I am Malala’ may be on the world’s bestselling list but it is certainly being read in an entirely different context in the writer’s home country. You cannot be faulted if you decide to start counting the number of times the Prophet is quoted in the book and why ‘peace be upon him’ was not used, or think whether Malala Yusufzai is a supporter of Salman Rushdie or not, or how conclusively does the book affirm her status as an ‘agent of Western powers’.
The Nobel nomination, from literally days before the book came out, somehow does not form the context; the Malala moment having been clearly lost soon after her shooting last year, this is the Hakimullah Mehsud moment in the country.
Mercifully, books operate independent of the discussions around them and tend to take a life of their own. So this book may turn out to be a lot more consequential for the people reading it outside than its impact here that owes itself largely to repetitive propaganda and no actual attempt to read it.
My own interest in the book did not partake of the context. I was interested in reading Malala’s story. Perhaps I wanted to know more about Ziauddin, the amazing father, not buying into the narrative of him using the daughter for his ‘opportunistic agenda’ or writing her blog for her etc.
In an ironic way, Malala’s iconic popularity came about only after she was shot. After the immediate shock, that was when the interest in her was kindled. But that was also exactly when she and the family were kept away from media glare.
An odd photograph of her going to school in Birmingham for the first time after being shot in April this year was heartening. But it was her address to the United Nations in July when the vibes of her being ‘an agent of the West’ were heard loud and, in a way, exposed the divide in urban sensibility for the first time. A 20 minute address was dissected threadbare for its ‘shortcomings’ and all; the urban English-speaking elite kids who had celebrated Malala till some time ago were now speaking another language — of doubt and rejection — that they had learnt from their parents and other powerful sources. The narrative had changed.
Now she is there for all of us to see in a full length book form, without mincing her words, restating whatever she stood for.
To me, the book has been quite a fulfilling read, a lot more than just the story of a 16-year-old. Her story which is understandably more about her father is intricately weaved in with the politics of this country, the province they live in and that of their home Swat. Their personal journey is in every sense a political one, more so because it is the first time the outsiders are given a peep into the ordinary day-to-day life of a Pashtun family. Ziauddin’s own development from a tableeghi youth to a nationalist, progressive and democracy-loving adult is an obvious political message but so is his decision to marry a woman of his liking, being a family man who shares everything with his illiterate wife and celebrating the birth of his daughter exactly the way Pashtuns celebrate the birth of sons.
We are given a quick round of what happened in this country in the last four decades, the lifetime of Ziauddin, and in Swat particularly in the last decade, Malala’s own lifetime. The post 9/11 events are described in great detail, with reference to their lives — capturing the first drone attacks, rise of Sufi Mohammad, earthquake 2005, rise of Fazlullah, Swat under Shariah, military operation and floods. In between comes the blog for BBC that shot her to fame and its bloody consequence that left her nearly dead.
So what is the problem people have with the book? Actually, there is more than one; some of these problems are stated, others aren’t. My own sense is the patriarchy is finding it hard to digest a girl commenting on politics, religion, society, everything. But to me she is best placed to do so: she comments on religion from within the framework of religion; as a Pashtun girl she can rebel against the coercive cultural practices of the Pashtunwali while sticking to the ones she can live with and so on
The other, unstated, problem is that the book has a clearly anti-establishment bent. It brings to the fore the problem of ethnicity (the small provinces’ grievances) which we have been so adept at brushing under the carpet. Another ‘blasphemy’ it commits is making Jinnah a subject of criticism who appears as ‘Jinnah’ and not as ‘Quaid-e-Azam’ in the book. The army’s role in the Swat Operation, and generally speaking, is questioned time and again. The way it exposes the situation on ground in Swat during the Operation which has been sold to the world with just one adjective — ‘successful’ — is perhaps its greatest virtue. The violence, the missing persons, the affected families’ anguish is all there.
To cap it all, Malala Yusufzai talks of her Buddhist ancestry and speaks lovingly of this Buddhist past of Swat.
It is sad the propagandists selectively picked up issues from the book out of context. Since it provides an alternate narrative to the state narrative, this was probably done by design.
I am Malala
Author: Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson London , 2013
Of the stated problems, one is that Malala is playing into the hands of the West. Apart from assuming the ‘demonic’ West as a monolith, this line of reasoning suggests that the publishing industry and media in the West have no independence and serve as states’ handmaidens. If indeed the Western powers got this book written, it means the world did not need a book on Malala. Logically, the Western powers will now ensure the book gets sold too. There is too much of conspiracy at work here.
I too have a few problems with the book. To start with, I don’t know how to categorise the book in a genre — as a memoir, a biography (it’s clearly not an autobiography with the respectable Christina Lamb having undertaken a herculean task of writing it) or something else. Related to this is the fact that the voice of the book keeps switching from the 16-year-old to somebody more mature. In the acknowledgments, Malala gives credits to Abdul Hai Kakar and her father’s friend Inam ul-Rahim for their valuable input on the history of Swat. Yet, the problem with voice remains.
Malala as a symbol of resistance is a positive message to the world. We’d be better off not to squander this chance. For that to happen, it needs to be read widely here in this country. And that can be done only if it is translated into Urdu, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi and all other languages that people read.