Every triumph from patience springs,
The happy herald of better things...
Thirteen year old Zulaikha lives in the village of An Daral with her father, his second wife Malehkah, her fifteen year old sister Zeynab, her 19 year old brother Najib, and her half brothers Khalid and Habib. Her mother is dead (we learn her fate later on in the story) and her father's second wife is not kind to her. Zulaikha's life is hard. Zulaikha has had the misfortune to have been born with a cleft palate. This disfiguration makes it difficult for her to eat and speak and has opened her to taunts from adults and children alike. Zulaikha not only feels disgusting and ugly but also shame.
The story opens with the arrival of American troops into the village of An Daral. Initially, many of the people are afraid of the Americans whom they consider shocking and ignorant in their behaviour towards Afghani's, but they also have hope for the future. Zulaikha's father and brother are welders and they are soon hired on by the American's to build their base. This means the family will have money to improve their lives.
For a teenage girl like Zulaikha however, life isn't really all that different from the days before the Americans arrived. She doesn't attend school and she spends most of her time doing chores and running errands for Malehkah. One day Zulaikha meets Meena, a middle-aged widow who was a professor of literature at the university in Herat before the war with Russia. After the war, during the Taliban years, Meena ran a clandestine study group for men and women who loved literature and the ancient Afghan poets. Zulaikha learns from Meena that her beloved mother adored the great Sufi poet, Jami and his famous poem, Yusuf and Zulaikha. Zulaikha remembers her mother teaching her to read but because her mother died when she was four years old, she can only remember a few words. Meena tries to entice Zulaikha to learn, telling her about poets such as Firdawi, Jami, Hafez and Abdullah Ansari. When Zulaikha asks her to teach her to read, Meena agrees. In order to practice the words and alphabet she has been taught, Zulaikha, practices writing in the dirt - hence the title of the book.
Things are about to change even more for Zulaikha though. She is taken by her father and brother to meet the Americans who have seen her and who want to help her by having an American Army surgeon repair her facial deformity. Zulaikha meets Captain Mindy Edmanton, a medical officer who takes a picture of her mouth. For Zulaikha, it is her greatest wish come true. Could it be possible that these soldiers who have come to fight the Taliban would also want to help her? To her it is incomprehensible.
When she returns from her surgery and after discussing her future with Meena, Zulaikha decides that she would like to study in Herat. Her father does not want initially agree to this. He believes it is not the place for a woman to be educated. The American's have brought strange ideas with them. Zulaikha finds an ally in Malehkah who hopes for something better for the young women of Afghanistan.
Words in the Dust does a good job of exploring a number of issues related to Afghanistan as well as portraying life there to young American teens. Among the issues explored are the American role in Afghanistan, the cultural differences between Afghanistan and people from the West, man-woman relationships, the role of women in Afghan society, and the rights of women. Younger teens should be forewarned however, that there is a graphic description of the burn injuries of a young Afghani woman in the book. Older teens may find the frequent quotes from the poet Jami's work, Yusuf and Zualikha fascinating and want to read parts or all of the poem. This work can be found in partial form online here.
Trent Reedy, who was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard was called up for active duty in Afghanistan in 2004 and spent a year serving overseas. While overseas, he became convinced that he would love to write books for children. Upon his return to the United States, Reedy received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Words in the Dust is based on a true event that occurred while he was in Afghanistan.
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
Arthur A. Levine Books 2011