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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun book cover Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is “The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.”

“Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a house-painting business in New Orleans. In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy evacuates with their four young children, leaving Zeitoun to watch over the business. In the days following the storm he travels the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping elderly neighbors. Then, on September 6th, police officers armed with M-16s arrest Zeitoun in his home. Told with eloquence and compassion, Zeitoun is a riveting account of one family’s unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water.”

Vintage; 1 Reprint edition (June 15, 2010)

Book Club Ideas

There were so many horrendous events that (shouldn’t have) happened in this book, but for my book club party ideas for Zeitoun, I wanted to focus on what makes New Orleans great: Mardi Gras, music and food.

For Mardi Gras decorations focus on purple, green and gold for the color scheme.  Include beads and masks, and definitely a canoe to honor Zeitoun.

beads, mask, le fleur

Canoe decor
The Our New Orleans album is a great mix of the various musical styles of New Orleans, including Blues, Jazz, and Cajun Folk. All net proceeds from the sale of this album will be donated to the local relief efforts of Habitat for Humanity, with a portion specifically set aside to provide housing for local musicians left homeless by the disaster.

Book Club Menu

New Orleans has some of the best food anywhere. My favorite dishes include Shrimp Etouffe and powdered sugar coated beignets. I included a Syrian dish, Red Pepper Spread, in honor of Zietoun. I served the spread with crackers and pita triangles, which I placed in a canoe shaped serving dish.

shrimp etouffe, red pepper spread, pita triangles

The recipe for these New Orleans Beignets is from In A Cajun Kitchen by Terri Pischoff Wuerthner. A portion of the profits from the sale of the book will be dedicated to recovery of cultural institutions and archival repositories in an attempt to preserve the history and culture of Louisiana.

Fried dough, powdered sugar

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.1 stars (55,418 ratings)
Amazon: 4.3 stars (761 ratings)
LibraryThing: 4.1 stars (932 ratings)
My Rating: 4.5 stars. This is one of those books that really opened my eyes. The part of the book that really struck me was when Zeitoun wondered how this makeshift prison was able to be built so fast, when there were people who needed to be rescued.

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. “Notes About This Book” (xv) gives a sense of how the book was written, whose point of view it reflects, and Eggers’s efforts at accuracy and truth in his depiction of events. By choosing to portray the response to the hurricane through its effects on one family, what kind of story (or history) does he achieve?
2. The book opens with “Friday, August 26,” an expository chapter that introduces us to Zeitoun’s family life and his business life, the two very interconnected. What are some of the ways in which the descriptions here draw you in as a reader, and make these people and their situation real? Why is the timeline a good structural choice for this story?
3. Kathy has grown up as a Southern Baptist. Drawn to Islam through her childhood friend Yuko, she decides to convert. Why, when she comes to visit wearing her hijab, does her mother tell her, “Now you can take that thing off” (57)? Why does the prayer from the Qur’an quoted on page 51 have a strong effect on her? What does her reaction to the evangelical preacher who mocks Islam and says that Kathy’s temptation to convert was the work of the devil (65–66), say about Kathy’s character and intelligence?
4. Do Abdulrahman, Kathy and their children make up an unusual American family, or not? How would you describe the relationship between Zeitoun and Kathy, in marriage and in business? What effect does their religion have on the way others in the community see them?
5. Why has Eggers woven into the story accounts of Zeitoun’s past in Syria, his upbringing, his brother Mohammed, the champion swimmer, his brother Ahmad, and their close bond? What effect does this framework of family have on your perception of Zeitoun’s character, his ethics, his behavior? Read more . . .

6. The plight of the neighborhood’s abandoned dogs comes to Zeitoun’s attention as “a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night into shards” (93). The next day, he sets out in the canoe and tries to do what he can for animals and people trapped by the flood. How does Zeitoun feel about what he is doing? How does he think about these days after he has been imprisoned (262–64)?
7. Discuss what happens when Zeitoun and the others are forced to get into the boat and are taken into custody. Is it clear why they are being arrested? What assumptions are made about Zeitoun and the other three men (275–87)?
8. Part IV (203–90) tells the story of Zeitoun’s imprisonment. Here we learn in great detail how Zeitoun is denied the right to call Kathy, how his injured foot is not attended to, how the other men are beaten, stripped, and starved, how he prays constantly, yet loses hope. What is the impact, as you read, of this narrative?
9. “Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics” (Timothy Egan, New York Times, August 13, 2009). Would you agree with this statement? Can Zeitoun be read as a contribution to the history of hurricane Katrina and the failure of government to handle the disaster effectively?
10. Discuss Kathy’s situation, and her actions once she learns where Zeitoun is. The aftermath is more difficult, and she still suffers from physical and psychological problems that seem to be the result of post-traumatic stress. What was the most traumatic part of her experience, and why (319)?
11. Given that the other men who were imprisoned with Zeitoun were held much longer than he was, and that Nasser lost his life savings, is it surprising that these men were not compensated in any way for their time in prison (320–21)?
12. What is Zeitoun’s feeling now about what happened? How does he move forward into the future, as expressed in the book’s closing pages (322-25)?
13. If you have read What is the What, Eggers’ novel about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, how does Zeitoun compare? Discuss Eggers’ approach to writing about traumatic regional and political events through the lives of individuals impacted by them.
(Discussion Questions from Knopf Doubleday)

Purchase Zeitoun at your favorite bookseller

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The Author

Dave Eggers is the author of six previous books and is the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco that produces books, an eponymous quarterly journal, a monthly magazine (The Believer), and Wholphin, a quarterly DVD of short films and documentaries. In 2002, with Nívine Calegari he cofounded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth in the Mission District of San Francisco. In 2004, Eggers taught at the University of California–Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and there, with Dr. Lola Vollen, he cofounded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children. –From

Dave Eggers donated the proceeds from Zeitoun to help rebuild New Orleans.

Here is an interview with Dave Eggers about how he came to write Zeitoun:

Awards for Zeitoun

A New York Times Notable Book
An O, The Oprah Magazine Terrific Read of the Year
A Huffington Post Best Book of the Year
A New Yorker Favorite Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Nonfiction Book of the Year
A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
An Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Decade

Recommended Books on Hurricane Katrina

Other Notes and Comments

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for Zeitoun? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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