"...in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime...
"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
These two quotes appear in the forward of Zeitoun and can be considered to be both related directly to Zeitoun himself and the overall themes of the book. The McCarthy quote is evocative of the breakdown in sanity, morality and law in the aftermath of Katrina. Zeitoun, Ronnie, Todd and Nasser are all innocent man who are indeed punished without having committing a crime. In choosing this quote, Eggers asserts the system itself is prone to corruption and that abuses of the innocent can occur when power is abused. The Twain quote speaks to Zeitoun's profession, work ethic, and personal drive. A painting contractor by trade, Zeitoun stays behind to oversee his properties and to deal with damage from the storm. He is known for his work ethic and attention to detail. Also, the "hammer" can refer to his faith and the "nail" the community; Zeitoun's devoutness and love of humanity keeps him tirelessly working for the greater good.
“[Zeitoun’s] frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves? If you got him started on the subject, it was the end of any pleasant meal.”
Here, Zeitoun expresses the frustration he feels when he encounters racist clients. This is a slippery passage, because the narrator uses free indirect discourse to express Zeitoun's thoughts about "some Americans." However, it also seems to express the narrator's opinions, since it becomes clear over the course of the novel that the author--as well as Zeitoun--has strong feelings against discrimination of any kind. These moments of unity, when the author and Zeitoun seem to express the same ideas at the same time, increase Zeitoun's appeal and moral authority, but also provide an opportunity for analysis of how the narrator and the main character differ.
“In late September, [Kathy] was in Walgreens when she finally saw a woman in a hijab. She ran to her. ‘Salaam alaikum!’ she said, taking the woman’s hands. The woman, a doctor studying at Tulane, had been feeling the same way, like an exile in her own country, and they laughed at how delirious they were to see each other.”
This brief and poignant vignette occurs in the weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Despite the vast differences in class--Kathy is the wife of a painter while the other woman is a doctor at the city's best university--the two women emotionally embrace their similarities. This experience parallels the national unity that many Americans described in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks. The fact that Kathy and the doctor experience this as a result of the venom that other Americans have shown them problematizes the patriotism that many people welcomed as a consoling by-product of the terrorist attacks. It also refers to the need people have for community in trying times. Zeitoun, Ronnie, Nasser and Todd stick together after they are arrested because they recognize they are stronger together.
“[Zeitoun's] grandmother had stayed put during countless storms in her home on Arwad Island, and he planned to do the same. A home was worth fighting for.”
Here, Eggers explains Zeitoun's obstinate refusal to evacuate New Orleans with his wife and children. Although a house may seem replaceable, Eggers suggests that it is actually symbolic of his assimilation in the United States--just as Zeitoun's grandmother refused to leave her home on Arwad Island, Zeitoun has now settled in New Orleans and will not leave it. This passage also helps to explain Zeitoun's resolve when his American-ness is called into question; rather than giving up on a country where he has faced discrimination, he continues to fight for the place that has become his home.
"Todd offered them beers. Zeitoun passed. Frank accepted and sat on the porch steps while Zeitoun went inside."
Without making his point explicit, Eggers draws attention to the casual ignorance about Islam that is present even in the Americans who are friendly to Zeitoun. With Todd Gambino's offer of alcohol--strictly forbidden in Islamic law--Eggers demonstrates that ignorance does not always result from malevolence, and that good intentions cannot replace genuine cultural understanding. It is also important to note that Zeitoun, interpreting these good intentions, does not feel the need to correct or embarrass Todd for his mistake.
“Ahmad must have met a thousand people during these trips, chiefly in the pursuit of someone to help him document that Ahmad Zeitoun, of Jableh, Syria, was here. Here in Tokyo. Here in America. Here in India.”
Although the narrator is apparently the source of this passage, remember that he is quoting Zeitoun using free indirect discourse. The urge to document and the compulsion to bear witness are important themes in the book; Zeitoun feels obliged to stay in New Orleans for the same reasons that Ahmad wants to see the world--he must bear witness. Indeed, he feels so strongly on this point that he believes he has a calling from God. Both Zeitoun and his brother want to experience what the world has to offer - even, in Zeitoun's case, the destruction brought on by a deadly storm - and also make their presences felt. When Zeitoun is interviewed by the television reporter, he hopes his siblings will see the piece. Zeitoun wants to do good works, but also wants to be recognized by his efforts.
“Look above you, at the stars and moon. How do the stars keep their place in the sky, how does the moon rotate around the earth, the earth around the sun? Who’s navigating?”
In an argument with his first boss about the existence of God, Zeitoun, then working as a sailor, silences his captain by comparing God's control of humanity to the control a ship captain has over the fates of his crew. This anecdote highlights an important point of tension in the text. Although Zeitoun was written for a largely liberal audience, Eggers must deal sensitively with Zeitoun's deep religious faith and occasional cultural conservatism, neither glossing over the devoutness nor alienating non-religious readers. He attempts to navigate this thorny dynamic by explaining Islam (and monotheism more generally) in secular terms, introducing the beauty of religious faith through the ship metaphor. This tale also reveals Zeitoun's persuasiveness and precociousness.
“[Kathy’d] had, she later admitted, an antique idea of Syria. She’d pictured deserts, donkeys, and carts—not so many busy, cosmopolitan cities, not so many Mercedes and BMW dealerships lining the highway heading north, not so many women in tight clothes and uncovered hair ... She’d assumed Syria was entirely Muslim, but she was wrong about this, and about so many things.”
Kathy's recognition of her own ignorance parallels the similar revelations she has when she first begins to research Islam. Her trip to Syria, then, can be seen as a second conversion scene, representing an intellectual conversion rather than a religious one. This reading is possible because Kathy's initial decision to practice Islam is not a rejection of Christianity; indeed, she appreciates the religion because of its theological similarities to her first faith. Just as Kathy does not seem to view religion as an either-or proposition, she is also able to embrace the beauty and nuance of a second culture without repudiating her own.
“Looking at it, Zeitoun realized that it was not one long cage, but a series of smaller, divided cages. He had seen similar structures before, on the properties of his clients who kept dogs. This cage, like those, was a single-fenced enclosure divided into smaller ones. He counted sixteen. It looked like a giant kennel...”
Zeitoun's comparison of Camp Greyhound to a kennel has strong symbolic significance. Dogs appear again and again in the novel as objects of compassion; Zeitoun risks his safety to feed his neighbor's dogs, and is sickened when he sees the carcasses of puppies who have been shot. By likening prisoners to dogs, the narrator insinuates that even though they have lost their dignity (whether by their own actions or by being mistreated by law enforcement), they still deserve compassion. It also emphasizes the extent to which prisoners at Camp Greyhound are dehumanized, robbed of every shred of privacy and dignity due to the invasive search procedures and horrid living conditions.
“[Kathy] had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules.”
Although the context of this quote would suggest that Kathy is only talking about the Zeitouns' struggles to survive Islamophobia, her use of the term "war" here is evocative and shifts her observations to a global stage. Her description of her family's conflict as involving "no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules" closely parallels the idea of 'asymmetrical warfare,' which became an important term during the war in Iraq and was sometimes used to justify human rights violations.
Zeitoun Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Zeitoun is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
One of Zeitoun’s older brothers, Mohammed was a champion ocean swimmer whose prowess made him a legend in Syria and the world in the 1960s. His death at the age of 24 (car accident) left an indelible mark of sorrow on the Zeitoun family.