Words in the Dust is the story of Zulaikha, a 13-year-old Afghan girl born with a severly cleft palate. Like many Afghan girls, Zulaikah does not attend school, is unable to read or write, and spends her days tending house with her stepmother and pretty, older sister, Zeynab. Zulaikha regularly faces torment from cruel neighborhood children about her disfigured face and abuse from her stepmother, but is able to keep her dreams for a normal life someday alive.
When American soldiers roll into town and offer high-paying jobs to local Afghani citizens, including Zulaikha’s Baba (father), he declares that things are turning around for their family. And it’s true. Money is pouring in, Zulaikha meets a teacher woman who knew her mother and is willing to teach her to read and write, Zeynab is getting married soon and the soldiers have taken a special interest in fixing Zulaikha’s face, allowing her a spark of hope that her dreams could come true.
But not everything turns out as expected and Zulaikha must draw on her strength and courage to face the difficult circumstances ahead.
Words in the Dust is an interesting and unique slice-of-life look at Afghan culture, in which Reedy makes sure to differentiate the difference between the Taliban and the regular citizens, explores the impact of American soldiers in Afghanistan and the differences between the two cultures, while also pulling back the curtain on those whose lives largely remain a mystery. It’s a little slow in the beginning, but readers will be rewarded for sticking with it, for the second half of the book picks up the pace and packs a great emotional punch. In his author’s note, Reedy explains that he is neither a girl, nor an Afghan and struggled with whether this was his story to tell. He shares some statistics about illiteracy rates among Afghan women, rendering them unable to tell their own stories. It was because of that fact that Reedy ultimately decided that he had to try.
I’ve read several adult memoirs about life in Middle Eastern countries and have always found them fascinating. Reedy’s novel is an excellent introduction to an intriguing, yet often misunderstood, culture.