Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Tiny Dancer by Anthony Flacco

Genre: Biography
List Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0312343337
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin's Press (Sep 2005)


Author's website with pictures and videos

Dr. Peter Grossman's page on Zubaida Hassan

I was reading Amulya Malladi's blog recently and she was wondering why we as readers are so fascinated with pseudo survival stories. She wondered why it is when people like James Frey voluntarily go down a path of destruction, and then emerge victorious out of their self-made hell we shower them with accolades, congratulatory messages and make heroes out of them. I suppose the question she is asking is, in celebrating people like him are we short-changing the real survivors here? Well, there's atleast one little survivor I wanted to make sure gets her due and she is the subject of Anthony Flacco's book "Tiny Dancer".

In July of 2001, when Zubaida Hassan was only 9 years old, she had a horrific accident with a kerosene fire stove in her tiny desert village in Afghanistan. Her burns were so bad that most people, including the local doctors gave up on her believing she wouldn't have the strength to last more than a few days, but Zubaida had other plans and clung to life with all her might. In a serendipitious event Zubaida's father runs into an US marine who is so moved by the plight of this plucky little girl that he bends the rules to get Zubaida into the US clinic which is only meant for marines or Afghans accidently wounded by American soldiers. The doctors there soon realize that if this little girl is to be saved she would have to be sent to the US for treatment and then reconstructive surgery. (note: I would recommend going to Dr. Peter Grossman's photo album of Zubaida right now - there's a link provided at the top - to get an accurate idea of how horrific her burns were).

So begins the story of Zubaida's courageous journey from this little village of Afghanistan where even a car was a rarity, to the busy and bustling city of Los Angeles (imagine the huge culture shock!) where she spent two years undergoing a whole series of operations at the "Grossman Burn Center" under the care of Dr. Peter Grossman who also became her host parent when things with Zubaida and her host Afghan family went sour. You would have thought that placing Zubaida with people from her own culture would have been the most ideal decision, but, for Zubaida, the Afghan decor and heritage of her host home became a taunt: close enough to being familiar that it spoke to her, but reminding her, too, of her family left behind and the fact that she was all alone in America.

When she was not in hospital Zubaida was in school learning to read and write her native "dari" script and learning English. Zubaida realized that this opportunity to study was a privilege (in her native Afghanistan which was under the rule of the Taleban, girls were not allowed an education) and she worked very hard at her studies ...her father had left a large hole inside of her with his instructions for her to learn all she could and to bring the knowledge back home to her sisters, who might never see the inside of a classroom. Now, everytime she mastered another English phrase, she helped fill that hole back up with the very knowledge she'd been instructed to bring home.

Life in the United States was not all fun and games for Zubaida however. Apart from the grueling reconstructive surgeries (13 in all) and long periods of convalescing where her movements were severely restricted, she found herself all alone with the "Others" (as she was prone to call the Americans) as her father had to return to Afghanistan to fulfill his other duties. With the inital language barrier and the always prevalent cultural barrier, Zubaida found that there was no one she could talk to, no one she felt who would understand all that she was going through and soon she was exhibiting terrible mood swings and seemed suicidal. It was a terrible time for her host parents who wanted to help her, but didn't know how. Ofcourse, as with all success stories, things worked out well in the end and today Zubaida is back with her grateful parents in Afghanistan - a beautiful, 14-year old with hopefully a good future in store for her.

Anthony Flacco, in telling Zubaida's story, is a psychologist, anthropologist, journalist and medical reporter, all rolled into one and does a super job of taking us into Zubaida's life and presenting this story from her point of view. However, Zubaida's journey back to wellness is just one aspect of this story - how it all came together, the compassion, courage, sacrifice (time and money) and hard work it took for all Zubaida's befrienders to cut through the red tape and make her trip to the US happen is an equally important and powerful part of the story - it restores one's faith in human kindness and makes us realize and rejoice that altruism and compassion is not yet dying or dead.

I would be happy to pass my copy on to anyone else interested in reading it.