Words in the Dust is the story of Zulaikha, a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl with a cleft lip. She spends her days cleaning, cooking, running errands, and caring for her younger brothers. Her father’s second wife, Malehkah, is constantly impatient with her no matter how hard she works. Nearly every day, Malehkah reminds Zulaikha that it will be hard to find a husband for her because of her facial deformity.
Nevertheless, Zulaikha is relatively happy. She loves her family, especially her fifteen-year-old sister, Zeynab, who is as beautiful as Zulaikha is ugly. Zeynab dreams that she will one day be married to a man she loves. For now, she spends her days much as Zulaikha does: following Malehkah’s impatient orders.
One day while Zulaikha is bringing home a batch of flatbread called nan from the market, she sees tanks full of American soldiers roll into town. One of the soldiers sees her face and frowns, which does not surprise her. Everyone looks disgusted when they see her face. It is still scary to see this reaction from a man holding a big gun.
In spite of this encounter, the arrival of the Americans is good news for Zulaikha’s family. Her father, whom she calls Baba, and her older brother, Najib, are welders. The Americans decide to build a new school for girls in their town, and the Americans hire Baba and Najib to do all the welding work. When she hears this, Zeynab points out that girls do not go to school. Baba says he does not care; he is just happy to have steady work on a big construction job. This makes Zulaikha wonder what it would be like to go to school. Her mother—her father’s first wife—could read, but she died before Zeynab and Zulaikha could learn. The idea of reading appeals to Zulaikha, but she keeps this thought to herself because she knows that her family would likely disapprove.
Zulaikha often runs errands for Malehkah. On one such excursion, she meets a woman named Meena who used to be a friend of Zulaikha’s mother. Years ago, Meena was a literature professor at a university in the Afghan city of Herat. Now she is a dressmaker, but she still remembers the poetry and literature she used to teach. Zulaikha remembers that, when she was very young, she promised her mother she would learn to read if she could. She asks Meena to tutor her, and Meena says she would be honored. Zulaikha is excited but feels conflicted because she is afraid to tell Zeynab...
(The entire section is 2776 words.)
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