This is a bit of a digression into modern day history and more current events. There is a very real possibility I got something factual incorrect or misinterpreted information.
Full disclosure: This is not a book I would have picked up without outside incentive. I recently joined a bunch of meetups and one of them was a book club, and this was the book chosen for July.
I realized what the Taliban had done was make my campaign global.
I vaguely remember when Malala was shot back in 2012, but the event didn’t really register on my radar. I do remember wondering who the story was about and didn’t know why I should be as concerned as the news cycles were telling me I should be. (Sometimes I’m too caustic for my own good.) Several years later, she received more international attention by being the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and again, I didn’t have much of an opinion on the subject.
So when the book club picked this as July’s reading choice, I was apprehensive but the meeting location was less than ten minutes from where I live and I was out of excuses to not attend. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I trekked down to the library, brought the book home, and reluctantly began reading.
And I found that, once started, I could not put it down.
Malala weaves together different elements that give a broader picture of the forces at play that would lead to a girl being shot in the head at point-blank range. I liked the snippets of Pakistani and Muslim history that were included. There were many but they were succinct, not overwhelming in detail when there was ample opportunity for a deluge of details. In that regard, it seemed aimed towards a Western audience who, broadly speaking, has less of a grasp of the tensions between politics and religion in non-Western lands. These snippets of history and culture also served to underscore her ultimate goals of activism, for if people had more access to education, they would perhaps be less dogmatic in their beliefs and there would be hopefully less violence and more opportunity for all to succeed.
The region in Pakistan where she’s from, the Swat Valley, is located in the north central area of the country. It is also quite rural. She describes the layers of national identity, provincial identity, tribal identity, religious identity, between India and Afghanistan, with the added influence of British colonialism at Pakistan’s founding, and Western puppet regimes. That’s a lot to keep straight. An added element of interest is that – ages ago – the place used to be inhabited by Buddhists, so she grew up surrounded by ancient statues of the Buddha.
Sometimes the digressions into broader geopolitical forces at play were placed awkwardly with her own observations. Many critics of the book say Malala’s voice was overshadowed by the coauthor, but I found her to still be at the heart of most of the text. In the book’s narrative, she comes across as very intelligent and observant, so maybe I’ll dig up some of her speeches to find her truer voice separated from that of the book’s coauthor.
It was interesting to read about events like 9/11 or the invasion of Afghanistan from a different perspective, especially from one surrounded by such anti-American sentiment. She treads carefully here with her words, especially because this book is very clearly written for Westerners, but it seems her region generally had (or has) a dim view of Americans since we were the ones came in and totally screwed up in the best way we Americans know how an already very complicated balance of power.
The book has received severe criticism. Some critics claim she staged the shooting and the whole story was made up as a puppet of Americans. Many in the Pakistani government disagree with her claims of being denied schooling, and many in the Muslim world claim she is not a true Muslim. (After all, she was shot not because she wanted an education, but because she was speaking out against the very truth of Islam, or so the Taliban claims.) And there are so many opinions in between – that she is too close to Western governments and the international spotlight, that she was wrong to have flown to England for medical treatment, how dare she speak out against Islam, etc. All of these criticisms come from, and add to, the complicated layers of religion, politics, and power in a post-9/11 world.
So overall, it’s a fascinating read. Though the writing style and order of pacing (she jumps around a little bit in her timeline) have a lot of rough spots, the subject matter is enough to overcome those faults.
Some final notes/observations:
- Her father is the true, unspoken hero of the whole Malala saga. As she described her valley’s slow descent into Taliban control, she also wrote of her father: “He hated the fact that most people would not speak up. In his pocket he kept a poem written by Martin Niemöller, who had lived in Nazi Germany. ‘First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.'”
- The book club wondered how her father was so forward thinking and allowed Malala to have the opportunities she did.
- Her descriptions of the beauty of her homeland are very moving. It is quite tragic that she is SO in love with a place to which she cannot return.
- I loved how in love with Islam she is. “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”
- This book is not really comparable to the Diary of Anne Frank. I can see why people would make that comparison but I disagree.
- The book club had the “If you were there, would you join the Taliban” discussion. Most were staunchly against, but it annoyed me because they only addressed the inherent evil of Muslim extremism and no other forces at play, like culture, region, good practice of Islam, etc.
- While I was reading the book, there were two Malala related stories on the news: It was her 21st birthday (July 12), and that she was returning to Pakistan for the first time since she was shot in 2012. I thought it was one of those amusing twists of fate that, the week I decide to read the book, she returns home. Security was tight because she’s still on the Taliban’s hit list, but I’m glad she got to go home.
- While reading up on this, I realized how little I know about pretty much anything on that side of the world, from Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto (one of Malala’s idols) to the founding of Pakistan to Indian independence. I am so far out of my depth that I can’t even pretend to speak intelligently.