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‘Words in the Dust’: Afghanistan through the eyes of a child

The latest Al's Book Club pick is “Words in the Dust” by Trent Reedy. Inspired by a real girl whom the author met in Afghanistan while serving in the military, “Words in the Dust” is a fascinating portrait of Afghanistan through the eyes of one brave girl. When Reedy was in western Afghanistan in support of the U.S. reconstruction effort, he was dismayed by the injustices women and girls were subjected to under the oppression of the Taliban. When his unit met a young girl who suffered from a cleft palate, he and his fellow soldiers pooled their money to pay for her flight to the main base where an army doctor had volunteered to conduct the corrective surgery. Reedy witnessed both her physical and emotional transformation. Here's an excerpt.

From Chapter 1

By the time I crossed the river again, the golden smell from the naan was making my stomach rumble. Then I heard a door open 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, while Omar and Salman blocked my way back. I took a step backward.

Anwar stepped closer. 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.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAAW!” 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.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEE-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, turning my face away. But instead of hitting me, he tore a big chunk of naan from one of my pieces.

Before I even thought about it, I reached out and snapped the bread from Anwar’s fingers. “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 girl is going to preach the law to us?”

Now I was shaking terribly, and my stomach felt twisted and tight.

“You like being a little Talib? Preaching Taliban punishment? I’ll give you what you like, Donkeyface. Stone you, Taliban style. Break those ugly teeth from your freak mouth.” Anwar bent down to pick up a rock that was only slightly smaller than his fist.

It was my chance. As soon as he looked down, I stepped around him and ran. If I kept running, maybe they’d get tired of chasing me and then leave me alone.

But I had only gone a few paces when the loud roar of an engine stopped me. An enormous tan car rounded the corner. It was so wide that there was less than a meter on either side between the car and the walls. On top was a big gun with a barrel like a cannon. A soldier was riding in the car, standing straight up through the roof of the vehicle behind the gun.

Soldiers! I let my chador fall away from my face and cowered close to the wall.

But instead of firing the gun, the man sticking out the top of the big car smiled and waved. “Salaam, rafiq!” he shouted in a strange-sounding Dari as the car, or maybe it was really a truck, drove slowly by us. Another truck rounded the corner, but the man sticking out of the top of that one was facing backward. When he passed, he tilted back his tan helmet and shouted something in a language I didn’t understand. His teeth flashed very white in the darkest face I’d ever seen.

All three boys were watching the soldiers go by, completely ignoring me. If the big trucks hadn’t been coming from the direction I had to go, I would have escaped the moment the boys turned away. My legs shook, almost twitching with my eagerness to run.

The dark-skinned man had been smiling, but when he saw me, he frowned. Of course, most people who saw me frowned, but when such a look came from an armed soldier, it was even worse. I covered up my face with my chador.

The soldier shouted something down into his truck as he ducked under a tree branch. The big vehicles continued on down the road.

“It’s the Americans!” Anwar clapped as he started to follow the gun trucks. “Give me radios! Soccer balls! Ball, ball, ball!” He turned to Salman and Omar. “Come on, they’ve got everything in those trucks!”

I pulled the naan up close to my chest and ran toward home. Just before I reached the next bend in the road, I risked a look back. Thank Allah, the boys were running off after the trucks, clapping and calling out. When I couldn’t see the soldiers riding above the tops of the walls, I left.

Back in our compound, I closed the street door and leaned against the warm mud-brick wall. Wiping the saliva that always came from my split upper lip whenever I ran, I tried to catch my breath enough to call for Zeynab. For Baba. Anyone. I had to tell everyone what I had just seen. The Americans had come to town!

Excerpt from WORDS IN THE DUST by Trent Reedy. Scholastic Inc./Arthur A. Levine Books. Copyright (c) 2011 by Trent Reedy. Reprinted by permission.

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