Zeitoun is set in New Orleans, Louisiana, and begins with the protagonist Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known by his last name) and his wife Kathy preparing to send their children Nademah, Aisha, and Safiya to school. Kathy’s son from her first marriage, Zachary, is already there. The couple bickers, with Kathy growing frustrated by Zeitoun’s stubbornness about everything, but they clearly have a loving relationship. Zeitoun heads out to work. He owns a painting and contracting business, and also manages several rental properties throughout the city. Kathy works from home, fielding phone calls and managing the documents for the business.
Zeitoun and Kathy are in constant contact throughout the day—Friday, August 26—as is often the case in dealing with business and other questions through their characteristic witty banter. Kathy then begins to hear news of an impending storm. Initially she’s not concerned, because hurricanes are common in the New Orleans area, but as the day goes on the news grows increasingly worse. Zeitoun continues to brush it off, however, even after he gets a phone call from his brother, Ahmad, in Spain. Zeitoun had grown up in a coastal town called Jableh in Syria with many brothers and sisters. His father had been a ship captain, but after a near-death experience had decided to settle down. Still, both Ahmad and Zeitoun would end up being seamen themselves. Zeitoun would travel around for nearly a decade on ships before settling in Baton Rouge. There, he met a friend, Ahmaad, who introduced him to Kathy. Kathy had grown up in a Southern Baptist family in Baton Rouge, and was close friends with a girl named Yuko. Yuko later converted to Islam and married Ahmaad. After a failed first marriage, Kathy was drawn to the peace and contentment that seemed to emanate from Yuko. Especially after being disappointed by the preacher at her evangelical church, she began to learn more about Islam and eventually converted. After some hesitation, Kathy would go on to convert to Islam herself, and also to marry Zeitoun, a devout Muslim who was beginning to feel fiercely loyal to his adopted country.
By the end of the day, Kathy has heard on the news about a family lost at sea because of the storm, and the next morning she decides—given the governor’s and mayor’s recommendations—to take their children out of the city to wait out the storm. Zeitoun refuses to go with her, however. He can be obsessed with work, and especially in this case, he wants to make sure that all the construction sites and rental properties he’s responsible for will be all right. Initially, it seems that he had the right idea, as Kathy is stuck for hours on the highway on the way to her sister’s house in Baton Rouge. Over the course of the weekend, the storm passes—it’s strong, but nothing unexpected. By Tuesday, August 30, however, the levees holding back the water are breached, and flooding engulfs the city: by the afternoon, Zeitoun’s house is under eight to nine feet of water. After moving whatever he can to the second floor, Zeitoun takes an old canoe that he had bought from a client—it reminded him of his days as a seaman—and begins to paddle around.
The narration now switches back and forth between Zeitoun and Kathy. Kathy is frustrated enough with her family, which has never fully accepted her conversion to Islam, to want to leave. She calls her friend Yuko, whose husband Ahmaad drives Kathy and her children all the way to Phoenix, Arizona. Kathy continues to beg Zeitoun to leave the city, but by this point, Zeitoun has found a sense of purpose. He manages to rescue several elderly couples as well as another woman trapped in their flooded homes. He carries food and water to others, and takes on responsibility for feeding a number of dogs trapped in homes. He partners with Todd Gambino, a resident of one of the rental properties on Claiborne Street, as well as an acquaintance, Nasser Dayood, another Syrian emigrant. He manages to call Kathy every day from Claiborne, where there is still a working telephone, and where the three men meet a fourth, Ronnie, whom they allow to spend time with them. Zeitoun hears news from Kathy about how the city is supposed to be violent and lawless, with murders, rapes, and rampaging gangs. In reality, Zeitoun mainly sees people wanting to be rescued, as well as military and police officers in full combat gear swarming the city.
On Tuesday, September 6, Zeitoun has just talked to his brother Ahmad and is about to call Kathy from the Claiborne Street house when a number of police and military officers burst into the home. They order the four men into their boat, refusing to hear Zeitoun’s protests that he owns the house. The men are taken to a staging ground and then to the train and bus station—later nicknamed “Camp Greyhound”—which has become a makeshift prison after the storm. None of the men is permitted a phone call or given access to attorney, and Zeitoun isn’t even told what charges are against him, as he is forced to submit to humiliating body searches. Through several hints he begins to fear that the authorities suspect them of some kind of terrorist activity—it doesn’t help that Todd has Mapquest printouts and a memory chip in his pocket, and Nasser is carrying his life savings, $10,000 in cash, with him (something that, nevertheless, immigrants often do). The men are kept in an uncomfortable outdoor cell for several days, where they witness periodic pepper sprayings by police, and where nearly every meal seems to include ham or pork, which Nasser and Zeitoun, as Muslims, cannot eat. Finally, they are transported to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, a “real” prison where, nonetheless, none of the Katrina prisoners are given due process like the rest. Zeitoun is first placed with Nasser, but then is put in solitary confinement. For a month he tries and fails to establish contact with the outside world, to let Kathy know that he is alive, and to find some way of contesting his imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Kathy has become increasingly frantic every day. She also has to deal with the worries of Zeitoun’s family in Syria, Spain, and elsewhere. Though Yuko tries to comfort her, Kathy begins to recognize that Zeitoun may have died. Finally, towards the end of September, she gets a phone call from a missionary, who says he saw Zeitoun at a prison and is calling, against the rules, to tell her he is okay. She also gets a call from Homeland Security, which says that the department no longer “has interest” in her husband. Kathy immediately calls a lawyer, Raleigh Ohlmeyer, but it is weeks before Zeitoun can actually be released. First Kathy has to fly back and gather witnesses to Zeitoun’s good character for a court hearing. Then the hearing is cancelled, and she must return to her home in New Orleans to find documents confirming ownership of the house, in order to post bail for her husband.
Finally the two are reunited, and after staying with friends for a few days, they slowly move back into normal life. The couple begins to buy up properties around their neighborhood to renovate. By the fall of 2008, they have moved back into their original home, and are back to work—but much has changed since the storm. Kathy has become nervous and forgetful, exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Zeitoun, meanwhile, tries to think of his ordeal as a test from God, but he continues to grapple with his disappointment in his country, and his frustration that so many people refused to think of him as a fellow countryman and human. He throws himself into work in order to deal with his emotional difficulties. Still, both Kathy and Zeitoun are hopeful about continuing to recover and move on.