Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born in Jableh, Syria but now he lives in New Orleans with his wife, Kathy, and their four children. On this ordinary Friday morning, Zeitoun’s reminiscences about his youth in the waters off Syria are interrupted by the chaos of his children getting ready for school. He owns a successful painting contracting business that Kathy helps to manage, and work phone calls roll in early. This day, many of his clients want him to help board up their windows as a tropical storm is predicted to hit New Orleans within days.
Kathy fields the clients' requests while Zeitoun showers and gets ready for his day. Because she had a difficult childhood, she strives to be a good parent to her daughters, who are light-hearted and flamboyantly dramatic. She and Zeitoun indulge their passions which include, currently, repeat Pride and Prejudice viewings. No one is worried about Tropical Storm Katrina, since storms and even hurricanes are a common occurrence on the Gulf Coast.
On the way to school, Kathy and her daughters listen to radio news about Katrina, which has now been upgraded to a Category 1 Hurricane. Nademah, the eldest daughter, is worried but Kathy brushes off her concerns. Kathy reflects on happy memories of her life with the sometimes single-minded Zeitoun, including when he accidentally forgot newborn Nademah. Focussed on Kathy's comfort when returning home from the hospital, Zeitoun left Nademah, in her carseat, on the yard. On the ride home, Kathy banters playfully on the phone with Zeitoun and we learn that she was raised a Southern Baptist and converted to Islam prior to meeting him.
At work in the Garden District, Zeitoun jokes around with his crew of painters, transient laborers from many different countries. He talks on the phone with his older brother Ahmad, a ship captain who warns him that Katrina may be more serious than it appears. Kathy also calls with her worries about Katrina, but Zeitoun remains unperturbed. His father Mahmoud, a sailor in his youth, always survived. One miraculous tale of survival led Zeitoun's father to forbid his children to live on the sea. However, the entire Zeitoun family is drawn to the water and, when moving the family to Jableh, Mahmoud was only satisfied with a home facing the sea.
Zeitoun reflects on his early days in New Orleans. Unable to afford a car, he rode a bicycle to his jobs at construction sites. One day, the bike got a flat tire and Zeitoun panics. His boss, Charlie Saucier, saw Zeitoun running to get to work on time—carrying the bicycle on his back—and promoted him. Back in the present, Zeitoun stops by the Islamic Center to say his afternoon prayers. He receives another phone call from Kathy, who is genuinely worried about Katrina and fixates on a story of an evacuating family lost at sea. Even though it is now a Category 3 Hurricane, Zeitoun believes the storm will weaken over the Gulf of Mexico as most storms do.
In another flashback, Zeitoun remembers the ten years he spent traveling the world while working odd jobs on ships. When he settled down in America, he found construction work in Baton Rouge. At 34, he was ready to marry. Many of his friends in the Islamic community introduced him to women they knew, but none sparked his interest until he met Kathy. Zeitoun was immediately intrigued because she was a convert and had been previously married, a union that resulted in her two-year-old son, Zachary. Although Kathy, then 21, was initially averse to marrying the much older Zeitoun, she was eventually charmed by his solid, sincere personality and the idea of Zachary having a dependable father figure.
Zeitoun must make another stop at the end of the day, at the home of a woman who is unhappy with the tangerine color she chose for her bathroom. Although most of his customers are easy to work with, some of them refuse to employ Zeitoun when they find out that he is Syrian—an uncommon problem that nevertheless gets under Zeitoun’s skin.
Unnerved by the details of the family lost at sea - the father is in construction - Kathy shops for groceries and prepares to evacuate. Muslim women who wear the hijab are occasionally harassed, and she remembers a time that a teenager tried to pull her hijab from her head. She surprised the young girl by swearing at her in perfect English. That night, the Zeitouns eat dinner and share a loving moment together as the daughters fall asleep. Kathy is relieved to hear the family is rescued and Zeitoun takes comfort in the sight of his beautiful family.
Although Zeitoun is a work of nonfiction, the choices Eggers makes about which details to include can nevertheless be interpreted as in fiction. In the first section of the book, Eggers alternates between Zeitoun’s ordinary daily activities and memories of his past. This structural decision eliminates any monotony that might otherwise come with the exhaustive description of a day in the life of a painting contractor, since the flashbacks are often dramatic or striking. These "flashbacks" also often have narrative, character or thematic significance. The memories highlight Zeitoun's sense of family, love of adventure, stubbornness and repeated motifs of the sea and its capacity for peril.
This strategy also helps build suspense about the greatly publicized outcome of Hurricane Katrina. Eggers deliberately employs this strategy to aid the reader in understanding characters through the lens of their experiences, hardships and victories. In a similar technique, Eggers decreases the length of the vignettes as the chapter progresses, switching from past to present ever more frequently as the story continues. This increases the “tempo” of the narrative, further heightening suspense and reflecting the growing tension the characters experience as they anticipate - and miscalculate the threat of - the storm. This is especially helpful when examining a well-known historical event. The looming, inevitable destruction of Hurricane Katrina boosts the dread, lending a sense of tragedy to a potentially prosaic day-in-the-life retelling.
Eggers also introduces the theme of prejudice in this section, which will be important throughout Zeitoun. Early on, he recounts how Zeitoun incorporated a rainbow into his company’s logo, unaware of this symbol's significance among the gay rights movement. Rather than changing the logo, though, Zeitoun deduces that customers who would turn away business because of the rainbow's supposed meaning would likely not employ Muslims either. This telling anecdote emphasizes that many different groups face discrimination, and Zeitoun’s story is not only applicable to the Middle Eastern community, but is universal. This “message” is reinforced by Zeitoun’s later complaints about how African-American criminals are depicted in the media.
Indeed, the media is powerful and omnipresent in Eggers’ New Orleans. In one of her memories, Kathy is subjected to religious harassment in direct proportion to the amount of negative press regarding Muslims on local and national news. Kathy also latches on to the tale of a missing family who were last seen evacuating Florida by boat. The constant updates on both radio and television prey on her own fears for her family. This will be echoed by the phone call updates Zeitoun promises after Katrina. Similarly, Zeitoun is reluctant to evacuate New Orleans because the media so often raises alarm about storms that, in the end, turn out to be relatively harmless. The media is not always to be trusted, but still has the capability to stir one's emotions.
The presence of the media in Zeitoun is true to the experiences of both the real people on which the story is based, but it also offers an additional perspective to the story. Most Americans outside of the Gulf region watched the storm and its aftermath unfold on television. All information about the storm was filtered through sometimes-sensational, 24-hour news channels, and these remain the most salient images of the catastrophe for many who did not witness it directly. The relationship with the media is complex, but universal. Zeitoun is not simply a story of one family; it can be considered a broader exploration of the nation in relation to an event in recent American history.