Different culture comes alive for young readers

Book Review: "Words in the Dust," by Arthur A. Levine Books.

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People around the world have their own customs, their own rituals. Cultural differences determine ways of living, influenced by geography, history and politics.

New author Trent Reedy creates a foreign yet familiar world in his debut novel "Words in the Dust" (Arthur A. Levine Books, ages 9-12). A world away in rural Afghanistan, a girl named Zulaikha exhibits the kind of strength of spirit that is heroic in any culture.

Zulaikha lives in a small Afghani village with her father, his second wife, three brothers and a sister. Readers first meet Zulaikha when she arises one morning to the sound of the prayer call.

She strives to be a good daughter and faithfully answers the prayer call each morning. She dearly loves her beautiful older sister, Zeynab, and struggles to get along with her father's difficult second wife, Malehkah.

Then Mr. Reedy reveals what marks Zulaikha as different from the beautiful Zeynab: She has a cleft lip.

The simple surgery involved in repairing a cleft lip is taken for granted by most people in America. For Zulaikha, the idea of repairing her disfigurement is the stuff of fantasy.

While she lives her life with a certain grace and humility, her deformity is a source of obvious disgust and disdain for many people in her village. It is only in the sanctuary of her home that Zulaikha feels comfortable. And even there she must deal with Malehkah's constant scrutiny and disapproval.

Zulaikha's appearance is not the only thing that marks her as different. She possesses a strong will and a desire to learn.

Unfortunately, education for girls and women is not accepted in her small town. There is only one school -- and only boys are allowed to attend.

This makes life in rural Afghanistan particularly difficult for smart but shy and insecure Zulaikha. In her world, beauty and subservience to a father or husband are the most valued traits in women.

Intelligence is not only overlooked but often scorned. As her sister remarks, "What good are all those books to a woman with a good husband?"

The sudden arrival of American soldiers in her village sets off a chain of events that change not only Zulaikha's life, but also the lives of everyone around her. Flush with the prospect of business and wealth, Zulaikha's father begins the process of marrying off 15-year-old Zeynab. He loves his children but is very traditional in his views toward women and their roles in Afghani society.

The whole family is stunned to find out that the Americans have seen Zulaikha and wish to help her get the surgery that would repair her lip. Zulaikha's father is eager to help his daughter until he discovers that the soldier in command is a woman.

Zulaikha watches as her strong-willed father struggles with the idea of men being subservient to a woman. She knows that regardless of how much she wants the surgery, this decision, as every other decision in her life, will ultimately be made by her father.

Mr. Reedy eloquently paints a picture of post-Taliban Afghanistan. People such as Zulaikha's father are torn. They are eager to profit from the arrival of American soldiers and embrace certain aspects of the Americans' views. But they are slow to disentangle themselves from the gender inequality that has formed the basis for Afghani social norms for so long.

Zulaikha's father seems to be almost physically affected by the female soldier's casual manner toward him and her authoritarian tone toward her male subordinates. He wonders aloud how such a military superpower such as the United States could have become such a dominant power with women in command.

Zulaikha's world is further shaken when she meets Meena, an old acquaintance of her mother's. She had been a professor before the rise of the Taliban.

Zulaikha has known only a world in which women are considered unequal to men. It is astounding that a woman had once taught in a prestigious university with female and male students.

Through Meena, Zulaikha learns of her mother's devotion to poetry. She feels connected to her lost mother through the beauty and power of language.

Meena agrees to act as Zulaikha's muallem, her teacher. Meena opens up the world of literature for Zulaikha and gives her a sense of self-worth.

In "Words in the Dust," Mr. Reedy provides readers with an intimate glance into Zulaikha's life. We feel the hardships of her daily life, and we cling to her hard-won moments of joy.

Zulaikha's voice rings true. Mr. Reedy deftly uses Dari, her language, to bring authenticity to the story. However, the author's perspective clearly shaped her story.

As a soldier on active duty in Afghanistan, Mr. Reedy no doubt formed strong opinions about Afghani culture and the role of the U.S. soldiers there. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to paint the soldiers' intentions as purely altruistic.

Mr. Reedy portrays the soldiers as readily accepted by the people in the village. While there is little doubt that the arrival of soldiers has brought about positive changes in Afghanistan, readers should be aware that many have not been welcomed with open arms.

Still, "Words in the Dust" is a beautifully written novel that introduces young readers to a fascinating culture. Zulaikha's strength of character helps to bridge the cultural gap and encourages readers to embrace and understand new and unfamiliar customs.

Laura Bandura is BLAST School Outreach, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Youth Services.


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