Zeitoun by Dave Eggers details the real-life experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American man who is detained in a makeshift prison camp following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Whilst the horrific details of Zeitoun’s arrest and detainment is a primary example of racial and religious discrimination, the build-up of the novel detailing the importance of religion for the Zeitoun family and Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a powerful effect for readers. The religious discrimination portrayed in the novel provokes sympathy for its readers but also serves as an anti-prejudice mechanism to debunk pre-conceived notions of the Islamic faith and an education on its principles.
The war against terror by the Bush administration had a tremendous effect on the rescue operation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Michael Eric Dyson details on how the war in Iraq ‘stymied the response’ of the National Guard in New Orleans and diverted the resources from the Army Corps of Engineers. (Dyson 80) Dyson also notes the budget cuts administered by President Bush for the Corps, as the budget for the Iraq war increased. (Dyson 81) With funds unevenly distributed to fuel the war on terror and chaotic arrests and the creation of Guantanamo Bay, New Orleans was left a disaster zone after Hurricane Katrina, as it is depicted in the novel. It also illustrates the panic felt by the United States government over Islamic terrorism. Judith Butler writes that ‘fears can give rise to an impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of action’ (Butler 29) Not only is this transparent in Zeitoun’s imprisonment in Camp Greyhound but is alluded to throughout the novel especially in the religious discrimination faced by Kathy, Zeitoun’s wife.
The entire passage describing Kathy’s conversion is carefully plotted out to disprove the discriminatory stereotypes that are often associated with people of the Muslim faith. As Kathy recounts her discovery of Islam and journey through the religious conversion, she mentions some of her findings while learning about the basic principles of the Islamic faith. She learns that she was misinformed of Muhammed’s role in Islam and believed Him to be ‘the actual God of Islam’ (Eggers 72) and also that Allah means God in Arabic and that Christians in the Arab World actually refer to God as Allah. (Eggers 76) Eggers draws upon the similarities between Christianity and Islam in order to familiarise readers of the connections between the faiths whilst also gaining sympathy and understanding for the religious discrimination faced by Muslim followers. Kathy, alongside the readers, is discovering that her previous beliefs about Islam were false.
The passages that describe Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a defensive tone as if Kathy is speaking to a critical stranger. These thought processes are directly pointed at the reader, as well as disapproving figures in Kathy’s life. Kathy described how Islam gave her a ‘sense of personal responsibility’ and how she liked the ‘dignity and purity’ that she found in other Muslim women she had encountered. (Eggers 77) This disproves the argument of women being oppressed by Islam, which is one of the most prevalent criticisms made against the religion. By contrasting the perception of women in Islam as oppressed with the image of independence and personal freedom for women, readers are given another perspective that is often foregone.
The defence of Islam is particularly palpable in the passage illustrating different types of Muslims such as the ‘passive’, ‘uncertain’, ‘borderline agnostic’ and ‘devout’, and pointing out those who ‘twist the words of the Qur’an’ to enact personal desires (such as Islamic terrorists). Kathy draws upon these notions of Muslim people to the defence of Islam and says these characters are ‘familiar’ and ‘intrinsic to any faith’. (Eggers 72) This deconstruction of Islam, and especially to the different kind of people that practice Islam, is debunking the stereotypes and myths about the Islamic faith. This passage portraying Kathy’s education of Islam translates to the education of the reader also, as if Eggers is attempting to deconstruct people’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Islam, which is made easier by beginning from the groundwork of a topic and building upon it. The defence of Islam is commonplace for many Muslims in the West, with the increased prejudice and hate directed towards the community. Nguyen references this in the USA and states that the number of hate crimes towards the Muslim community increased after September 11 (Nguyen xxii) and that criminal prosecution against civil immigration violations increased due to the inflated fear of Muslim individuals. (Nguyen 140) This portion of the novel not only is an education for Kathy, but also for the reader. The association between Islam and Islamic terrorism is separated and Eggers decides to explore the rudimentary basics of the religion that the reader otherwise may not have known.
Baudrillard stresses that the ‘real victory’ of terrorist actions is the obsession with security in the West and the ‘perpetual terror’ that is formed in societies through fear-mongering. (Baudrillard 62) With the ever-presence of ISIS, suicide bombers in Europe and the anti-immigration rhetoric, increasing political tensions and furthering religious discrimination in non-Muslim countries, the importance of this anti-prejudice message is as relevant now to the Western world as it was when Zeitoun was first published.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism: and, Other essays. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Come High or Hellwater: Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.
Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Nguyen, Tram. We are all suspects now: untold stories from immigrant communities after 9/11. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.