"We were going to be assigned to one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) stationed at small bases around Afghanistan. These PRTs were designed to help the Afghan people establish schools and improve roads and communications. The army hoped the peace secured by the PRTs could offer Afghans a chance to build a better future for themselves, free of the influence of the oppressive Taliban militias."
Trent Reedy is one of many soldiers who has played a major role in this touching story, and here he recounts his experiences in rebuilding a vital Middle Eastern community, where he met a timid 13-year-old girl with a cleft lip. As a "good Afghan girl," Zulaikha doesn't typically speak to American soldiers, let alone associate with any men or foreign women outside of her family. Her encounter with American troops thus came quite by accident one day, and WORDS IN THE DUST tells of the realities of this girl's life during a period when American troops organized rebuilding efforts in villages and cities across Afghanistan.
Zulaikha would be considered an average Afghan adolescent in the sense that she is very much a conformist, a devoted Muslim who observes traditional ideals, and having been born into a fairly large family. She and her family have adapted to a life of extreme poverty and oppression, and luxuries or amenities such as a dishwasher or washing machine are simply unheard of there. Zulaikha's family seems to have accepted their lot in life while dreaming of bigger and better things --- but only in secret --- and her personal hardships are compounded by a congenital birth defect. Since she was a baby, she has lived with a cleft lip and been branded as a freak. Making daily trips to the market or even leaving the house are tasks she dreads, requiring every last ounce of courage for her to get through daily ordeals out in public.
Though Zulaikha receives the brunt of her abuse because of her extreme facial disfigurement, her vivid imagination and bright personality do overcome, allowing her dreams to take hold and bringing cheer to her tasks and responsibilities. Zulaikha envisions a better world and a secure future for herself, hoping one day to make some lucky man a good wife. But the simple truth is she has no prospects and is unlikely to have any real security as an adult. Her father's employment opportunities are few and far between, but the arrival of the Americans has changed everything. With Western influences and people have come money and better employment opportunities and prospects for everyone.
Zulaikha's encounters with all kinds of people make it crystal clear that her country's stance on Westerners, particularly Americans, is a complicated issue. Some lesser-known opinions by Afghans are offered on many different topics, including feelings about the occupation of their country and communities, perceptions on American culture and norms, fears and assessments of the Taliban and its destructive influence over the decades, views on the differences between Afghan men and women and status, and some surprising opinions concerning the newly established government. Zulaikha's story makes it quite clear that the Afghans tend to have an inherent distrust of the system, and readers will see some ugly sides to the culture that traditionally supports abhorrent treatment of both women and girls.
WORDS IN THE DUST is an affecting, exotic story about a shy adolescent whose greatest desires are simply to be accepted and to receive the opportunity to become literate --- things most Americans tend to take for granted. Readers of varying ages should appreciate this unusual, well-written novel, and I guarantee it will change preconceived notions about the situation in the Middle East. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on April 4, 2011