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Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy opens this way:
I traced the letters in the dust with my finger, spelling out my name: Zulaikha.
It is the story of a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl, Zulaikha. She is rather a Cinderella figure, as her stepmother Malehkah constantly assigns her the household chores; even worse, she constantly points out Zulaikha's noticeable flaw--a cleft lip, twisted teeth, and disfigured nose. Because of this deformity (and because she is just mean), Malehkah constantly tells Zulaikha that she is not likely to get a husband.
Despite these negative elements in her life, Zulaikha is a cheerful, optimistic girl. She is closest to her beautiful older sister, Zeynab; she is fifteen and spends her days dreaming of getting married. One day Zulaikha is coming home from the market and American tanks pass by her. She is dismayed but not surprised when she sees one of the American soldiers frown when he sees her; it is something she has become used to from experience.
The arrival of the Americans is good news for Zulaikha's family, as her father (Baba) and brother (Najib) are welders and the American's hire them to help build a girls' school--despite the fact that girls have not been allowed to go to school here. Zulaikha's real mother could read, but she died before she could teacher her daughters; now Zulaikha begins to dream about going to school and learning to read, though she knows her family would disapprove.
She meets Meena, a friend of her mother's and a former literature professor; Meena agrees to teach Zulaikha secretly to read, something she once promised her mother she would do. Meena tells Zulaikha that beauty is not the most important thing about a woman, but that is not what Zulaikha has been taught and finds Meena's ideas hard to accept.
One day Zulaikha is summoned to the site of the school her family is working on, and a female American officer takes photos of Zulaikha's mouth. The Americans tell Baba that they want to fix her face so she can look "normal," but Zulaikha finds that hard to believe.
Baba has arranged a marriage between Zeynab and his business associate's brother--who is forty-five and has two other wives. Zeynab is shocked but believes her father has her best interest at heart. Her wedding is disappointingly like a business arrangement.
When Baba takes Zulaikha to the airport so she can get her surgery, the helicopter is unable to go because it is too windy; when Captain Mindy tells Baba he will have to bring her back next week, they argue and Baba says he will not bring her back. Najib brings her back, and Zulaikha goes for her operation. It is successful, and in only a day she is able to talk and eat normally for the first time in her life.
Zeynab is abused by her husband and ends up in a hospital after being burned; her husband casually says, "These things happen." Zeynab dies. Najib wishes he could have been something other than a welder, and Zulaikha wants to go away to school as Meena has encouraged her to do. When she finally tells her father, it is Malehkah, surprisingly, who supports this idea. In a violent outburst, Baba hits his wife, though he later apologizes and admits he loves his daughters and only wants what is best for them; he regrets not trying to save Zenyab.
Zulaikha tells her father she wants to attend the school he is building so she can stay at home, and her parents are touched. Malehkah admits she also grew up without choices, so she is glad for Zulaikha to have them.
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