Authors: Trent Reedy
In the fall of 2004, I received a letter with an APO return address. I get a lot of letters about my books, but this was the first letter I’d ever received from a soldier on active duty. That letter began a correspondence, and more importantly, a friendship that has grown over the years. It was a while before Trent confessed to me his ambition to write for young people, and aside from his wonderful letters, he has never asked me to read anything he’s written.
So when his editor asked me if I’d like to see
Words in the Dust
, I was thrilled. I’d been eager to read this book ever since Trent first told me he was going to try to write it. And he has done in Zulaikha exactly what I hoped he would do. He has given me an Afghan friend for whom I care so deeply I cannot read a news report without wondering how what has occurred is affecting her life. I am passionate about peace, but when my like-minded friends demand an immediate pullout of NATO troops, my first thought is: But if we leave the country to the Taliban, what will happen to the women, what will happen to the girls, what will happen to Zulaikha?
Someday we trust she will be able to tell her own story. In the meantime, I am profoundly grateful for an introduction to a land and culture that are foreign to me through this beautiful and often heartbreaking tale of one strong and compassionate girl. She will live on in my heart and, I feel sure, the heart of every reader of this fine book.
— Katherine Paterson
National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
I traced the letters in the dust with my finger, spelling out my name:
. Squinting my eyes in this middle time between night and morning, I checked to make sure my brothers and sister were still sleeping. Then I began to write the alphabet.
Alif, be, pe, te….
What was the next letter?
I wriggled my fingers in the cool brown powder before I swept out what I’d written. “I’m sorry, Madar-jan,” I whispered, hoping that somehow her spirit could hear me. “I’m forgetting what you taught me.”
My sister, Zeynab, still slept on her toshak next to mine. Her shiny, straight black hair draped over her smooth, round face and her pretty mouth. She licked her lips in her sleep. No matter how many times I looked at her, I was always fascinated by her beauty, wishing I could be even half as pretty as she was. I found my blue chador and pulled it up over my face. It needed a wash, smelling of salt and smoke.
Roosters crowed, and a few dogs barked. The small city of An Daral still slept, but not for much longer.
“Allahu Akbar” came the voice of the muezzin over the speaker a few streets away, calling the faithful to prayer. The day had begun.
Zeynab rubbed her eyes. “Ooooh, so early.” She turned to
Khalid and Habib, who stirred on their toshaks. “I wish I was still young enough to stay sleeping.”
I didn’t say anything, but poured water from a pitcher into a tub to perform wudu’ and cleanse myself for prayer. Zeynab did the same, and then we faced west on our rugs and went through our prayers, standing, bowing, sitting, and always giving thanks and praise to Allah the most merciful. This was the best prayer of the day. Soon Allah would bring the sun up behind us and touch us with its warmth.
After we rose from our prayer rugs, Zeynab went right back to her toshak to sleep. I never understood what she gained from maybe two minutes more of sleep time. I turned to watch the morning glow, the golden pink swell of light building behind the mountains to the east.
In the name of Allah the most merciful and his prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, I give thanks for this new day and ask help so that I can be a daughter my mother would have been proud of. So that I might be a blessing and not a burden to my father.
Then I added as I always did,
And please grant me peace with Malehkah
With my personal prayers finished, I stepped over to my sister and gently shook her shoulder.
Zeynab groaned. “Come on, Zulaikha, just a bit longer. Malehkah hasn’t even called for us yet.”
I tugged her sleeve. “Like the muezzin says, prayer is better than sleep.”
She yawned. “Maybe I pray in my sleep. In my dreams.”
“You don’t mean that,” I said. “Anyway, Malehkah will already have the tea and rice ready. She’ll be —”
“Zulaikha. Zeynab.” Malehkah’s sharp voice cut through the morning stillness and echoed off the compound walls. She did not like it when we kept her waiting. This was true.
“Zeynab,” I said, though her name always sounded more like
when I said it. “Let’s go.”
I started for the stairs that led down into the house, but then I saw that my little brother Khalid had twisted out of his blankets. Even though he was nearly nine years old, he slept more restlessly than two-year-old Habib. When I moved his blanket up to cover him, he put his thumb in his mouth and reached for me with his other hand. I smiled and smoothed his hair as I pulled away.
“Go back to sleep, bacha,” I whispered. “I’ll have something for you to eat when you wake up.”
Malehkah waited at the base of the stairs. “What took you so long getting down here? Zeynab, look after the rice.” She nodded in my direction, her hands wrapped around her bulging stomach as if to protect her unborn baby from me. “Zulaikha, go and buy some naan. Hurry. Your father and Najibullah are hungry.”
I pulled my chador up over my head, slipping the end around to cover my face. Malehkah didn’t like looking at my mouth.
“Don’t you be talking to any shop boys either. It will
be hard enough trying to find a husband for you someday without people thinking you’re too eager.” My father’s wife held out a dirty, wrinkled one-hundred Afghani note. “And bring back the extra money. Remember, thieves lose their hands.”
“Yes, Madar.” Even though I’d had to say this for years, it still hurt to refer to my father’s second wife as
, especially when she was being so mean. I’d never stolen in my life, and I certainly never said more than was necessary to any shopkeepers. It didn’t matter. Whatever I did, Malehkah was always mad at me. Still, I had to try to please her, to prove to her that I wasn’t so terrible, and to make peace in my father’s house.
When my madar, my real mother, still lived, life with Malehkah was better. Or maybe I was just so young that everything seemed better. Madar-jan had been kind to Malehkah, helping her adjust to life with us and always placing the needs of the family ahead of her own. But I don’t know how or why my mother had been so nice to her. I thought about what she always said whenever I was upset: “‘Every triumph from patience springs, the happy herald of better things.’”
As I made my way across the front courtyard, I tried to open myself to everything around me. I felt the smooth, soft dust between my toes, and I listened to the sound of the breeze whispering and rattling through the palm leaves of our date tree. I noticed all the deep blues, greens, and reds painted onto the elaborate, metal double door at the front of
our compound. I took in the old brown smell and the warmth of the thick mud-brick wall that protected us from everything outside. Madar-jan would have reminded me to be patient enough to forget all the ugliness and focus on these good things.
I turned around to look back at our house in the middle of the compound. It wasn’t the nicest house in An Daral, just a one-story mud-brick house with five rooms, but Baba had painted the outside a pretty shade of blue. I loved my home.
“Zulaikha!” Malehkah stepped out onto the porch.
“Bale!” I hurried to the outer wall and unlocked the small single door, careful not to cut my hands on the sharp bits of metal that poked out like teeth from the welds on the lock. Then I stepped out into the street. Out into the public world.
The night’s coolness lingered in the low ruts of the bumpy, uneven road. But warm beams of sunlight shone down between the peaks of the mountains and branches of the trees overhead. I wiped my brow. When the day started this warm, the thick heat would bake everything by midday, forcing the men down to the café, where they’d sit drinking orange Zam Zam soda, talking, and watching the red line climb the thermometer almost to the very top. I walked quickly down the side of the road, wrinkling my nose at the stink of the sewage streams that trickled from the holes in the compound walls. But a little bad smell was better than walking out in the open, where someone might notice me.
Women passed me on the street, carrying naan in cloth bundles and chatting in low voices beneath their chadris. Malehkah had finally convinced Baba-jan that Zeynab was too old and too pretty to go outside the compound not covered up. When I had asked for a chadri too, Baba-jan just squeezed my shoulder, chuckled, and told me that I was too young. I was thirteen. I didn’t feel young, not like my brother Khalid. And I saw the wrinkles in the corners of my father’s eyes when he smiled at Zeynab in her new sky blue chadri. He looked very happy to see his daughter growing up. I wanted some of that smile for me too.
Just ahead was the door to the compound of one of the families in the Abdullah clan. I picked up my pace, crossing to the wall on the other side of the street and padding along as quietly as I could until I reached the river. At the best crossing place, the river was only ankle deep in summer, so I waded out and felt the cool water and the sand between my toes. Behind me, the road was empty and silent. I could relax for a moment.
At the bazaar on the east side of town, a few people already moved about their early business. A dented and rusted white pickup rattled along to deliver melons from Farah City. Big metal shutters rolled up to open stores, and shopkeepers brought their goods out for display in front of their stalls.
Everything was calm and quiet now, but that wouldn’t last long. The day’s first shoppers were already haggling over prices, the beginning of a blur of colors, smells, and sounds.
A donkey’s loud bray echoed above all the noise. Soon, people would be in the street and on every corner, pausing only to trade in the day’s gossip. Soon, there would be more people trying not to stare at my disfigured face. I pulled my chador over my mouth and hurried along to the naan shop.
“But what good will come of it? Answer me that.” The owner of the bakery squatted, flopping a ball of dough onto the cement slab on the floor. He turned it, kneaded it, and flopped it again.
“It’s freedom! We’ll get to decide for ourselves who will rule us.” A boy about Zeynab’s age stoked the fire for the tandoor.
I shifted my weight and leaned against the counter at the window. If I were a man or even an older woman in a chadri, they wouldn’t ignore me like this.
The shop owner and a very old man smoking a cigarette in the corner looked at each other and laughed. The owner added a sprinkle of water to his dough, kneaded it a little, and then spread the dough out into a long oval. The warm smell wrapped around me, reminding me that it had been a long time since I’d last eaten.
“All that I decide for myself is how much naan to bake. This election they’re so busy getting ready for. Parliament? A big American idea. And a bunch of criminal warlords running for office.” He slapped his dough down hard. “Those rich Americans want to help me? Tell them to buy some naan! For now, I don’t care who is in Kabul as long as they
leave me alone.” The owner spread out his dough and pointed at the boy and then at the oven.
“Excuse me, sahib,” I said.
He almost burst with a sigh so big one might think I’d been pestering him for a week. “What do you want?”
I had to let go of my chador to place the money on the counter. “Three pieces, please.”
As soon as the man saw my mouth, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Oh, it’s you. Yes. Get her some naan, will you?” he said to the boy. I paid the boy, who kept his eyes fixed on the floor, on the naan he was placing in the cloth I’d laid out on the counter, on the change he gave back to me, on anything except me.
“There,” said the owner. “Now go. You’ll scare away my customers.”
I turned and quickly walked away. Nobody was waiting behind me to buy the man’s naan, but nobody wanted me near their shop for very long either. I was used to it. I left the bazaar as fast as I could.
By the time I crossed the river again and made my way back to the road, the golden smell from my bundle was making my stomach rumble. I walked faster because naan tasted best when fresh. It became tough and chewy very quickly. Also, Malehkah was waiting for my return. I quickened my pace to a rapid walk, not quite a run. I should have run on the way to the bakery. I’d taken too much time.
I passed a small wooden door on my right and heard muffled laughter. The door snapped shut before I could
see who was there, but I knew who it had to be. I hurried up the road. Then I heard the door open again and footsteps behind me, quickly closing the gap. I started to run, doing my best to hold on to my bundle. I didn’t want Anwar to know I was scared of him, but I didn’t want him to hurt me either.
My toe hit a rock. I tripped and almost dropped the naan. That was all Anwar needed. He ran up ahead of me and blocked my way forward on the road while his cousins Omar and Salman blocked my way back. I took a step backward.
Anwar stepped closer. He was dressed in the loose-fitting pants and matching oversized shirt called a perahan-tunban. He also had on fine leather sandals and even a small hat with gold stitching and little round mirrors. His perfect smile would have been handsome if I didn’t already know how mean he was. I looked for a way around him, but he followed my eyes and cut me off, moving even closer to me. Much too close.
“HEEEEEE-HAAAAAAW!” Anwar dragged his sandal in the dirt like an angry bull. “Hey, Donkeyface! Where you going? Why you running?” he shouted. “I want to talk to you.”
I backed away from him, pulling my chador over my mouth, but when I hit the wall I jerked and dropped my cover.
Anwar pretended to gag and acted like he was throwing up. Omar put his hand to his mouth and pointed two fingers at me from under his nose, mocking me for the way my twisted teeth stuck straight forward from the gap in my split upper lip.
“HEEEEE-HAAAAAW! HEE-HAW!” Salman shouted until his face was red.
“You so ugly, Donkeyface. Why don’t you put on a chadri? Nobody wants to see your ugly mouth!” Anwar held a hand up to shield his eyes from my face.
“Leave me alone, Anwar,” I shouted, but my words came out as crooked as my teeth.
I shouldn’t have spoken. Omar and Salman launched into a cruel imitation of the way my cleft lip forced me to mispronounce words. But Anwar just smiled coldly and slowly stepped forward. I tried to make my legs stop shaking, but they felt as weak as soggy naan.
We stood like that for a moment. Omar galloped around in a circle and let out another long donkey call.
Suddenly, Anwar jerked back his hand to slap me. I flinched, almost dropping my food and turning my face away. But instead of hitting me, he tore a big chunk of naan from one of my pieces. Then he tore his piece to give some to Omar and Salman. I watched the other two grinning and chomping loudly with their mouths open, eating my family’s food.
Before I even thought about it, I reached out and snapped the bread from Anwar’s fingers before he could take a bite. “Thieves lose their hands!” I shouted at him.
Omar and Salman started to mock me again, but Anwar’s eyes narrowed. He turned to his cousins. “Did you hear that? This ugly, donkey-faced
is going to preach the law to us?” He spun to me. “My father is hajji! He has made the hajj to
Mecca while yours hasn’t even been to the Great Mosque in Herat!”