Eggers emphasizes that the chief cost of disaster--be it natural or man-made--is the way it robs individuals of their dignity. Both victims and those who abused their power lose a sense of humanity. After Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun observes that although the old woman he rescues will survive the storm, she has lost her dignity. When he himself is imprisoned, he objects the most to procedures which dehumanize him and efface his dignity, such as the strip searches and being served pork, which is forbidden in Islam. Independently of the hurricane, Kathy appreciates Islam because she believes its principles of purity and chastity endow women with dignity. Indeed, her worst encounters with prejudice are ones where her dignity is affronted--for example, when a teenager tries to pull of her hijab, or her sister refuses to shelter Adnan and Abeer because they are Muslim.
Although it turns out that the police who arrest Zeitoun are not actually racist, Eggers makes it clear that Islamophobia influenced Zeitoun's experiences during Katrina (as well as the family's life before). While in prison, Zeitoun is accused of being a member of both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Meanwhile, Kathy's hijab causes tensions between her and her sisters, with whom she stays during the storm. Eggers acknowledged in an interview that one of the purposes of the book was to combat Islamophobia by showing Americans that Muslims are "average people" just like themselves (Whitman). Especially in portraying Zeitoun's familial experiences in Syria, Eggers paints a complete picture of a man who is more than the sum of his faith or country of origin.
One of the reasons that Zeitoun wishes to stay in New Orleans is so he can bear witness to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. This compulsion is depicted in different ways throughout the novel, ranging from childlike exploration to an unbearable duty. Indeed, Zeitoun itself can be read as an act of bearing witnesses to its subject's ordeal in prison, which received scant media coverage after the fact and might otherwise have faded into obscurity.
Humans and animals
After Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun repeatedly demonstrates compassion for animals, taking time to feed them and give them water. When he is incarcerated, he compares Camp Greyhound to a kennel, and feels that he has lost his dignity and humanity at the hands of the guards. The narrative of Zeitoun, then, can be seen as having a corrective effect: Eggers takes great pains to humanize Zeitoun, while emphasizing the cruel and animalistic behavior of the prison guards who tormented him.
Distortion of reality by the media
Throughout the aftermath of the hurricane, Kathy and Zeitoun remain deeply suspicious of the media coverage of the disaster. They believe that the reports of violence are exaggerated and influenced by racist assumptions about the largely African-American population who stayed behind after the evacuations. Images of photography appear repeatedly, and the people behind the cameras are almost always portrayed negatively. At one point, Zeitoun sees a news helicopter photographing a floating body but not stopping to see if the man is alive or needs help. The characters' apprehensive attitude toward the media complicates their own desire to bear witness to the disaster; they believe that the individual impulse is a good one, but suspect that it has been corrupted in its institutionalized form. This echoes the treatment Kathy and her Muslim friends were subjected to when sensationalized reports aired after 9/11.
The importance of home
Zeitoun remains fiercely attached to his home even when it is clear that it will not survive the hurricane. When Kathy is unaware of Zeitoun's incarceration, she begins to think about alternative homes for her daughters. Notably, the only one that seems adequate is Jableh, Syria, where they would be entrenched in the Zeitoun family's history despite being there themselves. Eggers suggests, then, that home is a place to which one has a personal connection, and it need not be where a person was born. Nor can it be replaced, and this impossibility drives the characters to return to New Orleans in the second half of the book. This helps to drive the story into a larger context to, as when confronted with the very personal loss of Zeitoun's home, the reader can imagine the losses of other victims of Hurricane Katrina. This helps promote empathy with those affected by the storm.
The complexity of gender roles
Although Kathy's family believes that her hijab is an instrument of oppression, Eggers represents the complexity of stereotypes about gender and Islam. Kathy plays an important administrative role in her husband's business, and is more confrontational than he is in seeking restitution for his time in prison. On the other hand, Kathy's Southern Baptist mother played a much more submissive role in her family growing up. Arguably, Kathy takes an even more dominant role in the family after the hurricane, spearheading the lawsuit and the efforts to get the FEMA trailer removed from their yard. Zeitoun portrays gender relations as fluid and highly specific to individual relationships.
The widespread corruption in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was the fault of not one person or agency, but rather a lack of leadership and responsibility. FEMA's criticized response to the storm featured a full breakdown of communication left unchecked by either national or local authorities. Zeitoun, among others wrongfully incarcerated, bore the brunt of the corruption; abuses and indignities are perpetrated by those who are unable to see what is right. Zeitoun is both a personal exploration of one man who always chooses to be good and an investigation of a system capable of subverting humanity.
Zeitoun Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Zeitoun is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.