Eggers emphasizes that the chief cost of disaster--be it natural or man-made--is the way it robs individuals of their dignity. Both victims and those who abused their power lose a sense of humanity. After Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun observes that although the old woman he rescues will survive the storm, she has lost her dignity. When he himself is imprisoned, he objects the most to procedures which dehumanize him and efface his dignity, such as the strip searches and being served pork, which is forbidden in Islam. Independently of the hurricane, Kathy appreciates Islam because she believes its principles of purity and chastity endow women with dignity. Indeed, her worst encounters with prejudice are ones where her dignity is affronted--for example, when a teenager tries to pull of her hijab, or her sister refuses to shelter Adnan and Abeer because they are Muslim.
Although it turns out that the police who arrest Zeitoun are not actually racist, Eggers makes it clear that Islamophobia influenced Zeitoun's experiences during Katrina (as well as the family's life before). While in prison, Zeitoun is accused of being a member of both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Meanwhile, Kathy's hijab causes tensions between her and her sisters, with whom she stays during the storm. Eggers acknowledged in an interview that one of the purposes of the book was to combat Islamophobia by showing Americans that Muslims are "average people" just like themselves (Whitman). Especially in portraying Zeitoun's familial experiences in Syria, Eggers paints a complete picture of a man who is more than the sum of his faith or country of origin.
One of the reasons that Zeitoun wishes to stay in New Orleans is so he can bear witness to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. This compulsion is depicted in different ways throughout the novel, ranging from childlike exploration to an unbearable duty. Indeed, Zeitoun itself can be read as an act of...