Zeitoun Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss Kathy's conversion to Islam. How does it relate to the broader themes of the novel?

    Kathy's conversion to Islam is driven by an intellectual interest the faith as well as a search for a sense of personal security following a trying time in her life. Once she makes an earnest effort to learn about the faith, she realizes that Islam is theologically very similar to Christianity, and many of her assumptions about the religion were wrong. Kathy's curiosity and open-mindedness are an example of Eggers' broader point that society is better and more tolerant when people "listen carefully" (321).

  2. 2

    Eggers dwells on Zeitoun's daily ritual of feeding his neighbor's dogs. Why might this be significant?

    In almost every chapter, Eggers takes care to mention Zeitoun's visits to his neighbor's homes to feed their dogs. His empathy for animals contrasts starkly with the brutality that the prison guards demonstrate toward humans. It also relates to the fact that Zeitoun is dehumanized during his time in prison. Eggers suggests that even if a person has lost their dignity--whether by committing crimes or by being mistreated by others--they still deserve to be treated compassionately.

  3. 3

    Eggers relates the events of Zeitoun from multiple perspectives. What are the effects of his different modes of narration?

    Most of the book is related from the limited perspectives of either Kathy or Zeitoun. This enables Eggers to withhold information, recreating the suspense and anxiety that his subjects felt when they were unable to communicate with one another. When he switches to an omniscient perspective in Part V, it becomes clear that the information presented is the result the research conducted by Eggers and not from his interviews with Kathy and Zeitoun. This is in part an act of journalistic accountability, but it also roots the narrative in reality. By writing in a more distant, objective style, Eggers emphasizes that the story is nonfiction and that its 'messages' can be applied in real life and have broader implications.

  4. 4

    What is the symbolic significance of the mentally disabled man who is pepper-sprayed at Camp Greyhound?

    This anecdote serves a clear purpose to educate readers about authoritative brutality after Hurricane Katrina. However, it is also an instance of cruelty to someone who has been dehumanized--in this case, by the guard's behavior as well as his own; the young man constantly yells out admonitions and seems unaware of his surroundings. There is a parallel here to Zeitoun's disgust at the way dogs are left to starve after the disaster, and also his own loss of dignity at the hands of his captors. The abuse of power is evident in the guards' treatment of someone who is defenseless and likely innocent of the crime he is accused of.

  5. 5

    What is the function of the photography motif that appears throughout Zeitoun?

    Images of cameras appear over and over in the book. The most prominent uses of cameras are, of course, by the media, who often photograph problems without trying to help. Zeitoun is disgusted by this, but he and his friends use cameras themselves--Todd photographs the damage to his home, and Zeitoun hopes that his television interview will be seen by his family. The act of bearing witness, it seems, is a good one, but it can easily be corrupted when it is done excessively. Photographs also trigger memories, which trigger flashbacks within the narrative to Zeitoun's childhood in Syria. These flashbacks aid in creating a complete picture of Zeitoun - something that pictures, without context, are unable to convey on their own. This limitation also refers to the media's sensationalistic reportage of rumors during Katrina.

  6. 6

    Many nonfiction writers feel the need to simplify their material. Why does Eggers introduce so many of the Zeitouns' family friends, many of whom do not play an important role in the story?

    Eggers' extremely detailed rendering of the Zeitoun's social circle serves dual purposes within the book. Most importantly, it emphasizes Zeitoun's connections to the New Orleans community despite the fact that he is an immigrant, and helps to explain why he is so reluctant to leave. It also lends the book an air of veracity and completeness; that is, if Eggers took the time to recreate the Zeitoun's social circle with such accuracy and detail, surely he must have done the same for the rest of the book. Establishing this trust between author and reader is critical, because many elements of Zeitoun's time in prison were difficult or impossible to fact-check.

  7. 7

    Discuss Eggers' portrayal of Zeitoun's faith.

    Religious faith serves as a primary drive for Zeitoun, but it is also a potentially alienating topic. Eggers has acknowledged that part of the book's purpose was to show that Islam is not sinister as it is often misrepresented in post-9/11 media. In his attempts to appeal to a largely secular or Christian audience, Eggers emphasizes the similarities between Islam and Christianity, and depicts the Zeitouns as very Westernized and liberal. He refrains from introducing Zeitoun's social conservatism until relatively late in the book, allowing readers to identify with him before bringing in a possibly challenging aspect of his character. However, he also depicts Zeitoun's devoutness in depth in Parts IV and V, transcribing passages from the Qur'an and describing the difficulties Zeitoun has keeping halal in prison. Zeitoun's faith anchors him and encourages him to try to do the best for his community and family.

  8. 8

    How does Kathy subvert gender stereotypes?

    In Zeitoun, Eggers depicts Kathy as someone who subverts all kinds of gender stereotypes, including those associated with both American and with Muslim women. She is an equal partner in her household and her business. When she is challenged, she is neither submissive nor polite, cursing at a teenager who tries to pull off her hijab and shouting down a bureaucrat who refuses to give Zeitoun his wallet. She thinks critically about gender; although some Americans associate the hijab with oppression of women, she believes it actually imbues Muslim women with dignity.

  9. 9

    Think about the structure of Zeitoun. Why are Parts III and V so short?

    Parts III and V both represent departures from Eggers' characteristic mode of storytelling. While he usually alternates between multiple perspectives, he relates the events of Part III entirely from Kathy's perspective. This gives him an attempt to focus on her subjectivity--which has thus far received less attention than Zeitoun's--while also emphasizing her profound fear and anxiety about her husband's fate. Part V represents another shift in perspective; it is told by an omniscient narrator, rather than one who is limited to Zeitoun and Kathy's points of view. This is appropriate because it reveals information that Zeitoun and Kathy could not know, helping to elevate the story to a more universal story with implications broader than those concerning solely the Zeitoun family. It also makes it clear that the opinions expressed in the conclusion are those of Eggers, rather than his subjects.

  10. 10

    What role do the flashbacks to Zeitoun's life in Syria play in the book?

    These flashbacks exist partly to render Zeitoun as a fully rounded character, as any literary writer has an imperative to do. However, they also fulfill Eggers' responsibility to represent Zeitoun's foreignness. Although he sometimes downplays the legitimate differences between Islam and American Christianity or secularism, the same cannot be said of Zeitoun's life experience, which is rendered in intimate detail. These flashbacks also recreate for the reader the same experience that Kathy has when she visits Syria. Like Kathy, many Americans have antiquated notions of what the modern Middle East is like. By describing life in Syria in detail, Eggers inspires in his audience the joy of discovery that Kathy experienced, and in doing so, shows firsthand the rewards of curiosity.