I have been on the look out for books that just might win the Newbery in 2012 (or my Bizarro Newbery!), so I picked up Words in the Dust by Trent Berry at the public library. Wow. Just... wow. This book took me on an emotional roller coaster that didn't stop until the end. I was happy, angry, curious, outraged, inspired and devastated.
Words in the Dust is the story of Zulaikha, a 13 year old girl living in Afghanistan. The story takes place just as the Taliban are losing power. It is important to know, that during this time, the people had very little freedom, the government was in complete control of the people. It is even more important to know that women and girls were treated horribly- HORRIBLY. Girls were not allowed to go to school, in fact, it was a crime for them to have books or to write words. Women were not allowed to work outside their home, but forced to work inside the home. Women and girls were not allowed to leave their home without covering all but their eyes (even though the temperature can climb into the 100's). Women were denied access to health care and not allowed to travel without being accompanied by a male relative. Women were treated like property- they belonged to their father or husband. A young girl of 15 could be married off to a man she never even met. It was not uncommon for men to have many wives.Now that you know all of this, you can imagine the obstacles and horrors that Zulaikha faces on a daily basis. What makes things worse for Zulaikha is the fact that she was born with a cleft lip- that means that her top lip didn't grow properly, and there is a large gap when she closes her mouth. Her teeth stick out and it is hard for her to chew- she can't keep food in her mouth without tipping her head back. When you add this disfigurement to the fact that she is a girl, her life is miserable. Oh- and another thing, her mother died years ago and she her father's 2nd wife treats Zulaikha terribly.
Whenever Zulaikha goes to the market, she is subject to ridicule. There is one boy, Anwar, who makes it his goal to tease and torment her, calling her Donkey Face and threatening her with physical violence. During one trip home from the market, Anwar chases her. He almost reaches her when a large tank full of American soldiers rounds the corner and distracts Anwar and his bully friends. Zulaikha is very frightened by the soldiers- The American soldiers had just arrived and she didn't know they were in her village. The soldiers look right at her, she drops her chadri (cloth that covers her face) and they see her cleft lip. We learn later in the book that the soldiers have taken a special interest in Zulaikha and offer to give her surgery that will fix her lip. She is thrilled to think that she will finally be as beautiful as her older sister Zeynab, and she may get a good husband and make her father proud.
While Zulaikha is rescuing her brother from Anwar, she gets caught climbing the Citadel walls and must run from a police officer. While running, she meets a woman by the name of Meena who saves her from the police. It turns out that Meena was friends with Zulaikhas mother. Zulaikha's mother was killed by the Taliban for having books and knowing how to read. Meena offers to teach Zulaikha to read. After working with Meena for several months, Zulaikha is invited to live with a female professor in a larger village in Afghanistan. If she does this, she will be able to go to college someday. She knows that her father will never allow her to go to school- he finds it silly for girls to get an education when they will only be married and have sons.
Zulaikha's older sister marries a very rich and powerful man with 2 other wives. Zeynab has looked forward to being a wife her entire life, but she soon learns that being a wife is a terrible fate. Zulaikha senses that something is wrong with her older sister, but is powerless to help her. It is not until it is too late that Zulaikha is taken seriously.
Zulaikha is faced with many things that she cannot change and cannot control. She has never known a life when she was treated with respect, appreciation or love. All her life she has only known hard work, fear and disappointment. The sad part about Zulaikha's story is that she is one of millions of Afghan women that endure this life day in and day out. Although the Taliban is no longer in power and things are changing, changes are happening very slowly- especially for women. Arranged marriages are still the norm for women and 54% of girls under the age of 18 are married. Even though women are allowed to receive an education, only 5% of Afghan women can read. With these startling statistics, there is hope- schools for girls are being reopened, and women are enrolling in universities. Women are returning to their old jobs as teachers, doctors and civil servants. Radio and television broadcasts in Kabul once again feature woman commentators.
When I think about my life as a woman, I realize how fortunate I am to live in a country where I am seen as an equal to men and my opinions and strengths are seen as valid and taken seriously. I look at my daughters and I can't imagine them living the life that Zulaikha and Zeynab did. My daughters have access to clean drinking water, adequate food, excellent education and health care and their futures hold endless possibilities. This book also opened my eyes to the fact that the women and civilians in Afghanistan are victims of the Taliban terrorists just as those impacted by 9/11. When you discriminate against these innocent people, place blame on them, accuse them, we all lose. Afghan's are peace loving people who have been destroyed by hateful men and shouldn't be lumped into the same group with them.
I was delighted to learn that the author of this book, Trent Reedy is a native Iowan. He grew up in Dysart, Iowa and attended the University of Iowa. After graduating, he enrolled in the Armed Forces to help pay for his tuition. He was called to active duty on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan where he was inspired to write this book. You can visit his website and learn the story behind the story.
Words in the Dust would make a great addition to a unit on human rights, war and peace or the middle east. I hesitate to hand this book to a child under the age of 12. All of the graphic events in the book are written beautifully, not frivolously, but could be upsetting to younger children. The names of characters and Dari words used in the book would be difficult for younger readers- although there is a glossary in the back of the book, it would take a strong reader to make it through the book with so many unknown words. The issue of an arranged marriage of a 15 year old girl to a 50+ year old man is hard for anyone to take, so I imagine it would be very difficult for younger readers. With that said, it is a wonderful book that should not be missed. Newbery? May be! We'll see!
To learn more about the struggle that women face in Afghanistan, there are many sites on the web you can visit, including these:
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan