The narration begins with the protagonist Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s recollections of nights spent fishing in his hometown of Jableh, on the coast of Syria. He remembers how the men would hold lanterns over the water to draw sardines to their rods. This only took place on moonless nights, as Abdulrahman’s older brother Ahmad told him, so that the fishermen could control the amount of light with their own lanterns.
Although the book takes place largely in New Orleans, Eggers uses the protagonist’s dreams and memories to toggle back and forth between the past and the present day, showing how Abdulrahman was shaped by his family and by the community where he grew up. The story Eggers is telling is a true one, but it is still relayed as a narrative, and so he uses lots of creative license in portraying the inner thoughts of his characters.
Once Abdulrahman was thirteen, and old enough to join them, he would enjoy paddling quietly with them, joking and whispering about women as they watched the fish rise beneath them, band motoring back to the shore before dawn. The fish broker in the market would pay them and sell the fish all over western Syria. Abdulrahman’s father had died a year earlier and his mother was sickly, but he loved this work enough that he’d do it for free.
Abdulrahman had to assume responsibility for his family at a young age, but he considered this responsibility a gift rather than a burden. It allowed him both to grow closer to his brother and to other coworkers, and to grow more comfortable with life on the sea. All these scenes relating to the sea foreshadow the tragedy we know is coming: the floods of Hurricane Katrina.
Thirty-four years later, in 2005, Abdulrahman wakes up in New Orleans, Louisiana, next to his wife Kathy. He lets the memories of Jableh recede. It’s 6 a.m., and he knows the peace and quiet won’t last long before the children awake.
Eggers shows that Abdulrahman’s memories and early family life are just as essential a part of his self as his current life and family, and also just how far he has traveled over the course of his life.
Kathy and Zeitoun (as most people call Abdulrahman, since they have trouble pronouncing his first name) run a painting and contracting company, so every day customers and crews begin to call at 6:30 in the morning. Kathy knows that a tropical storm is supposed to be coming north, so this Friday will be especially busy as clients make preparations. An older woman calls first, asking if the crew can come board up her windows.
Kathy and Zeitoun (as we will now call him) are immediately portrayed as partners, not only in marriage but in the business of painting and contracting as well. Part of this business is making and keeping relationships with other people, gaining their trust and being responsible for their well-being in times like these.
Kathy is the office manager, while her husband handles the building and painting: Kathy’s native Louisiana accent puts people at ease. She and Zeitoun have been married for eleven years. Zeitoun had arrived in New Orleans in 1994, and Kathy is from Baton Rouge, so hurricanes—like this one, named Katrina—don’t worry her too much.
With this brief overview, we learn that Kathy and Zeitoun are both well-established in New Orleans, even if to many people Kathy seems more local because of her Southern accent and whiteness. Here we get the first hints of the prejudice that affects many aspects of Zeitoun’s life, as it’s suggested that some people are made uncomfortable by his accent.
Kathy and Zeitoun’s children, Nademah, Aisha, and Safiya, are currently obsessed with the movie Pride and Prejudice, and they spend breakfast reciting the words (Zachary, Kathy’s son from her first marriage, is already at school). Zeitoun thinks they have more in common with Kathy in their playfulness and sense of drama.
We are starting to see Zeitoun as a more quiet, reserved counterpart to Kathy’s more exuberant personality, one which is reflected in the theatrical antics of their daughters. Eggers emphasizes the fact that their family is life is chaotic but happy, as later we will see how tragedy affects this dynamic.
Kathy worries about Zeitoun, who today, as usual, eats barely anything for his 12-hour shifts, and yet manages to maintain his weight. They squabble as Kathy tells him not to forget his phone, and she reminds him of the time he forgot newborn Nademah in the yard as he followed his wife into the house. Zeitoun is slightly resentful that Kathy always brings this up, but the event still epitomizes for him the difficulty he finds in balancing his obligations as partner and as protector.
Kathy and Zeitoun are portrayed as a loving couple, though one that has its fair share of normal marital issues, from bickering to worrying to small resentments. Kathy is clearly not one to keep any concerns inside, while Zeitoun’s worries do not seem to be as easily vocalized as his wife’s.
Already at 7:30 a.m., Zeitoun feels behind for work, so he rushes out the door, stopping to kiss Aisha, who is begging him not to go. He isn’t particularly doting, but he never objects to the girls touching and jumping on him: he is both firm and pliant. For Kathy, his long-lashed eyes tend to disguise when he’s upset: though he is 13 years older than she is, those dreamful but discerning eyes had attracted her from the start.
Again, as a father Zeitoun is shown to be loving in a way different from what one might expect, due to his more reserved, retiring character. Although eyes are stereotypically thought to be the window into the soul, Kathy reflects on how the opposite is true for Zeitoun.
Kathy adjusts her hijab (headscarf)—a nervous habit of hers—as she watches Zeitoun leave. His white van has “Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor” painted on it, along with images of a paint roller and rainbow. Zeitoun had never been aware of other possible meanings of a rainbow, so he had been surprised after initially designing it to immediately get many calls from gay couples. At the same time, some potential clients were no longer interested once they saw the logo. Kathy had wondered if they should change the logo so as not to create misunderstandings, but Zeitoun had already created signs and stationery. Besides, he said, anyone who had a problem with rainbows would probably also have a problem with a Muslim-run company.
For the first time we learn that Kathy wears a hijab, the veil covering the head that is worn in particular by some (but not all) Muslim women. Indeed, both Zeitoun and Kathy are Muslim, a fact that contributes to the dark humor of Zeitoun’s remark about keeping the rainbow (a sign of LGTBQ rights) as his logo: his suggestion is that prejudice, fear, and discrimination can take any number of forms, so the best response is not to hide from it but rather to stare it in the face.
Zeitoun drives to work, still thinking of Jableh. His mother is no longer alive, and his brother Mohammed died young, but his other siblings are spread out through Syria, Spain, and Saudi Arabia, all successful in their professions and happily married.
Zeitoun continues to keep his family and his past in mind as he goes through his daily tasks, showing how important his parents and siblings continue to be for him, even if they are dead or thousands of miles away.
In the kitchen, Kathy gasps as she realizes the kids will be late for school, and she quickly bundles them into the minivan and heads across the Mississippi River to the West Bank. Kathy enjoys being able to have flexible hours and choose clients and jobs, but the disadvantages to running a business are growing, and she and Zeitoun work and worry constantly. They own six properties with eighteen tenants, and feel responsible for all their tenants’ well-being, as well as having to worry about maintaining their homes and paying and collecting from a huge variety of people.
Though Kathy at times seems as happy-go-lucky as her three daughters, it is clear that she is not as carefree as she might seem. Out of love, she worries and stresses about Zeitoun in particular, as well as about the welfare of her and Zeitoun’s tenants. Having put their trust in the couple, she believes, these tenants deserve a corresponding sense of trust and community.
Still, Kathy cherishes her family, and is thankful for being able to provide for her children, knowing that she’ll be able to send them to college. Kathy had grown up with eight siblings, and Zeitoun with twelve—neither of them had much. Kathy marvels at the maturity and intelligence of Nademah, their eldest child, who is ten, and recalls how cleverly (but endearingly) she had attempted to get out of doing chores when she was younger.
Like Zeitoun, Kathy has seen her life change markedly in the years since she was a child. In many ways, her and Zeitoun’s story is a classic “American dream” narrative, in which their perseverance, luck, and willingness to work hard have allowed them to become successful and to make a home for themselves in New Orleans. The fact that Zeitoun is a Middle Eastern immigrant makes their story even more inspiring, and makes it even more tragic later when he is the victim of so much discrimination.
In the car on the way to school, the radio is announcing that the storm heading into the Gulf of Mexico is a Category 1. Kathy hadn’t paid much attention to Katrina, since people often get worried about hurricanes heading to the city, but the storms often dissipate before even hitting the coasts. Nademah asks if they should worry, but Kathy reassures her.
Located on the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is particularly susceptible to extreme weather patterns, including hurricanes—which can be difficult to accurately predict. Kathy is shown here to be rational and level-headed.
After dropping off the girls, Kathy turns the radio back on, and hears that there are 110-mile-per-hour winds and storm surges in the Gulf. She calls Zeitoun and asks if he thinks it’s serious. “Really? I don’t know,” he replies. He prefaces many of his sentences with “really”—something that used to irritate her, but now she has to find endearing. They speak on the phone several times a day, their business talk interspersed with witty banter and exasperated needling.
Little by little, Kathy begins to lose her calm response to the news and question whether the approaching storm is in fact something to worry about. Eggers describes a number of details about Kathy and Zeitoun’s marriage, which is full of both love and the small irritations common to married life.
Kathy had grown up in Baton Rouge in a Southern Baptist family, so ending up as a Muslim married to a Syrian American and managing a painting and contracting business still surprises her. She had met Zeitoun when she was a recent divorcée and convert to Islam, and was uninterested in getting remarried. Now, however, she finds Zeitoun a deeply honest, hardworking, and devoted man—though they still have regular, spirited arguments about anything at all. Kathy speaks her mind about everything. Sometimes the kids grow anxious about their “fussing,” but it’s all in good spirit.
Kathy’s trajectory shows how personal identity and community can have less to do with one’s origins than with a common sensibility about how to see the world. If one created a bullet-point list describing Kathy and Zeitoun from the outside, according to where they come from, they couldn’t be more different—but it’s the values they share that matter more, even if their bickering seems at times to hide that commonality.
Across town, Zeitoun begins his first job of the day in the Garden District, where he greets his employee Emil, a painter from Nicaragua. Inside is Marco from El Salvador. Zeitoun’s employees are from all over the world, and his experience with them is usually positive, though his business has a high turnover rate, as many plan to spend only a few months in America before returning to their families. Some young workers are irresponsible, and Zeitoun tries to convince them to save money so as to live well and raise a family in the future, but the future seems not to be among their highest concerns.
As an immigrant himself, Zeitoun is acutely sensitive to the concerns of others who have landed in New Orleans, far from their families, and whose loyalties often are to those communities even more than to their adopted home. Zeitoun is also able to adopt a more mature approach, having succeeded in establishing an entire life in New Orleans, and wanting his employees to embrace this new community like he did.
Zeitoun gets a call from his brother Ahmad in Spain, who is worrying about the approaching storm. Ahmad had been a ship captain for 30 years, and had brought Zeitoun as a crewman to Greece, Lebanon, and South Africa. Zeitoun had then headed out on his own, traveling around the world until settling in New Orleans. Ahmad knows a good deal about storms, therefore, and Zeitoun listens, though doesn’t entirely agree, when Ahmad says they should leave town.
Ahmad’s calls will be a regular part of the narrative—despite the physical distance, he is always eager to keep in touch with his far-flung family members. Ahmad is the closest in age to Abdulrahman, and so was always his most direct role model, especially in the years they spent traveling around the world on ships. We see more of Zeitoun’s stubbornness here, even in the face of his brother’s advice.
Zeitoun’s next job is in the same neighborhood—their company often benefits from word of mouth. It is a beautiful, stately home, and Zeitoun admires its exquisite details, part of what makes him enjoy working in New Orleans so much. He checks in on his Bulgarian carpenter, Georgi, who is installing new molding.
Again, the many nationalities of Zeitoun’s workforce underline his embrace of the American “melting pot” ideal—here yoked to another part of American identity, that is, the specific architectural identity of each city.
Back in the car, Zeitoun hears more about the storm Katrina. He heads to the Presbytere Museum in Jackson Square, and then Kathy calls from home with a new job, also mentioning the high winds and approaching storm, though Zeitoun dismisses it.
In their constant contact throughout the day, Zeitoun and Kathy adopt a new topic to bicker about: the approaching storm and the reasons to worry or not.
Zeitoun is naturally stubborn, having been raised by a legendary sailor who had survived a number of difficult trials. His father, Mahmoud, had been born on Arwad Island off Syria, and began crewing as a teenager between Syria and Lebanon. In World War II, his ship had been hit by a fleet of German planes, and he was among only a few survivors who hid underwater until the Germans were satisfied that all the crew members were shot or drowned. Another time, Mahmoud was returning from Greece when the ship’s main mast cracked and the sail dropped into the water. While trying to fix it, it had broken entirely and Mahmoud had fallen into the ocean. He floated for two days before he washed ashore fifty miles north of Arwad Island.
Zeitoun’s stubbornness is a trait that will come up again and again throughout the book, both in its positive and negative ramifications. Here we see a possible source of this character trait in Zeitoun’s father Mahmoud, who managed to survive a ship bombing against all odds. This family story connects the Zeitoun family to broader world history—people often forget how large a role Syria and Lebanon played in both the First and Second World Wars.
Mahmoud couldn’t believe he survived. He quit sailing and moved his family to the mainland, to Jableh. He opened a hardware store, sent his children to the best schools, and taught the boys any trade other than sailing, which he didn’t want them to pursue. Some of his children did grow up to work on the sea, but Zeitoun followed his father’s trajectory in becoming first a sailor and then, to provide for his family, a stable builder.
Mahmoud’s own stubbornness did not survive his near-death experience unscathed—instead, he learned from this harrowing experience to change the way he lived. Still, moving his family to a coastal town shows that he could never totally free himself from being drawn to the water.
Zeitoun calls Kathy back. She is online and is tracking the storm, which has already killed three people in southern Florida and knocked out power for 1.3 million households. Zeitoun looks to the sky and sees nothing unusual, but he goes to Home Depot for supplies like plywood and rope anyway. In the parking lot a man, noticing Zeitoun’s van, introduces himself to Zeitoun as an electrician and gives him his card. Zeitoun admires his attitude.
The impending news of the storm has come to seem more serious than it had been earlier in the day: now it seems to be edging towards a natural disaster, at least in some parts of the country. Zeitoun chooses not to worry about this and instead draws solace from the fact that he’s well-known and respected in the community.
When he began working in New Orleans eleven years earlier, Zeitoun was hired by Charlie Saucier, who had built his own company from scratch. He wanted to leave it to his teenage son, but the son was lazy and ungrateful. Zeitoun didn’t have a car at the time, and instead biked to work. One day he had a flat tire, and had twenty minutes to make it four miles—he couldn’t leave the bike, so he threw the bike over his shoulders and started jogging. Charlie ended up passing him in the car, laughed, and told him to throw the bike in the back. Charlie told Zeitoun that in thirty years, he had never had such a good worker—others made excuses not to show up, and Charlie admired that Zeitoun did the opposite. Two years after that, Zeitoun was working for himself and had twelve employees.
Charlie Saucier is another example of the classic “self-made man” that is such an ideal in American culture. Zeitoun clearly admires and appreciates this ideal, as he can remember this anecdote so many years later. Here, Zeitoun’s stubbornness proves incredibly impressive to his boss—one of the positives of his stubbornness, of course, is Zeitoun’s hardworking nature and unwillingness to give up even when it’s more difficult to persevere. Such qualities help to explain Zeitoun’s own entrepreneurial success.
At noon Zeitoun heads to the Islamic Center downtown for the second of his five daily prayers, which the Qur’an asks Muslims to complete each day. Zeitoun worships at home but also wherever he happens to be during the day. On Fridays he stops at the mosque for a ritual gathering of Muslim men in the community called the jumu’ah. He begins with a ritual cleansing called wuduu, and then begins his prayers, asking God to guide him.
Zeitoun manages to fit his Muslim faith into the day-to-day operations of his business, and here we get a glimpse into another kind of community in New Orleans: that of American and foreign-born Muslims who gather together to pray. One of Eggers’ projects with the book is to make Islam more “relatable” to American readers who still might find it foreign or scary—mostly by portraying an “all-American,” self-made family man as also a devout Muslim.
Afterwards, Zeitoun calls Kathy, who says the storm looks like it’s turning into a Category 3. Zeitoun still thinks it will die overland or in the Gulf. Kathy’s friend Rob Stanislaw calls her, saying she’d be crazy not to leave. Rob’s husband, Walt, is stubborn like Zeitoun—both couples have been close for years—but even Walt wants to leave. Kathy is about to log off when she sees a news item about a family of five who had been sailing in the Gulf and is now missing at sea.
Category 3 means a much stronger storm than Category 1 (Category 5 is the strongest), and this shift means that many will now begin to take the approaching hurricane much more seriously. Kathy is shown to be a natural communicator, in near-constant contact with many friends and family members.
Kathy gets deeply affected by stories like these, and she calls Zeitoun to tell him that their friends are leaving. Zeitoun usually trusts Walt, but after hesitating, he tries to change the subject. Kathy breathlessly tells him about the family of five, but Zeitoun tells her that they’re not out at sea. He had spent a decade on ships—in 1988 he had finally come to the U.S. on an oil tanker, and began working in Baton Rouge for a contractor.
Kathy’s natural compassion and empathy makes her susceptible to such stories, made even worse by the fact that she can imagine her own family in this unfortunate family’s place. Still, Zeitoun refuses to have his heartstrings tugged by such a tale, preferring to remain stubborn and remind Kathy of his own sea experience.
Zeitoun had met a Lebanese American named Ahmaad in Baton Rouge, who became a close friend. One day Zeitoun asked Ahmaad if he knew any single women who might be appropriate for him. Ahmaad had married a woman named Yuko, an American whose family was Japanese and who had converted to Islam. Yuko had a friend whom Ahmaad had already introduced to a friend of his, but he told Zeitoun he’d let him know if this didn’t work out. Months later it hadn’t, so Ahmaad told Zeitoun about Kathy, an American who had converted to Islam, but who had a two-year-old son from a previous marriage. Zeitoun didn’t find that a problem, and admired the fact that Kathy would convert to Islam.
Here we learn more about Zeitoun’s process in settling into his new life in America—after years alone at sea, he wanted to have another person included in that new life. Even Zeitoun’s small initial community in Baton Rouge is strikingly diverse, a group whose families come from Syria, Lebanon, and Japan. Zeitoun’s faith is strong enough that it’s important for him to marry another Muslim, but he is open-minded in considering that person’s background.
Ahmaad gave Zeitoun the address of the furniture store where Kathy worked, and Zeitoun pulled into its parking lot one day to wait and watch for her. He saw a young woman wearing jeans and hijab, striking and young, walk right towards his car smiling. He was electrified, but then grew nervous as she came closer to his car—he ducked under the dashboard, but it turned out that her car was simply parked next to his.
Zeitoun is the opposite of Kathy’s impulsiveness—in fact, he’s so reserved, even timid, that he can’t imagine meeting a potential love interest without getting a sense for what she’s like first. Yet Kathy’s obvious cheerfulness and openness immediately attracts him.
Zeitoun told Ahmaad that he needed to meet Kathy. They agreed to meet at Ahmaad and Yuko’s house. Kathy immediately found Zeitoun attractive, though too conservative and too old for her. She also didn’t feel ready to marry again two years after a disastrous first marriage. She told Yuko she didn’t think it was a good fit, but over the next two years she saw Zeitoun occasionally, and he asked about her once in awhile. Meanwhile, as Zachary grew up, Kathy began to feel guilty that he didn’t have a father, and her feelings against marrying again began to fade.
Although the previous scene might have suggested it, Kathy’s and Zeitoun’s relationship is the opposite of love at first sight—instead, their narrative shows how love can develop slowly, over time, based on more than an electric attraction between two people. Here, Kathy’s strong love for her son and desire for a stable family contributes to her desire to marry Zeitoun as well.
Back in New Orleans, Kathy calls Zeitoun in the early afternoon about a problem with a client. She begins to fret about him driving across the city with a coming storm, and they start to bicker about it. Finally Kathy gets the better of him and Zeitoun laughs, saying he’ll call her later. Zeitoun heads over to the house, where a client has decided that she’s unhappy with the tangerine color she had chosen for a bathroom.
Kathy’s worry about her family clashes somewhat with Zeitoun’s independent streak and his commitment to his work above all. Still, their bickering never escalates into a dire, serious struggle—instead, they’re able to laugh off their differences.
Zeitoun’s work is never dull, what with people’s changing tastes and the subjective nature of the tasks. Once, a Southern woman in her sixties had seemed fine when on the phone with Kathy, but then had complained about non-white people working on the house. Kathy had laughed and told her it wasn’t possible, and the woman, though she continued to call to complain, finally resigned herself to watching the men. Other times, people would ask Kathy where Zeitoun was from, and with the response of Syria, would cancel their orders.
In some ways, the subjective nature of Zeitoun’s work is an occasion for laughter and bemusement, but sometimes the ugly side of this subjectivity shows through: discrimination and prejudice against Zeitoun and his workers because they are non-white. Zeitoun’s Middle Eastern heritage and Islamic faith also lead to suspicion among some people, especially after 9/11. This kind of Islamophobia will become more brutal and overt later in the story, but here Eggers reminds us that it was always present.
Usually Zeitoun laughs these events off, but once in awhile they bother him deeply. He loves the opportunities of America, but sometimes gets frustrated with Americans like a disappointed parent. He objects that whenever a Muslim—or an African-American—commits a crime, his or her faith (or race) is mentioned, whereas no one mentions the person’s religion if it’s a white Christian. Zeitoun often quotes a Qur’an passage emphasizing equality of men. Kathy admires his spirit, but doesn’t like him getting so worked up in front of the kids at dinner.
For Zeitoun, it’s difficult to reconcile the successful, happy life that he believes America has given him, with the attitude some Americans take against his very identity. The different expectations and assumptions that Americans have, depending on the skin color, religion, or ethnicity of the person concerned, seems to Zeitoun to fly in the face of true “American” values.
Zeitoun especially can’t stand anyone raising his or her voice to Kathy. One young woman had once asked Zeitoun for a quick turnaround, three days, for a painting job. Impressed with the job midway through, the woman had asked him to paint an office and bedroom too. But on the third day, Kathy called Zeitoun in tears, since the woman had called her yelling and cursing about the house not being ready for guests coming in. They had finished the initial job they said they’d do, but the client wanted the entire house done in five days—an impossible task. Kathy tried to reason with her, but the client continued to harangue her. Furious, Zeitoun drove to the client’s home and told the crew they were to leave immediately. He told the husband that no one spoke that way to his wife.
In cases like these, which aren’t as much about prejudice as about selfish and demanding attitudes, it’s no longer Kathy but Zeitoun who assumes the stronger, more vocal personality, refusing to allow his wife to be bullied by a customer. This turns out to be an unpleasant but inevitable aspect of running one’s own business—having to persevere despite the unexpected reactions and demands of the clients. Here, Zeitoun shows that for him, dignity and respect trump economic forces, such that he’s willing to give up a job rather than submit to rudeness on the part of a client.
Back at the room with the tangerine bathroom, Zeitoun calls Kathy back to run through prices, and notes the massive, antique tub in the bathroom. Kathy says it’s big but beautiful and he jokes that it’s like her. Kathy had been weight-obsessed when they’d met, binging and dieting dangerously. Zeitoun had insisted that she get beyond this, and now she jokes that she’s gone too far. She is grateful for the abaya, a shoulder-to-floor Islamic dress that she wears.
Here, it’s not bickering but teasing, pleasant banter that characterizes Zeitoun’s and Kathy’s conversations, buttressed by the underlying love between them. Kathy’s struggle with her body image shows another of the darker sides of American culture—the consumerist obsession with physical beauty and a certain body type, particularly for women.
At Kathy’s home, Melvin, a Guatemalan painter, knocks on the door to be paid before the weekend. They always pay swiftly (Zeitoun quotes the Prophet Muhammad, “Pay the laborer his wages before his sweat dries”), but Zeitoun prefers to pay on Sunday so that his employees don’t disappear over the weekend. But Kathy is soft, however, and pays him just this once.
Kathy and Zeitoun balance a need to keep their business afloat with compassion for their employees, a sentiment that for them stems from the teachings of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, counseling generosity and fairness.
On television, everything is about the impending storm. Kathy hears more about the family of five, the father a construction supervisor, who had gone missing. She calls Zeitoun and begs him to leave. He says she can go, but he’s staying. Zeitoun always has trouble leaving the business and relaxing. After threatening for years, Kathy finally packed up the kids and left for Florida one morning for a vacation without him. Zeitoun met them at home as they were piling into the car—Nademah had called to him to join, but he had been too stunned to move.
Here we see just how significantly Zeitoun’s stubborn nature can impact the family. Kathy, however, is stubborn in her own way, refusing to meekly submit to her husband’s wishes and instead making her own decisions for family affairs. Initially this determination surprises Zeitoun, but as we’ll see, he comes to appreciate this quality in his wife.
After that, Zeitoun understood that Kathy was serious. She continued to make plans, and once in awhile he would join, but only at the last minute. By 2002, though, Kathy wanted a real vacation. She slowly planned a ruse, saying that they would leave for their usual Florida trip the weekend after Christmas, which was always slow, so she knew Zeitoun would come along. As Zeitoun slept in the car, exhausted, Kathy simply kept driving all the way to Miami—17 hours. That way, there was no way for Zeitoun to sneak back to work. Now, Kathy smiles to herself as she remembers how well that plan worked.
Kathy and Zeitoun have settled into a way of managing Zeitoun’s unwillingness to leave his job, but Kathy has also found ways to get around Zeitoun’s obsession with work. She is shown to be just as determined as her husband, even if they may choose different priorities on which to persevere—this is another way that the couple, though quite different at first glance, aligns in terms of their values.
Kathy decides to head to the grocery store to stock up on basic supplies. She adjusts her hijab, bracing herself for the minor incidents of prejudice that she has faced increasingly after 9/11. In 2004, at a local high school, a tenth grader of Iraqi descent had been repeatedly harassed by a teacher, who said the student would “bomb us” if she returned to Iraq, and who had pulled back the girl’s hijab and said he hoped God would punish her. Though the student had filed a lawsuit, the school board decided simply to suspend the teacher for a few weeks and then return him to the classroom.
Kathy is in a position to be especially self-conscious of the discrimination she faces, since she can compare her treatment now to the way people treated her growing up, when she was Christian (although she is still white, of course, and so receives a different kind of discrimination from Zeitoun). The cases of prejudice that appear on the news, such as the anecdote she recalls now, are deeply personal for Kathy, who can imagine having to deal with similar issues because of her religion.
Since then, minor harassment of Muslims in the area has gone up. Teenage boys, for instance, would sneak up behind a woman, grab her hijab and run. This almost happened to Kathy when shopping one day with a friend, Asma, who was Muslim but didn’t wear the hijab. Asma alerted Kathy in time, but the kid’s group of friends cursed at Kathy as they fled. Kathy cursed right back at them, leaving them speechless.
Indeed, the threat of harassment is more than just abstract for Kathy: world affairs and changes in the national attitude towards the Muslim world have affected her on a personal level, as there are now many who distrust Muslims and think they can’t be “true” Americans.
After 9/11, Kathy had seen very few Muslim women in public, and though that they were probably hiding. In late September she finally saw another woman in a hijab in a Walgreens, and ran up to her to greet her. The woman, a doctor studying at Tulane, greeted her just as warmly.
The prejudice faced by Kathy after 9/11 has led to her embrace of a certain community, forged in solidarity not just because of a shared faith, but also against the threat of discrimination.
Today, at the grocery store, there are no such confrontations. Kathy soon leaves to pick up her daughters. The girls ask if they’re planning to leave to go to one of their cousins’ houses. All over the five o’clock news is footage of waves, uprooted trees, and flooded towns. Governor Blanco declares a state of emergency for Louisiana. Kathy feels rattled, and realizes it’s too late to make dinner. She calls Zeitoun to ask him to pick up take-out.
The suggestion of an impending storm that has trickled in on the news all day has now reached a high point, as the hurricane seems to be on a direct path for New Orleans. Although the authorities can track the storm and make predictions, they obviously can’t control it, one reason why Kathy is rattled.
At dinner, Zeitoun tells his daughters, who are picking at their food, to finish everything on their plates. He is still stunned by how disposable everything is in America, and how it feels like everything can be easily replaced. He tries to instill the value of work in his children, but worries that the waste and excess of the culture will rub off on them.
While Zeitoun has embraced his adopted country, there are still some cultural differences that remain difficult for him to overcome, especially given that his own children have never seen or experienced the kind of upbringing he had in Jableh.
After dinner, Kathy and the girls watch Pride and Prejudice yet again as Zeitoun does chores. Kathy is growing more anxious, but after the movie she turns on the news to learn that the family of five has been found, and had survived the storm. Kathy puts Zachary to bed and then the girls, who take turns telling parts of a goodnight story. Zeitoun watches from the doorway, finding the scene beautiful.
That night, the everyday activities of the family seem to calm Kathy, a feeling bolstered by learning that her husband and children are now home safe. These small, even banal details of family life are shown to be enormously comforting for both her and Zeitoun. Things seem to be looking up, but the family’s trials have only begun.