Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

“One man’s mission to promote school at a time.”

These words come from the subtitle of a book called, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. In the book Mortenson tells of how Afghan villagers nurse him back to health after his failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. To return the generosity shown him, Mortenson makes a pledge to build a school for the village. Since then, he has made his life’s mission to build schools in a country where two thirds of the population cannot read. In addition, Mortenson has been an advocate for providing girls in Afghanistan with the opportunity to go to school in a country that traditionally has closed off education to women.

Mortenson has sold about 4 million copies of his book so far. The powerful story convinced President Obama to donate $100,000 dollars of his Nobel Peace Prize to a charity associated with Mortenson. Three Cups of Tea has even been made required reading for U.S. military personal assigned to serve in Afghanistan. The campaign to build schools fits in well with overall U.S. military strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Only one problem-CBS’s 60 Minutes revealed that parts of Mortenson’s story aren't true. Now there are even questions about how the money donated by President Obama and many others has been used for other purposes besides the construction of schools. As questions about Mortenson’s integrity surface, I can imagine the Taliban snickering under a rock somewhere. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is challenging enough already for our military and only made more difficult when we can't back up our words with deeds. If you had to dodge bombs, bullets and corruption on a daily basis, would you welcome an American soldier into your village just because he called you “rafiq” (friend)?

In the book, Words in the Dust, a girl named Zulaikha has to dodge something more terrifying than bullets. Her stomach feels twisted. She can't make her body stop shaking. In front of her, a group of boys stands in her way, ready to hurl rocks and insults at her face. Rocks or insults, which would hurt the most? Zulaika did the only thing she could think of-she ran. Just when she thought she was safe a loud roar stopped her like a brick wall. A gigantic tan humvee turned the corner.

“On top was a big gun with a barrel like a cannon. What looked liked a very tall man was really the top half of a soldier standing straight up through the roof of the vehicle behind the gun.”

Zulaika didn’t know that the American soldier was in her village to propose the idea of a school, one that would even allow girls to attend. All Zulaika knew at that moment was the fear that an American soldier had seen her face. Women in Afghanistan traditionally wear a chador, a head covering held closed in the front, but Zulaika had left her face exposed. As she raced back to her home, the soldier reported back to his commanding officer what he had seen. Little did Zulaika know then that the soldiers would later offer her one of the most precious gifts she could possibly imagine.

Will a school be built in Zulaika's village? Will she get permission from her father to attend? Why was an American soldier ready to offer a gift more precious than gold right after a group of boys wanted to hurl rocks and insults at her face?

If you would like to gain a better appreciation of what life is like for a girl living in present day Afghanistan, then I would recommend, Words in the Dust, by Trent Reedy. He is a former soldier and now a teacher in Iowa. His book is much more than a tale of culture clash. Reedy's book encourages us to consider that American soldiers are sincerely trying to make a difference in the Afghan people's lives, despite the cultural forces that are dead set against anything good coming out of a difficult situation.

Words in the Dust reminded me of the book, The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis. Both works are invaluable to anyone wanting to have a glimpse of what life is like in war torn Afghanistan.

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