Part of Dave Eggers’s purported goal in writing Zeitoun was to introduce a “normal” Muslim family to American readers who, almost a decade after 9/11, might have a limited or even prejudiced view of the religion and of Muslim cultures. By portraying a Muslim family and tracing its beliefs and practices, Zeitoun seeks to counter these limitations and suggest that being Muslim is entirely compatible with being American—indeed, it is just one facet of American diversity. Eggers describes in detail how Kathy Zeitoun, the protagonist’s wife, came to convert to Islam after having grown up in a Southern Baptist community. By showing how the small-mindedness of her Christian pastor contrasted to the openness that Kathy found in an imam she went to visit, Eggers inverts stereotypes about Islam and humanizes the religion. At the same time, we also learn how Kathy faced confusion and discrimination after converting to Islam—from her family lashing out at her for wearing a hijab (headscarf), to customers of her husband’s construction company cancelling their orders after learning that the employees were Middle Eastern. Zeitoun, meanwhile, draws on his religious beliefs throughout the novel as a source of strength in difficult times. For him, Islam is also linked to his family’s heritage, and is a regular part of his daily life. Anti-Muslim prejudice, however, is portrayed as a major reason for Zeitoun’s arrest and detention without reason. Guards who witness him and his friend Naseer praying five times a day (in accordance with Islam) immediately distrust them.
To combat this kind of suspicion, Eggers tries to make some aspects of Islam more understandable to non-Muslim readers. Long quotations from the Qur’an introduce readers to its beauty, while some passages—especially one about a massive flood—show that there are many similarities between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Islamophobia never goes away in the novel—at the end, the Zeitoun couple continues to struggle to recover from their debacle—what remains is a certain confidence that knowing, understanding, and empathizing with those from other cultures and religions is the only way to decrease suspicion and discrimination.
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Islam and Islamophobia Quotes in Zeitoun
His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?
She knew that in Islam she had found calm. The doubt sewn into the faith gave her room to think, to question. The answers the Qur’an provided gave her a way forward.
But Zeitoun felt again that perhaps this was his calling, that God had waited to put him here and now to test him in this way. And so he hoped, as silly as it seemed, that his siblings might see him like this, on the water, a sailor again, being useful, serving God.
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.
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.