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Themes and Colors
Family, Community, and Home Theme Icon
Crime, Justice, and Injustice Theme Icon
Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Theme Icon
Human vs. Natural Tragedy Theme Icon
Islam and Islamophobia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Zeitoun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Human vs. Natural Tragedy Theme Icon

Hurricanes like Katrina are known as “natural disasters,” as the events themselves are outside of human control. Zeitoun is certainly aware of this, and he holds great respect for nature, understanding the powerful forces of water that both killed his older brother (who drowned many years earlier) and wrought such devastation on New Orleans. But the book also shows that there is always a human component to such tragedies as well.

In New Orleans, it is not just the massive storm that causes great damage—the poorly constructed levees that are meant to hold back flooding break, unleashing even more destruction on much of the city. In addition, the parts of the city most vulnerable to such flooding are the poorer, more minority-populated neighborhoods, meaning that these are the communities that suffer most. Meanwhile, those who lack resources to leave the city, given the mandatory evacuation, are overwhelmingly housed in the Superdome, which becomes a disastrous referendum on the inadequate response to the storm. Nature doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, white and black, but existing human structures are shown to create vast differences between who suffers more or less.

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Human vs. Natural Tragedy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Human vs. Natural Tragedy appears in each chapter of Zeitoun. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Human vs. Natural Tragedy Quotes in Zeitoun

Below you will find the important quotes in Zeitoun related to the theme of Human vs. Natural Tragedy.
Part 2: Wednesday August 31 Quotes

But there was the canoe. He saw it, floating above the yard, tethered to the house. Amid the devastation of the city, standing on the roof of his drowned home, Zeitoun felt something like inspiration. He imagined floating, alone, through the streets of his city. In a way, this was a new world, uncharted. He could be an explorer. He could see things first.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Related Symbols: Zeitoun’s Canoe
Page Number: 94-95
Explanation and Analysis:

When the storm quiets down and Zeitoun is left in a flooded city, he begins to feel restless and bored. Not long after that, however, he realizes that he is not condemned to remain trapped at home indefinitely. The canoe is his ticket out of what he hates the most - doing nothing. Zeitoun's adventurous spirit has already become clear: for one, he arrived to the United States on a steamer after traveling all around the world. Now he has another chance to uncover another new world, though in quite a different context.

However, Zeitoun's romantic vision of exploring uncharted paths and floating peacefully through the city is described mainly as a contrast to what he will actually find. A devastating hurricane, of course, has just ripped through New Orleans. While Eggers doesn't portray Zeitoun as naive or uncaring, he points to Zeitoun's initial reactions both to underline his natural sense of adventure, and to suggest that few people thought that Hurricane Katrina would be devastating to the extent that it was.


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Had they been in a fan boat, the noise overwhelming, they would have heard nothing. They would have passed by, and the woman likely would not have survived another night. It was the very nature of this small, silent craft that allowed them to hear the quietest cries. The canoe was good, the silence was crucial.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Frank Noland
Related Symbols: Zeitoun’s Canoe
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun and Frank have spent the day paddling around the neighborhood, helping a number of trapped residents in need. Zeitoun feels excited and purposeful - like there's a reason that he's remained behind in the city. Now, he realizes that the canoe is more than a means for him to keep from going mad while cooped up in his home. It can be used to help others as well, and, most importantly, it is ideally suited to such a task. The fan boats that have been sharing the same space as the small, unassuming-looking canoe seem important and necessary, part of an official fleet that has been dispatched to aid the recovery from the storm. But here Zeitoun recognizes that the fan boats' power is more symbolic than real, since it is too loud for its conductors to actually listen for people in need.

Part 4: Tuesday September 6 Quotes

When Zeitoun and the others entered the main room of the station, immediately fifty pairs of eyes, those of soldiers and police officers and military personnel, were upon them. There were no other civilians inside. It was as if the entire operation, this bus station-turned-military base, had been arranged for them.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Nasser Dayoob, Todd Gambino, Ronnie
Related Symbols: Camp Greyhound
Page Number: 210-211
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun has been arrested with the three other men in the house, and his experience is beginning to take on a surreal quality. He has no idea why he's been arrested, where he'll be taken, or what will happen next. All he can tell is that what began as a natural tragedy, a devastating hurricane, has now morphed into something quite different. Rather than a rescue operation, the officials here seem to have quickly cobbled together a makeshift center based around crime and even war. At the same time, Zeitoun cannot see any evidence that such a vast structural operation stems from a real need at all. He believes he hasn't done anything wrong, and he doesn't see any other guilty parties: instead, these institutions seem to have cropped up almost of their own will. As the book shifts away from an inspiring section on Zeitoun's feats in helping others after the hurricane, it turns towards a more somber aspect of the days and weeks after Katrina, when social trauma and injustice proved even greater than natural disaster.

Part 4: Wednesday September 7 Quotes

Who did this work? Were there contractors and laborers working around the clock on a prison days after the hurricane? It was mind-boggling. It was all the more remarkable given that while the construction was taking place, on September 2, 3, and 4, thousands of residents were being plucked from rooftops, were being discovered alive and dead in attics.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Related Symbols: Camp Greyhound
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

As a businessman and a contractor, Zeitoun is adept at judging the amount of labor and time needed to accomplish certain tasks of construction. As he looks around Camp Greyhound, he marvels at this feat, recognizing just how much work it must have taken. In this passage, Zeitoun first wonders about the precise logistics of this process, failing to imagine how he, if in charge of it, would have been able to carry it out. Almost immediately, he compares this remarkable process with what he knows, from personal experience, to have been the real needs of people in New Orleans in the days after the hurricane.

Though he doesn't say it explicitly, the comparison suggests that valuable time, money, and energy were siphoned away from those who needed rescuing and put into the construction of this facility whose function Zeitoun still doesn't entirely grasp. Once again, the book aims to portray the disconnect between the reality of Hurricane Katrina, which essentially created domestic refugees in need of rescue and of medical help, and the response, which emphasized the criminal and even warlike dangers after the storm.

Part 4: Monday September 12 Quotes

Kathy often worried about the National Guard and other soldiers returning to the United States after time in Iraq and Afghanistan. She warned him about passing groups of soldiers in airports, about walking near National Guard offices. “They’re trained to kill people like you,” she would say to Zeitoun, only half-joking. She had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun and Nasser are once again left alone in their cell, giving Zeitoun another opportunity to wonder about what he is doing in Camp Greyhound and why people are interested in him. His thoughts turn to Kathy's worries in the past about the possibility that Zeitoun, because he was Muslim and Middle Eastern, might be a target or object of suspicion to authorities.

When Katrina takes place, the United States is entangled in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan: while they have pushed Saddam Hussein from power, for instance, neither the war in Iraq nor in Afghanistan is won, or even seems winnable by any standard definition of triumph in war. Instead, the wars have expanded to include a general attitude of fear and conflict with any part of the world that might seem to pose a threat to the United States. Kathy's point is that Muslim-Americans like Zeitoun may well seem to some to be part of such a threat, especially given the hazy borders of President George Bush's "war on terror." She argues as a result that Zeitoun has to be extra careful, more careful than white, non-Muslim Americans. While Zeitoun has brushed off her opinions before, now he begins to wonder whether or not Kathy's fears may well be able to explain his current situation.

Part 4: Saturday September 17 Quotes

He thought of bycatch. It was a fishing term. They’d used it when he was a boy, fishing for sardines by the light of the moon they’d made. When they pulled in the net, there were thousands of sardines, of course, but there were other creatures too, life they had not intended to catch and for which they had no use. Often they would not know until too late.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

As Zeitoun attempts to determine what it means for him to be here, stuck in a jail cell despite having done nothing to warrant his arrest - and despite having failed to receive any notice of his charges - he returns to his past in order to search for an analogy that might allow him to better understand his situation. As a child, Zeitoun had often gone fishing with his brother, and even once thought that he might continue his family's trade and fish for a living. Now he recalls one of the more somber sides of catching sardines - the fact that many other living creatures would often be unintentionally caught up in the catch, but if not dumped back into the sea would probably die as well.

Zeitoun sees his own situation as one of "bycatch." In response to the natural tragedy of Katrina, government institutions cranked into action with the broad intent of keeping people safe and helping them recover. But much of the response included far too sweeping regulations, ones that were meant to combat real crime and injustice but instead ended up sweeping innocent people into the fold, with little concern for what would happen to them.

Part 4: Thursday September 29 Quotes

They held each other for a long moment. She could feel his shoulder blades, his ribs. His neck seemed so thin and fragile, his arms skeletal. She pulled back, and his eyes were the same—green, long-lashed, touched with honey—but they were tired, defeated. She had never seen this in him. He had been broken.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally, Zeitoun is released and he and Kathy are reunited. But what was supposed to be an occasion for great joy and relief becomes instead, for Kathy, one of enormous disillusionment and sadness. As she embraces him, she sees the physical reminders of what he has been through. Not only is he thin and unhealthy-looking, but the very look in his eyes is different, defeated and exhausted. This both upsets and frightens Kathy. She has not been able to talk to Zeitoun and does not know in any detail what he has been through: she can only see the effects.

Like the natural tragedy of Katrina, the human-scale violence done to Zeitoun thus also creates material traces. However, these traces cannot speak to the full extent of what Zeitoun went through. Until now, Zeitoun and Kathy have shared almost every detail of their lives together, calling each other several times a day through their roles as husband and wife in addition to business partners. Now a gap has widened between Kathy and Zeitoun, one that she cannot see how she'll be able to bridge.

Part 5: Fall 2008 Quotes

The Zeitouns have lived in seven apartments and houses since the storm. Their Dublin Street office was leveled and is now a parking lot. The house on Dart is still unfinished. They are tired.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final section of the book, Eggers takes stock of the Zeitoun family's experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun's hellish arrest and imprisonment may be over, but the aftershocks of that experience continue to affect the family. In part, these difficulties are shared by many other families in the years after Katrina. The Zeitouns lost their home and office, and now, years afterward, they still do not have a completed, ready place to call home.

In addition, of course, the difficulty of the Zeitouns in settling back into regular life is compounded by the isolation they feel in coming to terms with the prejudice and bureaucratic incompetence of the official response to Katrina. Their exhaustion stems not just from their material uncertainty, as they are forced to move around continually without settling down, but also from the emotional aftermath of the weeks following the storm.

Gonzalez talked about how the system is supposed to work: police officers investigate, make arrests, and then hand the process over to the judicial system. Under normal circumstances, if the men were innocent, he maintained, they would have been given a phone call and the opportunity to post bail. “They should have gotten a phone call,” he said.

Related Characters: Ralph Gonzalez (speaker), Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

Gonzalez, one of the officers that arrested Zeitoun, is interviewed for the book years after Katrina, and tries to explain the process that he followed in attempting to combat crime in the days and weeks after the storm. He seems to have an abstract understanding of the procedures that are in place to ensure that people are given due process and are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, he cannot seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question of what went wrong in the course of Zeitoun's arrest.

Finally, he seems to admit that according to what he has been told, Zeitoun was not treated properly by the authorities. Gonzalez may well be reluctant to admit personal wrongdoing, but it also seems that he is willing to acknowledge that his institution or others shared wrongdoing. It is not an entirely satisfying response, though it does help Kathy and Zeitoun gain validation from others that what they went through was wrong.

On the one hand, knowing that these two police officers had not purposely hunted and arrested a man because he was Middle Eastern gave them some comfort. But knowing that Zeitoun’s ordeal was caused instead by systemic ignorance and malfunction—and perhaps long-festering paranoia on the part of the National Guard and whatever other agencies were involved—was unsettling. It said, quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun, Donald Lima, Ralph Gonzalez
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

After interviewing the police officers responsible for arresting Zeitoun, he and Kathy have a more accurate account of the reasons for his arrest—the event that triggered the rest of his harrowing experience at Camp Greyhound and in jail. Zeitoun had come to agree with Kathy that prejudice may well have played a part in his arrest. But it is almost worse for them to realize that this wasn't just a case of one racist or prejudiced officer or guard.

Instead, we learn in this passage, the problem was "systemic" - reaching far broader than the mistakes made by one or two individuals. This is unsettling because it means that, for things to change, a great deal more is needed than simply firing or disciplining one person, or even of getting a few people to understand the root of their prejudices. Instead, it is necessary to think about the ignorance, incompetence, and even paranoia at the heart of major government bureaucracies, which allowed Zeitoun to slip through the cracks.

To dial a number given to you by a man in a cage, to tell the voice on the other end, “I saw him.” Is that complicated? Is that an act of great heroism in the United States of America? It should not be so.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun, Missionary
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

As Kathy struggles herself with the aftermath of Zeitoun's arrest and imprisonment, she often returns to the fact of how easily things could have been different if someone had shown greater compassion or humanity. The one person she does feel grateful towards, and whom she'd like to thank, is the missionary who took Kathy's phone number from Zeitoun and called her to tell her that he saw her husband, and that he was alive.

Now, Eggers takes a step back to question what counts and what should count as great heroism in such circumstances. He acknowledges that the missionary did Kathy and Zeitoun a great service. But he also underlines how small and insignificant an act it was, when compared to the structural injustice and unfairness of what Zeitoun went through. He thus suggests that our standards for heroism have been deflated by such injustice, which makes even the smallest show of humanity seem incredible.

As he drives through the city during the day and dreams of it at night, his mind vaults into glorious reveries—he envisions this city and this country not just as it was, but better, far better. It can be.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun is proud of having restored over a hundred homes with his company in the years after Katrina. This passage, following a number of more sobering details about the struggles of the Zeitouns in the time following Hurricane Katrina, seeks to end the book on a more optimistic note. Indeed, Zeitoun's attitude here is portrayed as more positive, thanks to the success he's been able to regain in his professional life. For him, his job is more than a way to pay the bills: it is symbolic of his desire to change his community for the better.

Rebuilding New Orleans is of course a matter of physical, material reconstruction, but it is also, according to Zeitoun, a chance for the community to reimagine what it would like to be and how it might change. There is a chance, he thinks, that people may become more inclusive, and that if he just perseveres long enough, he will see this changes happen. Zeitoun thus remains committed to his country and smaller communities even despite the unfairness of what he went through, refusing to entirely lose hope that transformation is possible.