Earlier this month my book group discussed Dave Egger’s Zeitoun. A work of nonfiction, Zeitoun takes a look at Hurricane Katrina and how one Syrian-American man and his family are swept into a terrible storm of a different kind in the aftermath of the natural disaster in New Orleans.
The book fostered a wonderful discussion and many admitted that they knew little about Hurricane Katrina, the government’s response and the violations of civil liberties perpetrated against Americans in the wake of the storm. One reader even professed that it made her think differently and more openly about Muslim-Americans. Our discussion of Zeitoun really awoke for me the power of reading and discussion in broadening our perspective and understanding.
After our discussion, my colleague, Tina Mat, shared some excellent discussion questions that she created for her own group’s discussion. While other discussion questions and guides exist, I thought that Tina’s questions were really great so I had to share them with you:
1. A central theme of this book is faith. Do you see any parallels between losses of faith (such as Kathy’s loss of faith prior to her conversion to Islam and Zeitoun’s loss of faith in the system) or keeping faith (Zeitoun’s prayers while imprisoned or the family’s faith in post-Katrina New Orleans)?
2. A major turning point in the book is when Zeitoun and his friends are arrested. How did your impression of what the story is about change after this point?
3. Compare Zeitoun’s experience as a Syrian living in America to Kathy’s as a white Muslim.
4. Do you think Zeitoun put the interests of his business and property in front of his family? Was he justified in staying behind in New Orleans? How did you feel when he ignored his chances to evacuate?
5. Do you think this book’s criticism of FEMA, the court system, and the Federal response to Katrina is fair? Why or why not?
6. What kinds of messages does Eggers send about human beings’ drive to help one another and take advantage of one another in times of crisis?
7. Despite Zeitoun’s hard work and wholesome lifestyle he is punished by flooding and
imprisonment. Do you read any religious overtones in this?
8. Part III (p.173-202) of Zeitoun is told entirely from Kathy’s perspective and is quite suspenseful. Describe how you felt reading this part.
9. For better or worse, Zeitoun’s impression of what is happening in New Orleans during Katrina differs greatly from what Kathy and Ahmad see on TV. What role(s) do you think the news media plays in a disaster? What role(s) should they play?
10. When Zeitoun first arrives at Camp Greyhound he notices a disturbing mural of Louisiana state history (p. 213-14). Is this the real mural or otherwise? What effect does Egger’s description of the mural have on Zeitoun? On you?
11. What is the significance of the pain in Zeitoun’s side that has no medical explanation?
12. At the end of the story, Eggers paints an optimistic picture of the future of New Orleans. Given the continued threat of hurricanes and the 2010 gulf oil spill do you agree with his optimism?