Questions for Zeitoun

These discussion questions were developed by the class that read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers in spring 2012.

  • What are your first impressions of this book? What surprised you?
  • What social and ethical issues did the book raise in your mind?
  • What do you remember of Hurricane Katrina? Did reading this book bring back memories?
  • The way this section unfolds, we learn a lot about the Zeitoun family and their life in New Orleans before the storm. We learn something about the backgrounds of both Kathy and Abdulraman and we learn quite a lot about Abdulraman’s family in Syria. In many ways, they are a typical American family, except for their religion and Zeitoun’s status as an immigrant.  Did you feel connected to this family? Did you get a good picture of who they are?
  • What do we learn about Kathy, reading about her conversion to Islam? How did you feel about that part of the book?
  • Do you get a strong sense of who Zeitoun is? How would you describe him?
  • Why do you think the author included so much of Zeitoun’s background in Syria? If that were left out, would it make any difference?
  • In general, what do you think about the author’s strategy for telling this story? It’s written almost like a novel. He recounts things he only knows second-hand as if he were there. Did that ever bother you? Did you ever feel manipulated, or wonder if facts were being colored for emotional effect?
  • What about the place, New Orleans. Have you ever been there? Does what you learn in this book jibe with your ideas about the city?
  • Do you think Zeitoun should have left the city when Kathy asked him to, or did he have a valid reason for staying? What motivated him to stay?
  • How did the experiences Zeitoun had in the flooded city reinforce his decision to stay?
  • A lot of people decided to stay in the city, even after a mandatory evacuation was declared. Why do people resist evacuating in a situation like this?
  • In one scene, Zeitoun sees a horse all by himself, grazing on some high ground. What did that image convey to you?
  • Kathy went to stay with her family. What did the way her family reacted to her situation say about her family ties? What does it say about her faith?
  • Kathy lied to her children and told them Zeitoun was okay when in fact she didn’t know where he was and feared he was dead. Was lying to the children the right thing to do?
  • Zeitoun went to lengths to feed abandoned dogs. What did that say about him and his priorities? What would you have done in his situation?
  • What did you think about Zeitoun’s arrest and imprisonment? What would lead police and guards to behave the way they did? Why did they jump so quickly to the assumption that Zeitoun might be a terrorist? Were the authorities justified in being on the look out for terrorists under the circumstances?
  • One of the recurring issues in this book is the carelessness or deliberate indifference of people in position of authority. In this final section, for example, the nurse who lost his paperwork requesting a doctor. Then, when he’s finally interviewed by Homeland Security officials, they seem brisk and businesslike and apologize to Zeitoun after asking a few questions. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt trapped in a bureaucracy, unable to get simple questions answered or get a problem solved? What does this suggest about how individuals should act in an official capacity – the relationship between the individual and the role they play in a workplace or organization?
  • Even after his interview and the DHS apology, Zeitoun was in limbo. Did this surprise you? Were you shocked at the amount of bail required for his freedom?
  • One of the arresting officers, Ralph Gonzalez, gives his side of the story. Did you feel any more sympathetic to the police after that? What about Donald Lima (who “considered looting a necessary part of their mission”)? He based his arrest on misidentifying the men as looters he’d seen earlier and because he thought they acted suspicious. Was he justified, under the circumstances. Both officers said their job was done once they made the arrest. In a case like this, who is at fault?
  • Though somewhat reassured that anti-Muslim feelings didn’t lead to the arrest, the Zeitouns concluded it wasn’t a case of individuals misbehaving, the system was flawed. Do you agree that this demonstrates a “the barrel itself was rotten”?
  • When Kathy tells Zeitoun’s family he’s safe, his elder brother tells her she should lie to the family. “We cannot tell them he’s in prison.” Once again, people are protecting their family members from the truth. What did you think of that?
  •  When Kathy insisted on getting Zeitoun’s wallet back, she found the assistant DA to be humane when he finally gave it to him. How did you feel about that scene?
  • Todd Gambino spent five months in prison, Ronnie 8 months, Nasser Dayoub 6 months. They didn’t get their money back. We don’t really get to know much about their situations, but in many ways they suffered more because they didn’t have family advocating for them. The system seems haphazard and unfair. What would it take to make it more fair?
  • Finally, the book ends on an uplifting and optimistic note. How did you feel as you finished the book?
  • Overall, what would you tell others about this book? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

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