Dusty scenes of strife-filled Afghanistan have blanketed computer and TV screens in the last decade. But what do we know of the actual people whose lives have been warped by the Taliban?
Meet Zulaikha, a 13 year-old Afghan girl whose opportunities are constrained not only by fear, customs, and oppression, but also by her cleft lip. For Zulaikha, a mundane trip to the market can mean fresh torture, as at any moment she might hear a local bully’s dreaded cry of “Donkeyface!” Even at home she meets with harsh treatment, especially from her younger brother. How can she hope for a better life? Her sister, the only one with whom she can share her feelings, will soon marry and move out. That will leave Zulaikha with all the chores and, as her stepmother reminds her, little chance of her own husband and home. If only she could learn to read and write as her mother did … but that, too, seems impossible.
Words in the Dust, the debut novel by Trent Reedy, provides an eye-opening view of life in contemporary Afghanistan, particularly as experienced by women. Reedy’s perspective was hard won. When he was nearing the end of his six-year term in the National Guard, he was called to active duty in Afghanistan in 2004. He and his unit encountered a girl named Zulaikha who had a severe cleft lip, and arranged to have an army doctor perform the much-needed surgery.
Yet Reedy has not created some trite, reassuring made-for-TV story. As the plot unfolds, cultures clash, as when the American doctor unknowingly insults Zulaikha’s father, and the girl almost misses her chance at the surgery she so desperately wants. Most moving, though, is the gender-related conflict in Afghan society, as females encounter a web of sexist restrictions. Zulaihka finds she will need more than a pretty face to thrive in her harsh environment. She needs a mentor, a wise woman who will help her develop her intellect. When she stumbles upon that person, events unfold that bring her closer to her stepmother and to the mother who was killed by the Taliban for daring to read books of poetry.
Reedy is donating a portion of his royalties to Women for Afghan Women, an organization working for education and humans rights for women.
Complemented by a glossary, author’s notes, and recommended titles for further reading, this novel will provide a rich and rewarding reading experience for ages 11 and older. Note: Scholastic sent me a free advance copy of this novel, for which I am grateful. I have offered my genuine opinions of the book, as always.
For younger children, turn to Greg Mortenson’s Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea.
- Afghan women are still at risk | Ivan Simonovic (guardian.co.uk)