Words in the Dust, by Trent Reedy
Themes: Afghanistan; war; childhood.
Synopsis: Words in the Dust is told from the viewpoint of a young Afghan girl, Zulaikha. The story only recalls 18 months of her life, but this period is hugely seminal and life-changing for her. Zulaikha’s story is mainly driven by her misfortune of being born with a cleft-lip which distorts her mouth, nose and teeth. Zulaikha’s deformity has brought her a life of misery and suffering.
Early in the story, Zulaikha runs into an American tank and sees American soldiers for the first time. An American soldier sees her cleft-lip and takes pity on her. As a result, the US Captain pursues Zulaikha and offers to facilitate a trip for Zulaikha to undergo corrective surgery.
This begins an emotionally exhausting journey for Zulaikha as her hopes are raised and then dashed. Alongside this thread runs the story of Zulaikha’s sister being set up in an arranged marriage to a man older than her own father. Whilst these two plot lines unfurl, there is a third significant narrative. That is Zulaikha discovering the beauty of ancient Afghan literature and poetry and breaking free from her illiteracy.
I chose to read this book because it is set in Afghanistan. I have been very moved by other children’s books set in Afghanistan (Boy Overboard, The Breadwinner, The Kite Runner) and I love learning about this fascinating country through stories. Zulaikha is an original heroine – there are not many stories where the narrator suffers from a physical deformity. And Zulaikha is surely a heroine. Her character is humble, kind, generous and determined.
The author, Trent Reedy, was a US soldier serving in Afghanistan in 2004. It was his experience there that inspired Zulaikha’s story. In the author’s note, Reedy explains that whilst he was stationed in western Afghanistan, one of the soldiers saw a young girl with a cleft lip and decided to try and offer her corrective surgery.
Reading Words in the Dust, I would never have guessed that it was written by a male US soldier. Trent Reedy imagines life from Zulaikha’s view point in a hugely vivid and convincing way. The author says that in addition to his time spent in Afghanistan, he also carried out a great deal of research into the country – its people, culture and history. This was certainly well invested research, for the book is overflowing with the grit and reality of life in Afghanistan.
I feel as though I have been a ‘fly on the wall’ in Zulaikha’s household. I have grown to understand their male-dominated culture where women and men do not mix; a culture where a wife does not meet her husband until her wedding day; I saw Zulaikha’s father sweat and toil to earn an income and escape the clutches of poverty; I saw a country whose children have only ever known their country at war, and who have witnessed horrendous violence and brutality.
And yet, in a war-torn country, there is a sacred heritage of rich literature. When Zulaikha fortuitously meets Meena, an old friend of Zulaikha’s dead mother, a journey of discovery begins. Zulaikha continues to meet Meena in secret to learn how to read and write the exquisite Farsi script and recite the 1000 year old tales of Afghan poets. The snippets of poetry that are included in the story have left me wanting to find out more about this ancient literature.
Words in the Dust is my favourite type of book – one that teaches me so much but where the story is so compelling that I do not realise I am learning. There is much that contributes to this compelling nature. Already mentioned is the original viewpoint – an Afghan girl suffering from a cleft lip. In addition to Zulaikha, the other characters are also rich and varied. One particular character has a surprising twist, showing unexpected depth and complexity. Alongside these rich characters, the plot is filled with emotionally-charged events set against the fascinating backdrop of Afghanistan.
It is worth saying that it took me a couple of chapters to become fully immersed in Words in the Dust. Perhaps this was due to adjusting to a world that was wholly different to my own, with unfamiliar names and settings. However, it is hugely worthwhile to persevere, for the reader will soon be spellbound by this deeply moving and impacting story.