Book Review: ‘I Am Malala’ by Malala Yousafzai
In Arabic, “revolution” is a feminine noun. This is fitting, as without women revolutions are sterile. They have no movement, no life, no sound. Urdu, a distorter of tongues, pilfering as it does from Persian, Hindi, but largely Arabic, uses the masculine word for coup d’etat – inqilab – for revolution, rather than the accurate feminine: thawra. Perhaps that’s why the Taliban were confused. Perhaps that’s why they imagined that shooting a 15-year-old girl would somehow enhance their revolution.
I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai‘s fearless memoir, co-written with journalist Christina Lamb, begins on Malala’s drive home from school on the day she was shot in the head. “Who is Malala?” the young gunman who stopped the Khushal school van asked. None of the girls answered. But everyone in the valley knew who Malala was. Ten years old when the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan came to the beautiful Swat Valley, once the home of ancient Buddhist kings, 11 years old by the time she had established herself as an international advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan, Malala was targeted by the Taliban for “spreading secularism”.
Ghostwritten books pose a constant difficulty – you are never sure whose voice is leading whose. Malala’s voice has the purity, but also the rigidity, of the principled. Whether she is being a competitive teenager and keeping track of who she beat in exams (and by how much) or writing about the blog for the BBC that catapulted her on to the international stage – “We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak” – or talking about Pakistan’s politicians (“useless”), Malala is passionate and intense. Her faith and her duty to the cause of girls’ education is unquestionable, her adoration for her father – her role model and comrade in arms – is moving and her pain at the violence carried out in the name of Islam palpable.
It’s hardly an exact science, guessing when the ghostwriter’s voice takes over from the author’s, but in the description, for example, of the scale of Pakistan’s devastating 2005 earthquake, the reader is told that the damage “affected 30,000 square kilometres, an area as big as the American state of Connecticut”, and the stiff, know-it-all voice of a foreign correspondent resounds.
It is Malala who touches the heart of Pakistan’s troubles. Speaking of Swat, she writes that it was some 20 years after partition that the Wali of the Valley renounced his power and brought his kingdom into Pakistan. “So I was born a proud daughter of Pakistan,” she writes, “though like all Swatis I thought of myself first as a Swati and Pashtun, before Pakistani.”
What it means to be from Pakistan – a country of 300 languages, diverse cultures, religions and identities – when real power is restricted to one province is a debate that has always raged in this country. The army and bureaucracy and indeed the functioning power are centralised in the Punjab, while the remaining three provinces – Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtun Khwa – are unequal shareholders in the idea that is Pakistan.
Until power is fairly shared among the four provinces the threat of secession will be a cloud hanging over the country. Malala writes of her beloved father, Ziauddin, wearing a black armband on Pakistan’s 50th anniversary “because there was nothing to celebrate since Swat joined Pakistan”, presciently foreshadowing a deepening ethnic imbalance so profound that only an extraordinary common enemy could distract from it. The burgeoning power of the Taliban in today’s Pakistan should not be much of a surprise to those who understand, as Malala does, the need to redress these ethnic wounds.
Though feted around the globe for her eloquence, intelligence and bravery, Malala is much maligned in Pakistan. The haters and conspiracy theorists would do well to read this book. Malala is certainly an ardent critic of the Taliban, but she also speaks passionately against America’s drone warfare, the CIA’s policy of funding jihadi movements, the violence and abductions carried out by the Pakistani military, feudalism, the barbarous Hudood laws, and even Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who caused a diplomatic meltdown between America and Pakistan when he killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight in Lahore – “Even we schoolchildren know that ordinary diplomats don’t drive around in unmarked cars carrying Glock pistols.”
I Am Malala is as much Malala’s father’s story as it is his daughter’s, and is and a touching tribute to his quest to be educated and to build a model school. Malala writes of her father sitting late into the night, cooking and bagging popcorn to sell so that he would have extra income for his project. She quotes him on all matters – from the ban on The Satanic Verses to the environmental problems facing the Swat Valley – and teases him for his long-winded speeches.
Yet, even as Malala says she does not hate the man who shot her, here in Pakistan anger towards this ambitious young campaigner is as strong as ever. Amid the bile, there is a genuine concern that this extraordinary girl’s courageous and articulate message will be colonised by one power or other for its own insidious agendas. She is young and the forces around her are strong and often sinister when it comes to their designs on the global south. There is a reason we know Malala’s story but not that of Noor Aziz, eight years old when killed by a drone strike in Pakistan; Zayda Ali Mohammed Nasser, dead at seven from a drone strike in Yemen; or Abeer Qassim Hamza al Janabi, the 14-year-old girl raped and set on fire by US troops in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. “I wasn’t thinking these people were humans,” one of the soldiers involved, Steven Green, said of his Iraqi victims.
It will always be more convenient for the west to paint itself as more righteous, more civilised, than the people they occupy and kill. But now, Malala’s fight should be ours too – more inclusion of women, remembrance of the many voiceless and unsung Malalas, and education for all.
• Fatima Bhutto’s novel The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon is out from Viking next month.
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