The next day is bright and sunny in New Orleans. Zeitoun sees only an underwater city for miles in every direction, and he thinks of Noah’s Ark and the Biblical forty days of rain. Finally a helicopter pierces the absolute silence. Zeitoun eats some cereal he’s salvaged from the kitchen, but then feels restless and trapped. Then he remembers the canoe, and he imagines exploring the new, uncharted world of the submerged city streets. As he takes the canoe and paddles down Dart Street, Zeitoun feels peaceful amidst the city’s absolute stillness.
The story of Noah’s Ark initially comes to Zeitoun’s mind because of the disastrous flooding that surrounds him, a natural disaster that seems, like the Biblical story, to be without parallel. But the story of Noah’s Ark is also one of one man’s dignity and courage in saving the few people and animals he could. It is this aspect of the story that will prove important to Zeitoun—until he is interrupted by a new and uniquely human kind of tragedy.
Zeitoun is overwhelmed as he passes unsalvageable bicycles and cars: he imagines there must be over 100,000 lost, and wonders what will happen when the water recedes. No one, even those who had left, had prepared for this. He thinks about the animals in the city’s homes and zoos that have surely drowned.
Again, as in the Biblical story, it is this modern-day Noah who is the only person left (at least, that’s the way it seems to Zeitoun) to witness all the destruction and to try to imagine a way forward.
Zeitoun is torn between his feeling of adventure, which makes him want to explore and witness the city, and his experience as a builder, which makes him decry how long rebuilding will have to take.
Zeitoun’s sense of adventure stems from his years on the seas, but he also has a sense of responsibility that makes him acutely aware of the extent of the destruction.
As Zeitoun turns south on Vincennes Place, he sees a client, Frank Noland, leaning out of his second-floor window. It still feels strange for Zeitoun to be able to paddle into someone’s yard and appear under the window. Frank asks if Zeitoun knows of any place that might be open and selling cigarettes—Zeitoun is skeptical. Frank points to his beloved motorcycle, now submerged under six feet of water.
Frank Noland seems relatively cheerful and in good spirits despite the destruction—he seems to have accepted the loss of his beloved motorcycle, though his humorous remark about cigarettes suggests that he feels graver and more desperate under the surface.
Frank asks Zeitoun to take him to check on his truck, and Zeitoun agrees to do so before going to one of his rental properties. A few blocks away, they catch sight of the truck, which is under five feet of water, and totally useless.
Again, Frank’s experience is emblematic here: an experience of sudden material loss, in response to which there’s little to say.
Soon they see an older doctor whom Zeitoun knows on the second-floor porch of a house. Zeitoun asks if he needs help, but the doctor says that he’s doing fine. A few houses down they catch sight of another couple in their seventies leaning out of their window. They can’t fit the couple in the canoe, so Zeitoun and Frank promise to send someone as soon as they get to Claiborne, a major thoroughfare where they assume there will be policemen.
Almost unwittingly Zeitoun, together with Frank, begins to assume responsibility for the well-being of others in his neighborhood—people who lack the ability to maneuver like Zeitoun in his canoe can. Having seen and spoken to these people, Zeitoun feels that it is natural to help them: they’re part of his community.
As they paddle away, they hear a weak female voice calling for help from a one-story house. Zeitoun jumps into the water and swims to the porch, where he has to kick down the door to enter. Above him a large, heavy woman in her seventies is balancing above him, hanging onto a bookshelf. She asks Zeitoun to help her. Zeitoun talks to her gently and pulls her out the front door, but they can’t lift her into the canoe, and even if they could it would capsize. They tell her they’ll quickly reach Claiborne and flag down a boat. The woman isn’t thrilled to be left alone, but agrees.
Another member of the neighborhood is in even worse straits, and though Zeitoun is eager to help her as well, his one-man canoe doesn’t have the same capacities as a larger rescue boat. Now he’s responsible for another human being in the community, a responsibility that Zeitoun treats seriously. What he had thought would be an adventure is turning out to be far more serious.
On Claiborne they see a fan boat, a military model, heading straight for them. Zeitoun feels proud that he’ll be able to give his promised help, but as soon as he and Frank start waving, the men aboard barely look their way, and the fan boat fails to stop, its wake nearly tipping the canoe. Over the next 20 minutes, ten more fan boats barrel by, all ignoring their cries for help. Zeitoun can’t imagine what these boats are doing, if they’re not helping city residents.
This military-style fanboat is exactly the kind of equipment needed to assist people like those Zeitoun came across in his neighborhood—and yet they seem to have no desire to help. This is the first of what will be many examples of a disconnect between human need and a militarized response, one that seems careless and even antagonistic to such needs.
Then a small fishing boat with two young men approaches, and this one does stop. They throw a line to Zeitoun and tow the canoe to the woman’s house with the motorboat. The woman directs them to the garage, where there’s a ladder. Zeitoun swims over and brings it back to where the woman is clinging to the bookshelf. The woman has a bad leg and can’t climb the ladder, however. She says she’s eighty years old, and is even weaker from staying awake for 24 hours.
Unlike the impersonal military fanboat speeding by, the small fishing boat is smaller and more approachable for Zeitoun. The men on the fishing boat, who remain nameless in the narrative, seem motivated by the same unassuming desire to lend a helping hand that characterizes Frank’s and Zeitoun’s actions.
Instead, the four men use the ladder as a kind of gurney, with the two men from the motorboat heaving the woman up while Zeitoun pushes from below. Though it’s awkward, they manage to maneuver her over to the boat. Zeitoun watches her recover, embarrassed to watch an old woman suffer like this, and to see her lose her dignity.
For Zeitoun, dignity is an essential aspect of human nature, one that should be upheld at all costs. Though he is happy to provide assistance to this woman, he realizes that one disturbing element of this natural tragedy is its indifference to human dignity. This theme will become more important later, as Zeitoun himself faces great indignity.
The woman gazes at her home, probably realizing that she’ll never be able to return to it in her lifetime. After a moment she nods, and the men from the fishing boat turn on the motor.
We’ve seen examples of material loss in the hurricane with Frank, but this loss is tied to a person’s life and home—and is repeated thousands of times over throughout the city and across the coast.
Frank, Zeitoun, and the three others are heading to the older couple at the other house when another elderly couple waves at them from their second-story window. They help these two into the boat, and then retrieve the older couple from before. The young men from the motorboat had seen a temporary medical area set up nearby, and they agree to drop off the passengers there. They shake hands with Zeitoun and Frank, who realize that they never exchanged names.
Without knowing their names, Zeitoun can still consider these men as symbolically powerful examples of the best parts of human nature exhibiting themselves after a natural crisis. At such times, some people put aside their own needs and even their desire to be recognized or celebrated and simply help another member of their community.
In Baton Rouge, Kathy is growing increasingly anxious from the radio reports. She hears of violence, chaos, and thousands of deaths. She tries Zeitoun’s home and cell phones again and again, as she hears that 10,000 National Guardsmen are being sent to the area, about a third of them to maintain order.
While Zeitoun is experiencing mainly positive interactions in the aftermath of Katrina, Kathy only knows what she hears of in New Orleans—which is the news media sensationalizing the tragedy, and emphasizing the worst parts of humanity, whenever they exhibit themselves.
When Kathy returns home, her mother points to her hijab and tells her to take “that thing” off and relax, since her husband isn’t there. Kathy resists snapping at her and instead starts to pack. She asks herself why Zeitoun had been so stubborn to stay.
The stubborn lack of understanding shown by Kathy’s mother only exacerbates Kathy’s frustration, as she feels an increasing lack of control.
In New Orleans, however, Zeitoun feels full of purpose and vigor, having already helped five elderly residents. He realizes that he’s meant to stay behind in the city—he’s needed. He and Frank stop by at one of Zeitoun’s rental residences, on Claiborne. One of the tenants, Todd Gambino, is outside on the front porch. He can’t believe that Zeitoun came to check up on him.
Kathy’s own struggles continue to contrast with Zeitoun’s more affirming experiences, which help counter his earlier loneliness and give him a reason to stay in the city other than pure stubbornness. Eggers’ retelling of Zeitoun’s experiences also serves the larger purpose of undercutting the national media’s narrative about Katrina, which was that in the hurricane’s aftermath, the city became a site of lawlessness and savagery—and this narrative was most closely associated with the city’s black residents.
Todd invites Zeitoun and Frank inside, where he has brought all his possessions up to the second floor. There’s a good deal of damage, but it’s not irreparable, which comforts Zeitoun. The landline here is still working, so Zeitoun calls Kathy, who shouts Alhamdulilah, Arabic for “Praise be to God,” and immediately orders him to leave the city. Zeitoun tells her instead about the people he’s helped, and that he doesn’t plan to leave. He would have nothing to do in Baton Rouge, but here he can make an impact. He also wants to see everything with his own eyes, since he cares so much about the city. Still, he promises to be careful, and that he’ll call each day at noon.
Zeitoun feels responsible for Todd Gambino’s house as one of his rental residences, and his relief is tied both to this sense of responsibility and to Zeitoun’s newfound ability to contact his wife. Still, Kathy’s worries fail to make Zeitoun consider leaving, now that he knows there’s a reason to persevere in the city, and especially because he can’t imagine abandoning the city that he’s come to call his home. Zeitoun is essentially feeling an idealistic sense of camaraderie with his community at this point.
On TV, Kathy watches reports of disorder and lawlessness. The news says that New Orleans is now a “third-world” state—sometimes referring to lack of basic health conditions, other times with a backdrop of black residents waving for help from rooftops. Unverified reports claim that there are roving gangs of armed men in the city. Kathy realizes that Zeitoun must not know about this violence, but it could easily reach his neighborhood soon.
Zeitoun’s calmness on the phone seems to jar with what Kathy sees on the news, though she obviously can’t know how exaggerated and even false many of these news reports are—trusting the media, she can only continue to be concerned about her husband’s well-being in a city that seems to have gone mad. Here Eggers explicitly points out the rather blatant racism in the media’s coverage of Katrina. The victims of the flooding were overwhelmingly poor and/or black, and the news reports on the city didn’t focus on situations like Zeitoun’s, but rather on instances of looting or violence, which served to demonize the victims, rather than assist them.
Zeitoun and Frank paddle back to Zeitoun’s house, passing fan boats along the way. Zeitoun realizes that the noise from the fan boats is such that those on them could never hear faint cries for help from the houses. Zeitoun drops Frank off at his house and heads back, tying the canoe to the back porch. He cooks a small dinner on his grill, then cleans with bottled water and prays on the roof. He is certain that God has called him to stay in the city and be of use.
Unlike the loud fan boats, Zeitoun’s canoe is actually ideal for listening and paying attention to cries for help. Slipping almost soundlessly through the city, the canoe symbolizes what Zeitoun has come to understand as his God-given duty to help others as much as possible, in a quiet, unassuming way. In this, we see another example of the wrong-footed nature of the government’s response to Katrina, which focused on persecuting crime rather than helping the helpless.
Zeitoun crawls back into the house to look again at the photo of his brother Mohammed. He also sees another picture, this one of Mohammed with the vice president of Lebanon, after winning a 26-mile race ending in Beirut. Though their father was proud, he had originally wanted his sons working on dry land. Mohammed had spent his early teenage years as a craftsman and ironsmith apprentice. But he crewed on local fishing boats in the evening, and always insisted on swimming to shore.
Once again, Zeitoun spends his evening reliving an earlier time in his life when water and the sea were similarly present, though in a far less menacing manner. Mohammed, like Zeitoun and Ahmad, wanted to follow his father’s wishes, but all three found themselves inevitably drawn to a life at sea in various ways.
In 1958, Egypt and Syria merged to create the United Arab Republic. Citizens throughout the Middle East reacted with optimism, hoping that a broader alliance could be created between Arab states. One celebration was a 30-kilometer race between Jableh and Lattakia. Mohammed watched all the preparations and was part of the crew of one guide boat. Midway through the race, Mohammed jumped in to swim alongside the others, impressing one of the judges, who said he would be a champion one day. Mohammed started to train secretly, but his father found out and forbade him from swimming long distances, afraid for his life. Still, Mohammed continued to train, and won the next year’s race in Lattakia, becoming the best swimmer in Syria. When he found out about this, his father finally gave up trying to dissuade Mohammed.
Here Eggers fills in some of the historical that impacted Zeitoun and his family’s lives, even if indirectly. Syria is not known for its internationally ranked swimmers, so Mohammed’s success was even more remarkable. To Zeitoun, like any good thing that happened to him or his family, such a gift was really a gift from God. Although Mahmoud was understandably reluctant to send his sons out into the treacherous waters that nearly killed him, it also seems like Mahmoud loved his sons enough to allow them to pursue their dreams.
Another photo shows Mohammed’s first major victory in 1959, in Lebanon, when thousands cheered him. The next year he won a famous long-distance race between Capri and Naples, becoming one of the best swimmers in the world. He dedicated his victory to President Nasir, who celebrated him as an honorary lieutenant. As a child, Abdulrahman was in awe of his brother, who seemed to prove that the family was destined for great things. Now, Zeitoun reminds himself that rather than being bitter about his brother’s early death, he should honor his memory by being strong and brave like Mohammed was.
Zeitoun recalls these victories of Mohammed almost as if they were his own victories. He clearly takes a great deal of pride in Mohammed’s success, even now, years after the triumphs and years after Mohammed’s death. We also begin to see another possible motivation for Zeitoun’s decision to remain in New Orleans: living up to his brother’s memory, and perhaps even competing with that glory.