Zeitoun Summary and Analysis of Part I: Saturday, August 27––Tuesday, August 30


When they wake up on Saturday, Kathy and Zeitoun hear that Hurricane Katrina has the potential of becoming a Category 5 storm. Only three hurricanes of this magnitude have hit land before, and never in New Orleans. Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA), urges residents to flee inland. A voluntary evacuation is ordered. Kathy insists again, but still Zeitoun wants to remain in order to secure his job sites and watch their home. She leaves with the children, heading to Baton Rouge to stay with her two sisters.

On the long, traffic-clogged drive, Kathy reflects on the complicated relationship her family has with their Muslim daughter. Her mother criticizes Kathy’s hijab, but defends her right to wear it to anyone outside the family who questions it. Although she loves her family, Kathy was often neglected as a child, and would run away to her friend Yuko’s house. Yuko's mother Kameko would bathe Kathy and give her the loving attention she craved. The childhood friends worked together at a Dunkin’ Donuts after high school, where Yuko's interest was first piqued by Islam. Two Malaysian women who frequented the shop offered their knowledge of the religion, and Yuko soon converted.

After divorcing her first husband, Kathy began to investigate Islam because Yuko seemed so happy in her new religion. She learned that Islam was actually very similar to Christianity in its main figures and tenets. Her decision to convert was cemented by negative experiences in her large evangelical church, where the preacher shamed the congregation for not donating enough money and made derisive comments about Muslims and their religion. The open-ended and philosophical nature of Islam appealed to Kathy, as did the emphasis on personal responsibility and dignity.

In New Orleans on Sunday, August 28, Hurricane Katrina gets ever more dire. It is now a Category 5 storm, and Mayor Nagin orders a mandatory evacuation. Zeitoun still refuses to evacuate, worried about damage to his home. He is suspicious about the construction of the levees surrounding the city, which he is worried will break. Kathy tries to call her husband but is only able to get through briefly.

Before the storm begins in earnest, Zeitoun notices damage to his home. There are leaks in the ceilings; a window breaks. He realizes that his neighborhood might flood, so he gets his old canoe ready to use if necessary. He reminisces how, after buying it from a client, he had tried to interest his daughters in canoeing to no avail.

Although Zeitoun’s home suffers mild damage, he is able to go outside in a period of calm. The streets are covered in eighteen inches of water, so he paddles a few blocks in the canoe, since he might never get the chance to do so again. He concludes that the damage to his neighborhood is not too severe and will be cleaned up within a few days. Meanwhile, Kathy and the children suffer a power outage in Baton Rouge. On Monday, Zeitoun suggests his wife and kids return, but Kathy chooses to ride out the family tension at her sister's house. Zeitoun's friend Adnan phones and inquires about a place for he and his pregnant wife Abeer to stay in Louisiana. Zeitoun gives Adnan Kathy's number and suggests Baton Rouge.

The next morning is calm, and Zeitoun reminisces about his idyllic childhood on Arwad Island with his brother Ahmad. He is awakened by the sound of water rushing past his house.


This section complicates the family relationships that were introduced in the first section. We learn that Kathy’s family was outright cruel to her when she first converted to Islam, and they continue to indulge in small jabs at her faith like asking her to take off her hijab and serving her children hot dogs, which contain pork and are therefore forbidden. Nevertheless, her family unites when faced with an outside threat; they stay together in Baton Rouge during the hurricane, and Kathy recalls a time that her mother berated a DMV employee who asked her to remove her hijab.

This problematic family dynamic parallels the political situation that will soon entrap Zeitoun. Although superficially, Americans seem to unite in the face of a disaster, they do not forget old prejudices, and this new unity does not actually improve the lives of society’s less fortunate—be they the impoverished residents of the Ninth Ward, or Muslims who face discrimination.

Eggers devotes significant space to describing Kathy’s conversion to Islam.

It is notable that she leaves one deeply religious culture to move directly into another. It is clear that she values Islam not simply for its theology (in fact, she emphasizes its similarities to Christian theology over its differences), but also because of the culture. A faithful woman, Kathy was disheartened by the evangelical church she attended during a period of soul-searching following her divorce. She approached the culture around the church with distaste, reacting negatively to the materialism and bigotry she was subjected to. Kathy ultimately embraces Islam because of its values and bent towards social justice, attracted to the culture of decency she felt lacking in her own life. The religious conversion is also a cultural conversion. This exploration into Kathy's faith, especially with the attention paid to similarities between Christianity and Islam, serves one of the overall themes of the book - Islamophobia. It offers a Western point of view to an predominately Eastern faith devoid of the sensationalism usually trumped up by the media. Zeitoun can be viewed as a tale of tolerance.

In this section, Zeitoun is portrayed as extraordinarily helpful and altruistic, offering to help Adnan lock up his restaurants, and encouraging his workers to leave town while he secures the job sites himself. By dwelling on these details, Eggers establishes Zeitoun’s strength of character early on, lending extra credibility to the man’s unusual heroism after Katrina wreaks its full damage—a heroism that might otherwise seem exaggerated, given its magnitude and how few people behaved similarly in the aftermath of the hurricane.

The flashbacks in this section become increasingly idyllic. There are long interludes describing Zeitoun’s storybook childhood on Arwad Island. Even Kathy’s gritty upbringing is rendered with some nostalgia, with Eggers focusing on the love she found at Yuko’s house rather than the neglect she faced at her own. There is stark contrast between the family’s former happiness and the ominous scenes in which Zeitoun prepares for Katrina. Indeed, their separation during the disaster is the source of more dread than the disaster itself—a fact that foreshadows the difficulties they will have as they try to reunite.