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 about the arrangement. Zeynab believes that girls should not read and would probably tell Baba or Malehkah, who would surely end the lessons. She decides it is safest to keep it a secret, but it feels wrong.
One afternoon Malehkah makes Zulaikha put on her best clothes and go with Najib to the site where the men are helping build the girls’ school. On the way, Najib explains that the American soldiers want to see Zulaikha and that she must obey them, whatever they say. He says she will be safe, but he seems nervous.
When Zulaikha meets the soldiers, she is petrified. One of them is a woman, a medical officer named Captain Mindy; she goes bareheaded without seeming ashamed and barks orders at her male companions. She takes a series of pictures of Zulaikha’s mouth and then gives her some toys and hair clips.
At the end of this meeting, Zulaikha hears Baba explain to Najib that the Americans want to fix her mouth and lip and make her look right. At first she does not believe this. She wonders how anyone could make a deformed face look ordinary—and why the Americans would be interested in improving an Afghan girl’s appearance. Baba has no answers to these questions, but he seems to believe the soldiers. He tells Zulaikha that he will arrange everything when he has the time.
Baba and Najib now have steady welding work in their hometown of An Daral and they have a chance to get more work through a rich man’s construction company in the neighboring city of Farah. The men are excited about this but Malehkah seems unhappy. One afternoon Malehkah orders Zulaikha to help her fix Zeynab’s hair. She gives Zeynab a cake to eat all by herself—which is unheard of—and tells her to stay silent and keep her eyes down when she is invited to sit with the visitors who come to the house in the evening. Zeynab and Zulaikha are both confused. They wonder about the visitors and what they would want with a fifteen-year-old girl.
That evening some women come to sit in the parlor with Malehkah and Zeynab. Zulaikha stays in the kitchen, feeling worried, until Zeynab emerges from the room looking dazed. “I think...I’m...I think I’m going...going to be married,” she says. Zulaikha is shocked. Fifteen is quite young for marriage, but Zeynab explains that Baba wants her to marry the brother of his new business partner in Farah. The man is about forty-five and already has two wives, but Zeynab tries to be positive about the arrangement. An older man will be established in his business and, therefore, capable of providing for her and her children. “Anyway, Baba knows what’s best,” she says, and Zulaikha agrees. Baba has always done what is best for his family, so he must think this man is a perfect match for Zeynab.
For the next couple of weeks, Zulaikha works harder than she has ever worked in her life, cleaning the house and preparing food for a series of traditional visits from the women of Zeynab’s new family. At these gatherings, the women mock Zulaikha’s appearance. After these humiliating experiences, Zulaikha manages to slip away for lessons with Meena, who tries to convince her that appearance matters far less than knowledge and intelligence do. Zulaikha is not convinced. She has been taught that a woman’s worth is contingent mainly on her ability to attract and please a husband. Without beauty, she can do neither.
Shortly before Zeynab’s wedding, Baba announces that he and Zulaikha will fly to a hospital in the city of Kandahar for the operation that will fix her mouth. He drives her to the American base in Farah. When they arrive, they are told to park well away from the compound and enter on foot. The soldiers claim they are welcome, but Baba is forced to let a soldier check his whole body for weapons as if he were a criminal.
When Zulaikha and Baba finally make it past security, Captain Mindy greets them and tells Baba through an interpreter that they cannot make the trip to Kandahar today. She explains that the helicopter cannot fly because of windy weather. Baba complains that he took time off his work and traveled a long way and that Captain Mindy must do the surgery. The captain laughs, which humiliates him, and asks him to come back next week, when the helicopter will make the trip again. Baba says he cannot take more time off work, and the...
(The entire section is 2776 words.)