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Dave Eggers, National Book Award Finalist, Refuses to Answer About Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Violent Assaults

Dave Eggers is running away from the truth. And we have the video to prove it.

In 2009, Dave Eggers self-published Zeitoun, a well-received nonfiction volume which told the story of a hard-working Syrian-American painter in New Orleans who emerged as a hero during Hurricane Katrina. Eggers relied heavily on what his subjects, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, told him while working on the book. As he claimed in a Rumpus interview, “I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time.”

Recent developments have revealed that Zeitoun is a misleading feel-good hagiography running against this apparent commitment to accuracy. The New York Times Book Review‘s Timothy Egan suggested that Eggers was a modern-day “Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open.” But Eggers has glossed over a good deal more than what Egan has insinuated. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not the calm and peaceful man that Eggers portrayed.

On November 8th, Zeitoun was indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder. Kathy had suffered abuse from the beginning of her marriage to Abdulrahman. In court, Kathy testified about being beaten with a tire iron and being “[choked] so hard I felt the pressure in my face.”

Last August, when we reported on the Zeitoun Foundation’s questionable finances, we discovered that at least $161,331 (during the year 2009) was siphoned off to a shadowy organization named Jableh, LLC. We reached out to various representatives from McSweeney’s by telephone and email, but they refused to speak with us. (We did, however, receive a threatening email from an attorney. We responded by asking the attorney to provide us with specific evidence that would clear up matters. He did not return our email.) Throughout these developments, Eggers has remained silent, save for a statement that appeared on the Zeitoun Foundation’s website which has since been deleted.

On Wednesday night, we decided to question Dave Eggers at the National Book Awards in person, where he was being feted as a finalist for his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, hoping that Eggers would break his silence and provide us with a clear-eyed statement on these serious mistakes and moral indiscretions.

But Eggers ran away at the name of “Abdulrahman Zeitoun.” The video can be seen below:

Eggers’s silence (along with that of mainstream literary outlets) is baffling. Even Norman Mailer famously declared during the Jack Abbott affair that culture is worth a little risk. If Eggers is interested in culture, should he not come to terms with his mistakes? Should he not own up to the negative impact that his book and his involvement may have had on the Zeitouns’ lives?

John Simerman’s helpful dispatches in the New Orleans Times-Picayune illustrate why staying silent or taking the rose-tinted path is a blatant and irresponsible disregard for the truth. On October 18th, Kathy Zeitoun testified in court about the abuses:

He starts beating me in the back with this tire iron. He lets go of the tire iron and starts punching me, then he started ripping the flesh from my side through my clothes.

and

He was choking me so hard I felt the pressure in my face. I thought I was going to pass out. He grabbed my face and dug his claws, his fingernails, in my face.

This is a far cry from Eggers’s glowing depiction of Abdulrahman as a tranquil hero. Eggers describes how “Zeitoun felt at peace,” with “an odd calm in his heart.” Abdulrahman’s origins as a thirteen-year-old fisherman involves a concern for quietude, where his compatriots “would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. Eggers even describes Abdulrahman telling Kathy, “Please be calm. Don’t make it worse,” while approaching a bus station.

It was Kathy’s testimony which led to Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s indictment for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation for first-degree murder during the late afternoon of November 8th. Abdulrahman has remained in jail, with the bail set at more than $1 million. A gag order has prevented Kathy and Abdulrahman’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, from saying anything beyond their remarks in the courtroom. Eggers is certainly in a position to say something and emerge from this contretemps with some integrity, yet he wishes to pretend as if nothing terrible has gone on. At least that’s what we see on the surface. Under the seams, it’s a much different story.

Back in August, we reported on how The Zeitoun Foundation was not being transparent about the way it disseminated funds. While The Zeitoun Foundation is now listed as “in good standing” with the Louisiana Secretary of State (as of September 10, 2012, which is when the last annual report was filed), our search through several nonprofit public databases have not unearthed any new 990s. Furthermore, there isn’t any new information about Jableh, LLC. As we noted in August, Jableh was incorporated on July 16, 2009. It listed Dave Eggers as the registered agent. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation declared that $161,331 was due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeded the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

In our efforts to answer these questions, Michelle Quint, the accountable director for Zeitoun, refused to return our phone calls or emails, nor did anybody at McSweeney’s. Eggers had initially released a statement with Jonathan Demme that he and the filmmaker had been “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25,” but it has since been deleted.

We also received this threatening email from attorney David J. Arrick on August 17, 2012:

Dear Mr. Champion:

The attorneys and accountants who initially set up and continually consult with the Zeitoun Foundation have been made aware of your website.

They would like to clarify that there are two components to The Zeitoun Foundation’s charitable purpose: (1) to aid in the rebuilding and social advancement of New Orleans and (2) to promote understanding between people of disparate faiths around the world, with a concentration on relations between the United States of America and the Muslim world. Therefore, not all of the organizations receiving grants from the Zeitoun Foundation are dedicated to Katrina relief projects.

They would further like to clarify that the Zeitoun Foundation does no active fundraising. The Foundation was created to disburse proceeds from the book, Zeitoun, and to bring attention to the exemplary nonprofits to which it awards grants. To date, outside donations have accounted for less than 10% of all monies disbursed by the Foundation. All other funds have come from proceeds from the book.

While it is believed that The Zeitoun Foundation has been as transparent in its operations as comparable non-profit organizations, it does intend to update the Zeitoun Foundation website in the near future, and will also update all filings deemed necessary and appropriate. The website will provide more detailed information about the grant recipients. The grant recipients are outstanding organizations and the website will share more details about the great work that they’re doing.

Sincerely,

David J Arrick
David J. Arrick, Partner
Boas & Boas LLP
101 Montgomery Street, Suite 1250
San Francisco, CA 94104
Telephone: 415-956-4444
Fax: 415-956-2158
E-mail: darrick@boascpas.com
Website: www.boascpas.com

As of November 14th, the Zeitoun Foundation website has not been updated. Nobody is talking. In two corners of the world, there are more important events going on. A man faces charges of attempted first-degree murder, with his wife still frightened for her life. Another man awaits news over whether he’ll win a prestigious book award, but he has nothing to say about the troubled couple who helped him at a pivotal stage in his career. Without them, he may not have made it inside this swank Wall Street ballroom.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: The Times-Picayune‘s John Simerman reported on November 16th that Eggers and McSweeney’s representatives have refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about Zeitoun.

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16 Comments

  1. wanted to write a comment on this story because I was there from 2000 till sept 2005 living right next door to the zeitouns, and from what i witnessed she definitely exaggerating, I heard them fight maybe once in all this time, this man zeitoun worked from sun up to sun down 7 days a week,I also witnessed a caring family who took a lot of interest in their children, matter of factually I never knew that he had a stepson because he treated each child well, I thought all this time they were his children, it wasn’t till I read a story in sept. 2012 that they mentioned about a stepson, in conclusion I personally believe his wife is exaggerating these events like all wifes do when a seperation is in the works.

  2. HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2012

  3. Mr. Gambino: I have approved all of your comments. Thank you for stopping by. If you are indeed the real Todd Gambino, it is worth pointing out for our readers that you were incarcerated with Abdulrahman Zeitoun and that, as Eggers has stated in a few interviews, he did pledge to offer you money. The issue here is HOW these funds were disseminated — whether through The Zeitoun Foundation, Jableh LLC, or another of Mr. Eggers’s organizations. The issue here is one of accountability. Mr. Eggers, having run away from journalists who merely seek clarification and transparency over mysterious funds, has not been forthcoming and has had at least one of his agents threaten me. Additionally, according to Kathy Zeitoun’s testimony, the abuse was ongoing: starting from the beginning of the Zeitouns’ marriage in 1994. But your remarks are noted for the record.

  4. only the zeitouns would know about this story, one day i was going to add freon to their van, it was parked on a side street next to their home, when i began to move the vehicle to get it where i needed to do the work, i pulled out on the street and got sideswiped by a vehicle coming from claiborne ave. damaged the side of their van, police showed up and kathy was having a hard time finding her vehicle insurance card, police wanted to tow it away, you don’t have to print this but info can be verified from either one.

  5. 1) eggers was clearly running away BEFORE you asked him about zeitoun in that video. maybe he doesn’t like having a camera shoved in his face. rather than indicating his cowardice, i think it just indicates that you were being annoying.

    2) there is nothing threatening about that lawyer note. seems really clear and even somewhat friendly to me, and probably to any other uninvolved party else who reads it.

    3) all this zeitoun foundation grant-money stuff seems like a matter of shoddy bookkeeping, amateur non-profit work. it’s commendable that you’ve taken the time to report on it, but it seems to me that you’re probably being paranoid.

    4) surely there’s something self-serving about making abdulrahman into a morally upstanding character for the sake of a story, but i also think it’s possible that eggers believed in the integrity his own portrayal of abdulrahman at the time. my point is that it doesn’t seem like some twisted plot to launder money. this mistake makes eggers kind of a shitty nonfiction writer, but not a criminal mastermind.

  6. When I found Eggers at the National Book Awards, he was near the red carpet where authors arrive and are obliged to talk with reporters who are covering the event (as I was). I waited about a minute before I went up to him, under the theory that if he did not voluntarily remove himself, he was still fair game. I said “Can I talk with you?” He agreed. It was at the word “Abdulrahman” that Eggers clearly ran away.

    It might help, “Anonymous,” if you would reveal your real name rather than hide behind anonymity so that we can have a transparent conversation. I should point out that ever since the first story ran in August, I have been plagued by sock puppets and other strange communications. My interest here is merely finding out what Jableh LLC is and why Eggers hasn’t addressed Kathy’s testimony. These are reasonable journalistic inquiries. This is the way in which adults communicate with each other.

  7. A quick search through your blog brings up comments like this–

    “But, of course, since Dave Eggers is so incapable of revealing a single flaw about himself and since Dave Eggers is incapable of subjecting himself to a single critical question, he may be a positive force for philanthropy, but he is ultimately a dishonest, self-serving man who too many people don’t have the guts to call on the carpet. (826 Valencia has been known to provide funds to literary magazines who desperately need the money. This ensures that critical voices will be silenced. And indeed, at least three people have informed me of pieces critical of Eggers or 826 Valencia being silenced for reasons along these lines. And, no, you won’t get their names from me. Not even if you waterboard me at Guantanamo.)”

    –among many other fierce and ranty diatribes against the dude. This would allow a reader to conclude that a) You’re not a reasonable journalist but a snarky guy who likes to push the buttons of writers you have a problem with, only to retreat into “But it’s just an honest journalistic inquiry” and b) it would be foolish, if one were say a published writer, to call attention to this and cite it with one’s name, thus turning such snarky button-pushing onto oneself.

    A nonprofit appears to be run sloppily, although not dishonestly. The subject of a book went on to be accused of nasty things, and the author doesn’t want to talk about it. If these things annoy you, that’s cool, it’s, like, your journey, man. But they’re not subjects of honest journalism, particularly when practiced by someone who clearly already had an axe to grind.

  8. Yet another anonymous pro-Eggers commenter originating from the Bay Area. Is that you, Dave? Anyway, the timing is interesting, given that there was a discovery hearing on December 7th.

    So, “none,” you quote a post from 2009, but refuse to cite anything beyond that. Could it be that I’ve changed my tune in three years? Or do you retain a preposterous belief that humans remain rigid? Just for the rec, this report, and my August investigation into The Zeitoun Foundation, made multiple efforts by phone, email, and in person to get Eggers and McSweeney’s on the record to respond to these many charges. I fail to see how this is anything less than a fair, honest, and reasonable effort to hear Eggers’s side of the story. It is Eggers who remains the unreasonable one. If he wants to communicate like an adult, then I’m still happy to talk with him.

  9. Ha! Sorry, not Dave. I’d invite anyone reading this to search through your site for your comments on Eggers and then hazard a guess as to why he doesn’t want to talk to you. Nothing unreasonable about it.

  10. Ha, I wish I’d waited to answer until today. Then I could have said something like, changed your tune? You can’t praise an AM Holmes novel without a gratuituous slap at Eggers, and then you wonder why he doesn’t want to be in your Youtube video??

  11. You can’t spell AM Homes’s name correctly. You also don’t have the guts to use your real name.

  12. I thought I was being discreet, rather than gutless. As I understand blogs, my identity isn’t invisible to you, anyway, only your readers, from whom I’d prefer keeping my email address secret. In any case I don’t know anything personally about Zeitoun or the Foundation.

    It seems fair to admit that I know the guy, which makes me not a disinterested party. That would make two of us. Any reader of this blog can see that you don’t like Eggers or his work, and in fact seem to go out of your way to insult him. Shouting questions at him at a celebration is therefore not an act of responsible journalism, and refusing to answer those questions is not running from the truth.

    My apologies to Homes for the typo. I like her work a lot. Although while we’re nitpicking, we both got her name wrong; there’s a period after each of the first two initials.

  13. none: You cannot use your real name. You are not contributing to the conversation. The laughable attempts to intimidate me by calling me and hanging up have only encouraged me to dig up more facts. I’ve discovered some interesting details. Because you prefer abuse to dialogue, I’ve banned your IP. If you want to use your real name and act like an adult, email me and I’ll reinstate it.

  14. I don't have to give my real name, Ed March 26, 2013 at 10:33 am

    No person is 100 % “good” or “bad.” It’s possible for a man to save lives during a flood, and assault his wife years later, or have assaulted his wife for years. You speak loudly about rigorous journalism — so then, why should we be so ready to accept in totality Kathy Zeitoun’s testimony? Perhaps it is just an instinctual reaction manifested out of human compassion, to take the victim’s word. I am sure you do not require reminding that a person is innocent until proven guilty, which is why this narrative is unfolding in a courtroom, just as it should.

    There are myriad possibilities as to why Eggers did not want to answer your question. The most blatant one being that you are an internet blogger. How many journalists were on that red carpet? How many of them had more credibility than yourself? How many of them exercised some tact and respect when asking their questions? Just because you ask does not mean he is obliged to answer. It is possible that Eggers feels a deep betrayal and confusion over his relationship with Zeitoun. It is possible that he is concerned for Kathy while also in disbelief that this could have been going on, and anxious about his likely involvement in the court hearings. Journalists don’t have a RIGHT to answers, but they do have a right to ask them. You tried, man.

    On a final note: please don’t condescend to me for using an anonymous name. Like, a little modicum of privacy, ‘ya know?

  15. […] the couple’s five children.  Since the incidents came to light last year, Dave Eggers has kept silent and refused comment even when directly […]

  16. Anonymous Supporter October 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Having just finished reading “Zeitoun”, I still see Mr. Zeitoun as a hero. Can no one believe that what happened to him and his family could be a direct result of the mental stress and anguish the family suffered at the hands of the government that should have protected them??!?!? I feel incredible sorrow for him, and his family.

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