Tiny Dancer is the amazing true story of Zubaida Hasan, a nine-year-old girl from the remote deserts of Afghanistan, who, in the summer of 2001, accidentally fell into a kerosene fire while heating water for a bath. Though she was horribly mutilated, her father refused to give up and exhaustively sought help to save his child.
When an American Green Beret soldier by chance sees Zubaida and her father on the street, he decides he must get involved. With assistance from many members of the US military, little Zubaida is given a second chance at life. She is flown to Los Angeles to begin a two-year journey through a series of surgeries performed by famed burn surgeon Dr. Peter Grossman. He and his wife, Rebecca, eventually take the child into their own home. This is a heartfelt and inspiring story of incredible courage equally matched by incredible kindness.
“Flacco’s depiction of Zubaida’s culture shock is remarkable. [His] empathy and ability to tell Zubaida’s story like he’s inside her head makes for an engrossing feel-good read.” —Publishers Weekly
“Interesting and affecting. . . . [A] genuinely moving story.” —Booklist
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About the Author
His background as a trained stage actor with over 2,000 performances under his Actors Equity membership provides the primary basis for his critically acclaimed ability to empathize with a wide cross-section of personalities. He moved into screenwriting when he was selected for the prestigious American Film Institute fellowship in Screenwriting. He received his MFA in screenwriting after winning AFI's Paramount Studios Fellowship Award and was then selected out of 2,000 entrants for the Walt Disney Studios Screenwriting Fellowship, where he spent a year writing for the Touchstone Pictures division. His screenwriting experience drives narrative stories that are visually compelling, whether for a movie theater or the screen of a reader's imagination.
He previous works include A Checklist for Murder, which was adapted into an NBC movie of the week, The Last Nightengale, The Hidden Man, and The Road Out Of Hell: The True Story of Sanford Clark and the Wineville Murders. Tiny Dancer, originally published in 2005, received international acclaim, being names "one of the 100 Most Noteworthy Books of 2005." It is being released for the first time in eBook format in January 2013.
He is an experienced public speaker and frequently gives seminars on crime writing, and is a featured speaker on writing for writers’ conferences and clubs and serves as Editorial Consultant to Martin Literary Management in Seattle, WA.
For more information, see www.AnthonyFlacco.com.
Read an Excerpt
Zubaida (Zu-BAY-dah) was only nine and a half years old, but she was already well aware that her remote desert village in southwestern Afghanistan was an ancient place. She couldn't avoid knowing that hundreds of years earlier, the village of Farah had been a major site of the region's trade activity — her daily life was carried out amid tall mud-brick ruins that hadn't seen their true form since back in the thirteenth century when Genghis Khan swept through the region with the Mongol hordes.
She knew. She just didn't care.
Zubaida's existence was punctuated by the cultural music and dance that had surrounded her every day of her life. And as music will do with some people, the melodies and rhythms managed to pass into her blood and soak into her bones, so that a major portion of her waking existence took place while she hummed without thinking about it or danced without self-consciousness. It was within her love of music and dancing that Zubaida found something to lift her out of boredom and steer her away from depression whenever she found herself alone amid the ancient and isolated ruins.
Lately, she felt her music carrying a special power over her. Her time in this life for carefree dancing was soon to end; under prevailing laws of the ruling Taliban forces, she would never again be allowed to run and play in public with other girls, or to have a boy for a friend under any circumstances, with the coming of her tenth birthday. She knew that, and she felt the sense of time shrinking itself tighter around her.
So despite the crushing mantle of heat on this July afternoon in 2001, Zubaida felt the rhythms and melodies playing inside of her wisp-thin body while they helped her to pass the closing days of her childhood with a measure of personal happiness.
It was still early in the day, and she was alone at home while all of her older siblings were scattered around the village at their tasks. Her mother and older sister were visiting neighbors. It was a perfect opportunity to let loose her urges to openly sing and dance. It was wonderful to be so free and to give herself over to the music. After all, there were no brothers and sisters around to trip over, no grouchy parents to tell her to keep down the noise, and best of all, no Taliban cleric glowering down his disapproval that a female child should dare to give vent to a moment of youthful joy.
Zubaida felt herself surrounded by a bubble of time and opportunity that presented an ideal setting for some intense young girl exuberance. All she had to do was to tap into the music and glide on its waves; it animated her from head to toe. It moved her through the house in wiggling gyrations and twisting leaps. Once she started, there was no stopping her. She was well aware of the endless cruelty of the Taliban enforcers and knew that they would violently disapprove if they saw her like this — but she also knew that the Taliban tended to ignore this desert region most of the time, in favor of seeking more plentiful converts amid Afghanistan's larger towns and cities. And so as long as she remained hidden behind the thick mud-brick walls of the family home, she was safe from all of them.
The temporary solitude also offered her a good opportunity to take a bath with some privacy, so she burned off excess energy by humming and skipping and twisting her way through preparing the bath and filling the small tub. When she bent to light the heater's pilot flame, she noticed that the little fuel tank was nearly empty. So she stood up again and danced away, singing one of her favorite passages over and over while she retrieved the household's kerosene can and carried it back to the heater.
Lost in her music, alone in the house, it was easy for a girl who was not yet ten years of age to lose track of little details — like making sure the pilot light was out before she tried to fill the heater with fuel. Instead, even though she knew better than to risk sloshing the fuel by jumping around with the can in her hands, she was still able to improvise a few fancy footsteps and hold the can steady while she moved toward the heater.
Zubaida's music was such an integral part of her frame that her body nearly danced by itself — as if she could sit comfortably and watch the world swirl by while her limbs danced of their own accord. Her ability to control her movements was so strong that if she hadn't been a forgetful, barefooted kid who neglected to kick her shoes out of the way before approaching the heater, there would have been no problem for her that day.
It was the forgotten shoes. The shoes came after her as if the Taliban had hired them to punish this upstart girl for her private moment of joy.
In that first instant, when her toes of her first foot hit the edge of the first shoe, she instinctively shifted her weight to the other foot to retain her balance. It should have worked, but the other shoe was waiting to foil her. It tangled itself between both of her feet and caused her balance to shift just enough that she couldn't find any stability to the floor. Instinct opened her arms and she let the kerosene fall away, so that all she had to do was balance her own weight. That move, at least, was successful — instead of sprawling headlong onto the water heater, she only fell to her hands and knees.
If the small tidal wave of kerosene had not splashed directly over the heater's pilot light, she probably would have jumped right back to her feet without so much as a bruise. Instead, a sheet of fire roared up from the pilot and leaped into the air, igniting the fuel that had spilled onto her.
It turned the nine and a half year-old tiny dancer into a blazing human torch.
The music inside of Zubaida instantly snapped off. It left her head and seemed to leave the planet. Confusion and panic took its place and seized control of her.
Her first sensations were mostly emotional — she screamed in fear to the empty house while she tried to beat out the flames that were already enveloping the top half of her body. But when she inhaled, the superheated air immediately scorched her throat and lungs, cutting her cries into terrified yelps.
It was only then that the first full wave of physical pain hit her, and it came with the force of a vicious animal attack. Flaming orange teeth bit through her hair, tore through her skin and into her flesh, digging toward her bones. She lost all control of herself and gave in to mortal panic, flailing at her clothing and staggering around the room, colliding with the thick mud walls.
Next door, her mother, Bador, and her eldest sister, Nacima, bothheard Zubaida's initial screams. Even though they didn't recognize her contorted voice, the tone was so gut wrenching that it brought them running. They arrived in time to see her collapse into a helpless, burning pile.
The two women were products of their age, essentially uneducated and seldom allowed to travel beyond their neighborhood. They were kept ignorant of as much of the world as could be withheld from them. But within the confines of the home walls, they were fiercely independent. There was no situation where they would react in any way but to immediately attack it with full fury. They had the presence of mind to grab the tub of bath water, hoist it between them and pour it over the burning child — who had now been on fire long enough that the hungry flames were not only feeding on the spilled fuel but on the oils of her flesh itself. The impact of the water snuffed the flames, but the sight of what remained in that smoking pile dropped them to their knees.
An hour after the flames were extinguished, Zubaida lay writhing on the floor while her sixteen year-old brother Daud frantically searched the town for their father. There was no phone anywhere in the village of Farah; the only way to search for anyone was to run, call out, spread the word. Back at home, Zubaida's agonized sounds were fully joined by those from her mother and sister and even a few of the neighbor women. They lent their throats to her suffering and helped her to scream the pain away, just as the women of their families have done for centuries.
In such a remote place, no one had any better medical treatment for catastrophic burns than to continually drizzle water over the burned area in the attempt to cool her skin. There were no strong drugs and not even any alcohol to ease her pain in this region of devout Shiite Muslims. But although Zubaida was deep in shock by this point, for some reason she never passed out and remained fully conscious.
For her mother, Bador, that fact was both a source of reassurance and an instrument of torture. It was reassuring to see life in Zubaida's eyes, but any attempt to touch her daughter sent fresh waves of pain flashing through the girl, causing more of Zubaida's screams to fill the air and to claw at Bador's helpless heart.
Finally, after that first hour, the lethargy of shock began to settle in. With no IV to keep up Zubaida's fluid levels, she lapsed into bouts of uncontrollable shaking. Her family grew alarmed by the low, weak moans that began to rise up from a body that was too exhausted to protest any louder.
What no one could hear was Zubaida's voice inside of herself, where she was still screaming at full force. She screamed like a desert animal being eaten alive. She screamed her horror and her shock and her pain, and most of all she screamed her molten rage that this thing was happening to her. It was only because her body's strength was nearly gone that the screams emerged as little more than groans. They hung in the air like questions no one could answer.
Now Zubaida's father arrived, gasping. Mohammed Hasan stared down in horror at his little girl while he fought to make his brain believe his eyes. He was gazing at a burned cinder of a child, barely recognizable. He shrieked in horror. Then he cried, unashamed, right along with the women. He begged for help from Allah, from the Prophet Mohammed, and from Ali — Mohammed's anointed one, champion of the Shiite Muslim people.
If the prayers worked, the Intervention they brought was only a small consolation. The way that events played out made it seem as if Allah had agreed to keep Zubaida alive, but only alive enough so that she didn't die on the spot. It seemed that everything else was being left up to their own humble earthly actions.
For Hasan, as an Afghan husband and father, this could only mean it was all up to him. His wife Bador couldn't take Zubaida to seek the help she needed — under Taliban law, a married woman was only allowed to offer help inside of the home and behind private walls, but without a father or brother to chaperone her, she couldn't even take her own injured child to a hospital.
In the Taliban-ruled provinces, a woman caught trying such a thing by herself might be judged an "adventuress." And since an adventuress is a temptress and a temptress is a whore, a woman so judged could easily receive a sentence of death by public stoning — or perhaps a simple beheading as a quicker alternative, if her crime was less severe.
One of Hasan's strong young visiting cousins had already carried Zubaida down the street to the local clinic, but it produced no effective treatment and no pain-killing medicine. It was clear that everyone expected her to die within hours. The impoverished clinic had no meaningful help to offer, anyway.
Mohammed Hasan began to pack a few meager belongings for a trip to Herat, the closest city. By now the entire community knew that something had gone terribly wrong in the Hasan house, and had gathered outside in concern. Even though no one had the skill to offer any sort of medical help, the tribal culture rose up around them.
Within the town and the province of Farah, the people either call themselves Afghan, like the Hasan family, or Pushtun, the area's majority. Both groups have survived by clinging to their tribal structures over the centuries, and have done so along a continuous timeline while the civilizations of numerous conquering races rose and fell around them. That same tribal unity rose up to help the family now.
Word went out that Zubaida had to be transported to the closest medical clinic in Herat, roughly a hundred and twenty miles away, an impossible trip either by foot or by camel for one so badly injured. But one of the families related to the Hasans was fortunate enough to own an old car that sometimes ran. They agreed to attempt to drive Zubaida and Mohammed to Herat, if he could fill the nearly empty tank and pay for all of the trip and pay something for the wear on the vehicle.
Rare transportation on that isolated desert plain often came from Soviet military vehicles that were left abandoned after one or another of their many lost battles with the native people. The population around Farah had offered some of the fiercest resistance to the Soviets when the U.S.S.R. spent the entire decade of the 1980s trying to take over the homeland. It was that uncompromising fierceness that eventually sent the Russians packing for home, empty handed.
This time, the best vehicle that Hasan could lay his hands on was a simple, aged civilian automobile. Their neighbor drove the family while Hasan held Zubaida's shrieking form flat on the back seat and her mother rode in front. The trip was made in a pell-mell dash that took nearly seven hours. It sent the burned girl into fresh shrieks every time the truck bed bounced over the rutted dirt road. Zubaida's trance of pain was too cruel to allow her the release of passing out, so her mother continually cried and begged Allah to intervene, or to at least let Zubaida fall unconscious and give her some relief.
But Zubaida's ability to maintain a strangle-hold on life, surprising as it was after those around her began to give her up for dead, didn't appear to include the option of relief from consciousness. Some part of her that was more ancient that the mud-walled village ruins was sending her the continuous, unspoken message that in order to remain alive, she had to stay alert. She was in that desperate and primal state where her instincts filled her nervous system with the fear that once she let go of the world and allowed herself to sleep, there would be no stopping the downward slide. So with every ounce of alertness left to her, she felt every bump while they pushed along through the relentless desert until the hot day descended into a mercifully cool night.
When they finally arrived at the clinic in Herat, Hasan pulled out the small wad of currency that represented much of his family's cash and pressed it into the hands of a doctor, begging him to save his little girl. His passion for her well-being may have been a surprise to the staff at the clinic, since the region's growing fundamentalism following its takeover by the Taliban forces was accompanied by commensurate losses in the social standing of females — female children in particular.
The kind of deep concern that Hasan showed for his little girl was more typically reserved for sons. Under Taliban fundamentalism, many parents would be expected to simply abandon their dying daughter in the wilderness, or, if the family patriarch was of a more kindly nature, dispose of her in some quick and painless method like a stealthy bullet to the head and then bury the body with respect.
A female child, after all, does little to protect her parents from poverty in their old age when she is taken away at marriage and sealed behind thick walls.
Still, the doctors agreed to do the best that they could. Despite their lack of essential supplies, they realized that the charred skin had to be scraped and washed if Zubaida was to have any chance of surviving the infections that would inevitably follow. And so even though they had no anesthesia to offer her, there was nothing else to do but peel away her blistered and oozing skin.
That procedure began less than eight hours after the accident, but Zubaida found that she still had plenty of energy left for shrieking with every cell of her body while the skin was flayed off of her. The staff had to hold her down just as they would a torture victim. From Zubaida's standpoint there was no difference.
She found that the initial pain had not diminished at all, and now — impossibly — it became worse when they pulled the burned skin away. In the deeper areas of her burns, where the flesh of her chest was essentially destroyed, the nerve endings were also gone. Therefore her pain in those spots wasn't as bad as it was across her neck, throat and arms. There, the burns had left live nerve endings beneath the scorched flesh. Those singed nerves were now sending their awful messages to her brain, forcing the agony to once again seek escape from her mouth. It blasted up out of her with every new shriek like a steam through a tight valve.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tiny Dancer"
Copyright © 2005 Anthony Flacco, with Dr. Peter Grossman and Rebecca Grossman.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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