The next morning, Zeitoun and Kathy turn on the TV to see Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), telling all citizens of New Orleans to evacuate and head inland. Katrina is set to become a Category 5 hurricane, a level that had never struck New Orleans before. Zeitoun tells Kathy that she should leave, and he’ll stay to look after all their properties (they’d also be liable for damage if their equipment caused harm to clients’ properties).
FEMA will play an important role in the book, as this federal agency takes on responsibility after the natural disaster. Here, the role of its director is still only cautionary in nature, even though it seems like a natural disaster is inevitable. Zeitoun finally changes his mind about his family leaving, though he won’t think of doing it himself.
By early afternoon, the mayor and governor call for a voluntary evacuation of the city. Mayor Nagin says that the Superdome (the huge enclosed arena in New Orleans) will be open as a “shelter of last resort.” Kathy remembers how ill-supplied and overcrowded the Superdome had been during hurricanes before, and she wonders if the authorities have learned from their mistakes. Kathy decides to go to her brother Andy’s ranch near Baton Rouge. Andy is in Hong Kong for work, but Kathy’s sisters Patty and Mary Ann are there with Patty’s four kids. It will be cramped, but Kathy looks forward to spending time with her sisters.
As we’ve learned, hurricanes are hardly a rare occurrence for New Orleans, even though it seems that the city has failed to adequately prepare for the human costs of such a storm—especially in the case of its most vulnerable citizens, who won’t have anywhere else to go but the Superdome. Kathy’s large family here serves as a safety net, allowing her to have options as she plans to leave the city. Thousands of people didn’t have such options or agency, however.
Kathy continues to try to convince Zeitoun to leave, but he’s never evacuated before and doesn’t see a reason to now. He knows he can always head to the second floor even if there’s flooding. They don’t live near the levees, so flash flooding won’t be an issue—it’s East New Orleans or the one-story houses of the Lower Ninth Ward that are in the worst danger. Plus, Zeitoun has to secure all the job sites, as he’s already told his workers and foremen to leave town.
The fact that Michael Brown has called for evacuation ahead of the strongest storm the city’s ever seen doesn’t appear to faze Zeitoun. The sea has always been a part of his life, not a reason to be scared or run away. Zeitoun’s constant commitment to his work also impacts his decision not to leave.
After securing some work sites, Zeitoun returns to say goodbye to his family. Kathy has packed enough for two days, figuring they’ll return on Monday night. There’s still no mandatory evacuation, but on the radio she hears that those who stay behind should be prepared for heavy flooding. As she says goodbye to Zeitoun, her eyes tear up, but he tells her not to worry, and that she’ll see him on Monday. The family waves at Zeitoun, who waves back from the driveway.
Although Kathy is only planning to be away from her husband for a few nights, this goodbye seems more dramatic than it should, perhaps because of the dire nature of the warnings about the hurricane—or because Eggers is foreshadowing the struggles to come. Zeitoun is far less concerned than his wife, and is still mainly concerned with how to live up to his customers’ expectations.
As Zeitoun continues securing sites, he notices hundreds of people carrying coolers and blankets to the Superdome. He’s surprised, recalling how badly this system had worked in the past. Still, he feels somewhat cheerful having the city all to himself. Kathy has no such luck: at 6:30 she is stuck in traffic a few minutes outside the city—besides, she had taken a wrong turn and now is heading the wrong way, which will add hours to the trip. Zeitoun is home watching TV, and can’t help but gloat a little. Kathy stops at a Burger King drive-through for dinner. Without her knowledge, the kids start feeding their dog Mekay pieces of cheeseburger. Back in the car, Mekay starts farting for miles, making the trip even more unpleasant.
Like Kathy, Zeitoun understands that the authorities in New Orleans are not quite prepared for an influx of needy people, and wonders why a better plan isn’t in place to reduce the human costs of a natural tragedy. Still, at this point it seems that all the warnings have been more about fear-mongering than about reality, as Zeitoun relaxes while the rest of his family undergoes a brutally long, unpleasant trip with thousands of others out of the city.
Kathy guesses that there are ten thousand cars on the road with her, and is overwhelmed wondering how all these people will find places to sleep. She thinks back to her husband, alone in a wooden house with an approaching storm. They talk again that evening, and Zeitoun tells her she should have stayed.
Kathy is witnessing first-hand the logistical nightmare of evacuating an entire city. Still, she doesn’t believe, as her husband does, that the correct alternative is simply to ignore the authorities’ warnings.
Still, Kathy is looking forward to a few days in Baton Rouge, though she is a little wary of her family, who still struggles to understand her decision to convert to Islam and wear the hijab, even after fifteen years. Last time she had visited, her mother had told her to take “that thing” off her head and enjoy herself, as if the hijab was a disguise to be worn under duress because of her husband. Yet one time when Kathy was getting her driver’s license at the DMV, an employee had told Kathy contemptuously to take off her hijab for the picture, and Kathy’s mother yelled that it was her constitutional right, making a scene until the employee got permission from her superior and agreed.
Kathy has a complex relationship to her family, which can be both loving and hurtful at turns. Islamophobia is an issue even for her own mother and siblings, though it’s somewhat understandable that her family would struggle to understand her desire to convert. Kathy’s mother’s prejudices coexist with the fierce love and desire to defend her daughter, showing that even someone who’s good at heart can hold prejudices that seem to conflict with their better qualities.
Kathy had grown up in a chaotic home but a tidy, working-class family neighborhood. Kathy was picked on in school, and often ran away from home, usually to her friend Yuko’s house. The two were among the only non-African Americans in the neighborhood. Yuko’s mother Kameko’s husband had been killed by a drunk driver years before, so it was just Kameko and Yuko. They were warm and welcoming to Kathy, who came to call Kameko “Mom.”
Although Kathy’s mother seems to love and defend her daughter, Kathy also found another kind of family growing up in her friend Yuko’s household. The fact that she and Yuko bond over being the only non-African Americans shows how much easier it is to form solidarity with those who look like you.
After high school Kathy and Yuko worked together at Dunkin’ Donuts. Kathy rented her own apartment and felt a quiet order and independence for the first time in her life. A pair of Malaysian sisters would come in often, and Yuko was always asking them curiously about their scarves, and about Islam in general. Yuko was captivated and began to read the Qur’an. Kathy was disconcerted at first—they’d both been brought up Christian, and Kameko was especially devout, but Yuko asked Kathy to keep an open mind.
Having grown up in a chaotic household, Kathy came to appreciate an alternative, more stable kind of life. This desire for calm and peace will influence Kathy’s relationship to Islam, though initially it is Yuko who appears to be the most open-minded and willing to learn about a religion that was totally unknown to the two of them growing up.
A few years later, Kathy was divorced and living alone with Zachary. She was working two jobs, one as a checkout clerk at a drugstore, and one at Webster Clothes. Working 50 hours a week, she could cover health insurance for her and her son, but life was still hard. Yuko, meanwhile, seemed peaceful and happy. Kathy began borrowing books about Islam, curious to know what Yuko saw in it. She realized how little she had understood about the religion. Much of the Qur’an is consistent with the Bible, and filled with the same people. Muslims, she learned, consider the Old Testament, Psalms, and New Testament holy books too.
The calm and contentment that Kathy had found after graduating high school seemed to have unraveled. Kathy never shirked hard work, and instead was determined to provide for herself and her son, but the void she continued to feel was more spiritual than material in nature. Kathy’s research into Islam helped reveal to her the points of unity rather than difference between Islam and her own Christian upbringing. This section also serves Eggers’ purpose of familiarizing Islam to some of his American readers.
Kathy was touched by passages in the Qur’an that reached out to other faiths. Kathy had also assumed that Muslims were a single, homogeneous group, but she learned that there were various interpretations, such as Sunni and Shiite, and variations in faith and commitment, just like for Christians.
As Kathy learned, Islam is both internally diverse and less distinct from Christianity and Judaism than people often think. Her research shows how much simply learning about another faith can combat prejudice.
At the time, Kathy was attending a large evangelical church, but she was increasingly disconcerted by some things, like how the pastor had harangued the congregation for twenty minutes one Sunday for not donating enough during collection. Kathy knew that this was a working-class group that gave what it could. That night, she turned to the materials that Yuko had given her, recalling how Yuko was the most sensible and grounded person she knew, and wondering if Islam could be right for her—Kathy—too.
Although Kathy had found some solace from Christianity, the way she describes her evangelical church shows a disconnect between her personal faith and the religious institution in which she found herself. It is this disconnect that seems to have motivated Kathy to seek out an alternative, especially given the points of overlap she’s already found between Islam and Christianity.
As Kathy was struggling that week, one of the preachers at church stopped by at Webster one day. He didn’t recognize Kathy, but she told him she went to his church every Sunday. She confided that it must be a sign from God to see him there, since she had been struggling with Christianity and with the church, and had actually considered converting to Islam. The preacher didn’t seem concerned about losing a member of his congregation, and told her it was just the devil trying to tempt her.
For Kathy, personal kindness and generosity are qualities directly linked to religious faith, and in this case she was willing to remain committed to the faith in which she was raised if she were to be given some kind of a sign that her faith and her religious community could somehow be aligned. At first, it appeared that this visit was such a sign.
Kathy felt a renewed commitment to Christianity after this. She sat near the front at church on Sunday so her new friend would know he made a difference. He looked down at her specifically from the pulpit and, in the middle of the service, called her name and told her to come up to the pulpit. She was terrified, as the preacher commanded her to tell the congregation what she’d told him. She did so, wanting to trust him, but then the preacher cut her off, sneering that she actually wanted to convert to Islam. She was considering the “worship of Allah” he said with a snort, as Kathy, horrified, realized he didn’t know that God and Allah were one and the same. When the preacher was done, Kathy sat down in a daze, and decided never to come back.
Kathy’s description of the preacher’s belittling, mocking tone shows just how painful she found her decision to leave the religious community in which she had been raised. Still, this incident allowed her to see that this church was no longer a welcoming community for her. In fact, any group that refused to embrace other beliefs and yearn for unity and understanding would, for her, fail to constitute a true community and a true expression of faith. This particular church’s lack of understanding would lead to Kathy’s fundamental break with Christianity.
Talking to Yuko, Kathy realized that this preacher didn’t understand how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were all branches of one monotheistic faith, and she could not be part of something that dismissed Islam so contemptuously. She started reading the Qur’an, and was struck by how beautiful it was. The imam (Muslim worship leader) she went to visit spoke not about the horrors of hell but about how only God knew a person’s fate, and that they should look to the Qur’an for answers. Kathy admired the dignity, purity, wholesomeness, and control that she saw in Muslim women.
Kathy’s decision to convert to Islam ultimately rested on two related motivations: the desire to find the branch of monotheism that best fit with her own beliefs and motivations for how best to live—and the realization that she could find a model for living a dignified, peaceful life in the Muslim women that she saw around her.
Finally Kathy converted, pronouncing the shahadah, the pledge of faith, in front of Yuko and other women from the mosque. “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger,” she said, becoming a Muslim.
The simplicity of Kathy’s official conversion belies how difficult it was for her to make the decision to change her faith, though she embraces the beauty of this simplicity.
Kathy found a sense of calm in Islam. She grew less aggressive towards her family, and learned to be more patient and forgiving. Her mother and siblings, however, felt as if she’d renounced her family and former life. A few of her relationships mended, but she wasn’t in touch with a few other siblings at all. Still, she continued to hold out hope that she could have a thriving extended family for her children.
Back on the road, Kathy finally arrives in Baton Rouge at 11:30 at night. She calls Zeitoun once she puts the kids to bed, and he says there’s no wind or rain yet.
After reliving the life struggles and decisions that have led to this point, Kathy returns to reality by connecting to her husband—and we, as readers, have new knowledge and respect for their relationship.