
"Give her to me," Kathy said, raising her arms.
Zeitoun looked down to his wife, astonished at how ethereally beautiful
she looked, her skin radiant, her eyes so tired. Then he heard what
she'd said. The baby. Of course she wanted the baby. He turned to give
her the baby, but there was no baby. The baby was not at his feet. The
baby was not in the room.
"Where is she?" Kathy asked.
Zeitoun took in a quick breath. "I don't know."
"Abdul, where's the baby?" Kathy said, now louder.
Zeitoun made a sound, something between a gasp and a squeak, and flew
out of the room. He ran down the steps and out the front door. He saw
the carseat sitting on the lawn. He'd left the baby in the yard. He'd
left the baby in the yard. The carseat was turned toward the street. He
couldn't see Nademah's face. He grabbed the handle, fearing the worst,
that someone had taken her and left the seat, but when he turned it
toward him, there was the tiny pink face of Nademah, scrunched and
sleeping. He put his fingers to her, to feel her heat, to know she was
okay. She was.
He brought the carseat upstairs, handed Nademah to Kathy, and before she
could scold him, kid him, or divorce him, he ran down the stairs and
went for a walk. He needed a walk that day, and needed walks for many
days following, to work out what he'd done and why, how he had forgotten
his child while aiding his wife. How hard it was to do both, to be
partner to one and protector to the other. What was the balance? He
would spend years pondering this conundrum.
This day, in the kitchen, Zeitoun wasn't about to give Kathy the
opportunity to tell the whole story, again, to their children. He waved
Aisha hung on his leg. "Don't leave, Baba," she said. She was given to
theatrics - Kathy called her Dramarama - and all that Austen had made
the tendency worse.
He was already thinking about the day's work ahead, and even at seven-
thirty he felt behind.
Zeitoun looked down at Aisha, held her face in his hands, smiled at the
tiny perfection of her dark wet eyes, and then extracted her from his
shin as if he were stepping out of soggy pants. Seconds later he was in
the driveway, loading the van.
Aisha went out to help him, and Kathy watched the two of them, thinking
about his way with the girls. It was difficult to describe. He was not
an overly doting father, and yet he never objected to them jumping on
him, grabbing him. He was firm, sure, but also just distracted enough to
give them the room they needed, and just pliant enough to let himself be
taken advantage of when the need arose. And even when he was upset about
something, it was disguised behind those eyes, grey-green and
long-lashed. When they met, he was thirteen years older than Kathy, so
she wasn't immediately sold on the prospect of marriage, but those eyes,
holding the light the way they did, had seized her. They were
dream-filled, but discerning, too, assessing - the eyes of an
entrepreneur. He could see a run-down building and have not only the
vision to see what it might become, but also the practical knowledge of
what it would cost and how long it would take.
Kathy adjusted her hijab in the front window, tucking in stray hairs -
it was a nervous habit - while watching Zeitoun leave the driveway in a
swirling grey cloud. It was time for a new van. The one they had was a
crumbling white beast, long-suffering but dependable, filled with
ladders and wood and rattling with loose screws and brushes. On the side
was their ubiquitous logo, the words Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor next
to a paint roller resting at the end of a rainbow. The logo was corny,
Kathy admitted, but it wasn't easy to forget. Everyone in the city knew
it, from bus stops and benches and lawn signs; it was as common in New
Orleans as live oak or royal fern. But at first it was not so benign to
all. When Zeitoun first designed it, he'd had no idea that a sign
with a rainbow on it would signify anything to anyone — anything
oher than the array of colors and tints from which clients might choose.
But soon enough he and Kathy were made aware of the signals they were
sending. Immediately they began getting calls from gay couples,
and this was good news, good business. But at the same time, some
potential clients, once they saw the van arrive, were no longer
interested in Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC. Some workers left,
thinking that by working under the Zeitoun Painting rainbow they would
be presumed to be gay, that somehow the company managed to employ only
gay painters. When Zeitoun and Kathy caught on to the rainbow's
signifying power, they had a serious talk about it. Kathy wondered if
her husband, who did not at that point have any gay friends or family
members, might want to change the logo, to keep their message from being
misconstrued. But Zeitoun barely gave it a thought. It would
costa lot of money he said — about twenty signs had been
made, not to mention all the business cards and stationary — and
besides, all the new clients were paying their bills. It wasn't much
more complicated than that. "Think about it," Zeitoun laughed.
"We're a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such
a good idea to turn away clients." Anyone who had a problem with
rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam. So the
Zeitoun pulled onto Earhart Boulevard, though a part of him was still in
Jableh. Whenever he had these morning thoughts of his childhood, he
wondered how they all were, his family in Syria, all his brothers and
sisters and nieces and nephews scattered up and down the coast, and
those who had long ago left this world. His mother died a few years
after his father passed on, and he'd lost a treasured brother, Mohammed,
when he was very young. But the rest of his siblings, those still in
Syria and Spain and Saudi Arabia, were all doing well, extraordinarily
so. The Zeitouns were a high-achieving clan, full of doctors and school
principals and generals and business owners, all of them with a passion
for the sea. They had grown up in a big stone house on the
Mediterranean, and none had strayed far from the shore. Zeitoun made a
note to call Jableh sometime that day. There were always new babies,
always news. He only had to reach one of his brothers or sisters —
there were seven still in Syria — and he could get the full
report. Zeitoun turned on the radio. The storm that people were
talking about was still far down in Florida, moving slowly west. It
wasn't expected to make it up the Gulf for another few days, if at all.
As he drove to his first job of the day, the restoration of a wonderful
old mansion in the Garden District, he turned the dial on the radio,
looking for something, anything else.
Standing in her kitchen, Kathy looked at the clock and gasped. It was
all too rare that she got the kids to school on time. But she was
working on it. Or planned to work on it as soon as the season calmed
down. Summer was the busiest time for the business, with so many people
leaving, fleeing the swamp heat, wanting these rooms or that porch
painted while they were away. With a flurry of warnings and arm
movements, Kathy herded the girls and their gear into the minivan and
headed across the Mississippi to the West Bank. There were
advantages to Zeitoun and Kathy running a business together — so
many blessings, too many to name — but then again, the drawbacks
were distinct and growing. They greatly valued being able to set their
own hours, choose their clients and jobs, and be at home whenever they
needed to be — their ability to be there, always and for anything
relating to their children, was a profound comfort. But when friends
would ask Kathy whether they, too, should start their own business, she
talked them out of it. You don't run the business, she would say. The
business runs you. Kathy and Zeitoun worked harder than anyone
they knew, and the work and worry never ended. Nights, weekends,
holidays — respite never came. They usually had eight to ten jobs
going at any one time, which they oversaw out of a home office and a
warehouse space on Dublin Street, off Carrollton. And that was to say
nothing of the property-management aspect of the business. Somewhere
along the line they started buying buildings, apartments, and house, and
now they had six properties with eighteen tenants. Each renter was, in
some ways, another dependent, another soul to worry about, to provide
with shelter, a solid roof, air-conditioning, clean water. There was a
dizzying array of people to pay and collect from, houses to improve and
maintain, bills to deal with, invoices to issue, supplies to buy and
store. But she cherished what her life had become, and the family
she and Zeitoun had created. She was driving her three girls to school
now, and the fact that they could go to private school, that their
college would be taken care of, that they had all they needed and more
— she was thankful every hour of every day. Kathy was one
of nine children, and had grown up with very little, and Zeitoun, the
eighth of thirteen children, had been raised with almost nothing. To see
the two of them now, to stand back and assess what they'd built —
a sprawling family, a business of distinct success, and to be woven so
thoroughly into the fabric of their adopted city that they had friends
in every neighborhood, clients on almost every block they passed —
these were all blessings from God. How could she take Nademah,
for instance, for granted? How had they produced such a child — so
smart and self-possessed, so dutiful, helpful, and precocious? She was
practically an adult now, it seemed — she certainly spoke like
one, often more measured and circumspect than her parents. Kathy glanced
at her now, sitting in the passenger seat playing with the radio. She'd
always been quick. When she was five, no more than five, Zeitoun came
home from work for lunch one day and found Nademah playing on the floor.
She looked up at him and declared, "Daddy, I want to be a dancer."
Zeitoun took off his shoes and sat on the couch. "We have too many
dancers in the city," he said, rubbing his feet. "We need doctors, we
need lawyers, we need teachers. I want you to be a doctor so you can
take care of me." Nademah thought about this for a moment and said,
"Okay, then I'll be a doctor." She went back to her coloring. A minute
later, Kathy came downstairs, having just seen the wreck of Nademah's
bedroom. "Clean up your room, Demah," she said. Nademah didn't miss a
beat, nor did she look up from her coloring book. "Not me, Mama. I'm
going to be a doctor, and doctors don't clean."
In the car, approaching the school, Nademah turned up the volume
on the radio. She'd caught something on the news about the coming storm.
Kathy wasn't paying close attention, because three or four times a
season, it seemed, there was some alarmist talk about hurricanes heading
straight for the city, and always their direction changed, or the winds
fizzled in Florida or over the Gulf. If a storm hit New Orleans at all,
it would be greatly diminished, no more than a day of grey gusts and
rain. This reporter was talking about the storm heading into the
Gulf of Mexico as a Category 1. It was about 45 miles north-northwest of
Key West and heading west. Kathy turned the radio of; she didn't want
the kids to worry. "You think it'll hit us?" Nademah asked.
Kathy didn't think much of it. Who ever worried about a Category
1 or 2? She told Nademah it was nothing, nothing at all, and she kissed
the girls goodbye.
Excerpted from "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers. Copyright © 0 by Dave Eggers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.