I had heard of this story about a year ago, then I kind of forgot about it. Then I saw her on The Daily Show, and I remembered the story and watched with some awe as she recounted buildup to the attack on her and how she resolved that to respond to violence with violence made one no better than her oppressors. That sentiment, like Malala, is brave and beautiful.
The book starts off describing what sounds like a somewhat privileged teenage girl now living in England. It quickly retreats from there to a history of Pakistan, cruising through ancient times and slowing to an andante to delve into the tumultuous twentieth century of that nation, specifically the Swat Valley. Her family history is explained in some detail, and here the book reveals what it is really about: the lifelong quest of Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, to teach young people.
In reading this book, one hopes to learn of one girl’s story. Along the way, they sneak a bunch of history and geopolitics in there, which ultimately needs to be in there to understand the situation they are in. The only way a first world person like myself can understand the situation is to look at how it developed, which is clearly what they were trying to do. By they of course, I am referring to the ghostwriter and publisher and probably also Malala herself and not judging her at all for having a ghostwriter when writing a book at the age of sixteen. But I digress.
Ziauddin Yousafzai is the driving force behind Malala’s mission, in other words, if Ziauddin had not so infected his daughter with the desire to learn, we would not have the Malala Fund, or this book, or possibly the level of awareness of the plight of Swat. I certainly didn’t know there was a place called Swat. Ziauddin had a vision of teaching boys and girls without being controlled by religious interests. To put it simply, he wanted, still wants, young people to learn for the sake of learning.
As a history of Pakistan in general and Swat in specific, the book delivers to a person unfamiliar with the history there. It is fascinating to see these areas that get talked about on the news, where everything is summed up in a thirty second soundbite, and realize that there are so many factors at play there. When we hear the soundbite, it is natural to react by assuming that there would be a simple solution and to scoff that why don’t they just do that? While a hypothetical solution may sound simple, it may not be. For example, a solution that involves a majority of the people changing their opinion on an issue important to them, is about as far from simple as you could hope to get once you understand how they came to have that opinion.
While I’m dancing around it, I can’t avoid the fact that the issue in Swat, and many other places, is Islam. The terribly oppressive conditions in Pakistan and Swat are because of the Taliban and their theocratic stranglehold on the people and culture. The adherence to Islam is the cause and justification for terrorizing the people. The casual observer would ask why don’t they just treat their people better. The answer of course is that they are basing their policies on religious principles. Islam is so thoroughly ingrained in the region and its people that Malala herself doesn’t place blame on the religious dogma which, when followed faithfully, led to her getting shot in the face. I was looking to see if she would say something about the religion whose adherents are dead set against everything she stands for, but she never did. She even said things in the book that confirmed her faith. The Taliban, for the most part, would gladly die rather than give up their convictions. But again, I oversimplify the issue. How many different things would have to happen, culturally, politically, to the region, for things to turn around? Infrastructure, communications, government protection of rights, and a hundred other things would need to be worked out and implemented for things to change in Swat. The beginning, it would seem, is putting these kinds of atrocities on blast and calling attention to them. Malala has succeeded in that respect.
The main attraction of the book is the story of Malala getting attacked by the Taliban and shot in the face. The beginning of the book is the movie preview, you get the premise and some details. Later, the life narrative catches up with that incident and the reader is treated to the full length feature, complete with dramatic last minute diplomacy among doctors and embassies and a separation that you are not sure will end in a reunification until it does.
Overall a very interesting, passionate book that forces us people of the developed world to look at how cush we have it here. It also sheds light on the complex circumstances surrounding allegedly simple cases of human suffering, not that complexity excuses suffering, but lets us know the scope of the problem. More than anything, it is a call to action. There is real injustice being committed in this wonderful modern world, and there is no reason to be OK with it. Humans have a right to education, to take that away or to inhibit that right is wrong, regardless of justification. Once again, that’s the Malala Fund.