Waiting A Lifetime For The Storm: Challenging temporal, familial, and national bonds in David Eggers’ Zeitoun

Zeitoun,  pronounced zay-toon, is the story of a Syrian immigrant family-man who stays in New Orleans during, and after, Hurricane Katrina. Throughout Zeitoun’s time in the drowned city, he comes across those trying to help him assure the city’s safety and those working to steal him away from the rampant danger he is faced with. His Islamic-immigrant background, and his marriage to an American-Islamic convert, are stories which are interplayed throughout  the book—their complex history, a revolving door of past, present, and hopes for the future. In the course of the non-fiction account, the author, David Eggers, explores the bonds of family and country—how they can seem so dear, but in the end, Zeitoun’s adopted country ultimately betrays him. 

A view of a flooded New Orleans (Superdome to the right)

For Zeitoun’s family the sea had always been a constant concern. From the account of Zeitoun’s father lost at sea, “No one, including Mahmoud, could believe he had survived, and thereafter he vowed never to take the chance again” (34), which ultimately led to Zeitoun’s Father forbidding his sons to find themselves in similar situations,  “Mahmoud wanted Mohammed, and all of his sons, working on dry land” (121). Zeitoun’s brother was killed in a car accident in Egypt: a country he would not have been in if not for the race he was meant to swim there, at the Suez Canal (102). Even Zeitoun himself experienced a harrowing omen when two Iraqi torpedoes targeted his ship Andromeda off the gulf of Oman, “Zeitoun decided that perhaps his father had been right. It was time to settle somewhere, time to build a family, to remain safe and constant, on land” (263).

During the disaster, the importance of Zeitoun’s family is represented through his brother Amhad’s constant phone calls, to make sure his brother was safe, and after the storm, his daily phone calls from the Claiborne house. But when Zeitoun misses calling his wife at their agreed upon time, the book takes a turn from a story about a man coping with the aftermath of catastrophe, and evolves into a harrowing tale of unlawful incarceration. Zeitoun’s family exemplifies the global movement, an increasing role to find him, wherever he is, after his disappearance continues for days on end with no word from the man himself. Zeitoun’s wife is  harangued with phone calls from her husband’s family,  “From Spain, Ahmad called Kathy every day,” (201) and, “Throughout the morning Zeitoun’s sisters and brothers called from Lattakia, from Saudi Arabia” (192). As anxiety runs its course through the days when Zeitoun is missing, his wife Kathy, amidst the tumult, is reminded of the good-natured people on the other end of the line, “She thought of Zeitoun’s family in Syria. There was such a support network there, a vast and tight fabric of  family…They were such good people, her husband’s family, everyone so well educated, so open and hospitable, each of their houses full of constant laughter” (203).

On one phone call, Zeitoun’s family asks Kathy a question as the city is reported to be devolving into an ‘animalistic state,’ “How can you live in that country? they asked. You need to move back here. Syria is much safer, they said” (193).

Position of Arwad Island (Zeitoun’s Home) in relation to the rest of Syria

Unbeknownst to his family, Zeitoun is trapped inside a FEMA prison asking the same question, “The country he had left thirty years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there, then and now, that precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States” (272). The sense of peace in the place, and prosperity as well, are all but shattered by Zeitoun’s experience of the government’s actions post-Katrina. Giroux has a similar opinion of the lack of care given by the government during the course of the event, “America had become like a ‘Third World country’ while others argued that New Orleans resembled a ‘Third World Refugee Camp’ (Giroux, 306). Zeitoun agrees, post-Katrina in his FEMA prison, “But now nothing worked” (273).

The sense of place carries the book, the happiness felt in Spain and Syria compared to the anxiety and strife experienced in New Orleans and Phoenix. And those places, are inextricably linked with the wholesome family members that reside there. Before the storm, Zeitoun’s house in New Orleans was his home away from Syria, and he planned to keep it that way as his family had defended their homes, “[Zeitoun’s] grandmother had stayed put during countless storms in her home on Arwad Island, and he planned to do the same. A home was worth fighting for” (70). But after the storm, alone in a prison cell charged for something he didn’t do, with only his family in far away nations wishing him well, he wavered unto pessimism from the United States that had dejected him, “This country was not unique. This country was fallible. Mistakes were being made. He was a mistake”(273).  Against all good will, Zeitoun’s suspicions of the racially charged malicious intent directed upon himself for his unlawful incarceration, bring Zeitoun to disown the faith he once had in his new home, “Zeitoun did not entertain such thoughts lightly. They went against everything he knew about his adopted country” (265).


Grioux, Henry A. “Violence, Katrina, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.” Http://Cretscmhd.psych.ucla.edu, Www.sagepublications.com, 2007, cretscmhd.psych.ucla.edu/nola/volunteer/EmpiricalStudies/Violence, Katrina, and the biopolitics of disposability.pdf.

Eggers, David. Zeitoun. Penguin, 2010.

“Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Aftermath 10 Years Later.” Elevate Christian Network, 16 Oct. 2015, elevatechristiannetwork.com/hurricane-katrina-10-years-later/.

“Ile Rouad, French Occupation (1915 – 1920).” Dead Country Stamps and Banknotes, 12 Dec. 2013, www.dcstamps.com/ile-rouad/.

1 thought on “Waiting A Lifetime For The Storm: Challenging temporal, familial, and national bonds in David Eggers’ Zeitoun

  1. Hi Matt, thanks for the post, your interpretation of the novel isn’t one that I had considered – the significance of place and home hadn’t quite struck me in the ways you’ve outlined. My own interpretation of the text revolved more around its fixation on failures to protect the vulnerable, and the animal motifs that crop up around that fixation (“These dogs had been left behind, and now they knew it. There was a bewilderment, an anger in their cries that cut the night to shards” (Eggers, 103)), so it’s interesting to think about what alternative angles you could approach it from.

    I think I would take issue with your take on the novel’s ending though. Had Egger’s actually committed to ending the text on a more pessimistic note, in which more emphasis was placed on how Zeitoun’s faith in the country was conclusively broken, I think I would have found his handling of the material more sincere. Besides which, I think such an ending would have been much easier to reconcile with some of the developments that have occurred in the lives of those involved post-publication. I would have preferred a closing note more along the lines of what you describe.

    What we have instead though, reads to me as more of an effort on Egger’s part to reach for a more optimistic note to end on, which I don’t necessarily think was warranted: “This has been the pattern of his life: ludicrous dreams folllowed by hours and days and years of work and then a reality surpassing his wildest hopes and expectations.” (Eggers, 335). Eggers here tries to characterise Zeitoun’s story as an inspirational, or uplifting one, but given the events that the novel covers prior to this point, it strikes me as unconvincing, which in turn makes me question whether the novel’s earlier uplifting moments were also coloured by this attempt to temper the negativity of its darker moments. To some extent I think the ending as-is compromises the points the novel had attempted to make up to that point.

    Of course, I can make these criticisms because I have the benefit of hindsight, and to some extent Egger’s was constrained in what what he could say in what is ostensibly a non-fiction book, but it was something that bothered me as I was reading, and I’d be interested in hearing if you have a perspective on the subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *