Saturday, January 31, 2015

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Book Review #7 of 2015)


I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
How can one not give 5 stars to a book by a 15-year old girl who has captured the world's attention purely by her persecution due to her stance on universal education? If there is fault to be found, it's probably in not knowing how much of this book is her words and how much is by her co-author or ghost writers. One hopes that Malala's story is not being embellished and that she's not being exploited, but she writes fairly openly about her frustrations with various Pakistani government officials and other world leaders. The book is really as much about her father, who is her backbone, as it is about her.

Malala describes her homeland of Swat Valley in the early portion of the book, including its geography and cultural history, as well as the history of the Yousafzai clan she descends from. They were Pashtun who moved into the area from modern Afghanistan and drove out other clans while setting up their own unique customs. Among this, interestingly, were reversals of land transfers every year in the hopes that everyone would get a chance to work both bad and good lands and keep each faction at peace. The area had also once been conquered by Buddhist kings, and there are Buddhist artifacts remaining in the area. Alexander the Great also came and conquered. The area is renowned for its natural beauty, having once been a tourist and vacation destination before being overrun by conservative Islamists. (As I write this, there's a story in the paper today of how ISIS has now established a recruiting hotbed in neighboring Waziristan, and Taliban from the area are enlisting in droves.)
Pashtu culture is also renowned for its emphasis on hospitality and honor, saving face is often the most important action.

I have known quite a few Westerners who have lived in mountainous areas of Central Asia, and I used to live in the mountains of the South Caucasus. I found the various customs Malala describes very similar to what I witnessed. A very paternalistic culture where wife-beating is commonplace. There is synchretism, with locals visiting a "pir," usually the burial place of someone religious, for religious advice and cures to various diseases. The obsession with wild conspiracy theories is also familiar to anyone who has traveled in Central Asia. The Americans caused the great Pakistani earthquake in 2013, Malala was a "U.S. stooge," and perhaps wasn't even shot, it was all a ploy to make Pakistan look bad. The Jews control the world media and were all alerted to stay away from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and perhaps Israel staged 9/11.

Malala describes a Pakistan that is fairly secular and tolerant of women and minorities until roughly the 1980s, when General Mustafa Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup and refused to let it go. He was hailed by Reagan and Thatcher (one wonders whether a 15-year old Malala, who had not been born at the time, would single these conservatives out for scorn or rather her ghost writer...although her father seems to be her primary source for political news.) as the proxy war against the Soviets raged in Afghanistan. Zia allowed Wuhabbist madrasas to open, changing religious education from "din" (religion) to "Islamiyat," Islam. Textbooks were re-written in nationalist form, ignoring Pakistan's various military defeats and holding it up as a "fortress of Islam," against Hindus and Jews. The CIA provided textbooks to Afghan refugee camps, but they were written in such a way as to encourage boys to take up arms, teaching math through examples of mujahadin and soldiers, for example. At one point in his formative years, Malala writes that her father used to pray for war between Muslims and infidels so he could die a martyr. In rural Pakistan, life with 70 virgins more appealing than working on a farm and being poor. Honor and status are important, and there are only so many people who can afford to get educated in the capital or become successful entrepreneurs to increase their reputation. Those who cannot seek status and a means to provide for their family through the Taliban.
   
Malala's grandfather was a well-known mullah famous for his oratory. His son, her father, had to overcome a speech impediment. Her grandfather, interestingly, chose to send him to a non-religious school to broaden his horizons, which was controversial and progressive for a mullah with his status. As a result, Malala's father believed strongly in education, started a school of his own in the Swat Valley, and formed a network of private schools to stand against government and religious pressure and corruption. As Malala grows up, the influence of religious conservatism begins to put pressure on schools not to teach girls, and for girls to drop out. Her father comes across as a more secular progressive, but always keenly aware of the social pressure around him, especially because he was the son of a mullah. He stands strong against the powers-that-be but lacks any real authority on his own to stand up to the khans. Malala writes that her family was exceptional in that her father did not beat his wife and her beauty gave him a certain self-confidence. Her family was always providing charity to others, including free tuition to needy students.

From an early age, Malala "spoke like a teacher" in the classroom and was a bookworm. She describes her favorite subjects and stories, the games she played with her friends, and a fairly normal childhood. School was her favorite place and she was always ambitious. Her father's outspoken beliefs in education become her own, and she's made famous through series of circumstances that put her in the spotlight, including a New York Times piece where the reporter decides to feature her for "impact" instead of her father. She eventually is offered an online blog by the BBC and does various radio and television interviews in Pakistan as a 12-year old voice countering the conservative Islamists who denounce secular education and any education for girls.
   
When Musharraf becomes President, he brings some secular reforms but not the democracy her father wanted. He opens up television to play secular movies, dancing, and things which enrage religious conservatives. To avoid a bloody coup, he often had to make compromises with various factions, which eventually leads to restricted freedom in northern Pakistan as the number of extremists increase under the tutelage of madrasas built by money from Saudi Arabia. (For another perspective on this area, I recommend reading Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise, as he visited the area in the early 1990s and even met a young Osama Bin Laden who was visiting there).
   
The post-9/11 American invasion of Afghanistan brings Taliban into the Swat valley and CIA drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, including children. The Americans don't apologize, the Pakistani government is complicit in allowing the U.S. to use their bases and air space, and villagers vow to avenge deaths of loved ones. During this era, a conservative mullah sets up a pirate radio station in the Valley that at first entertains, then preaches. He begins commending girls for dropping out of schools and publicly shaming various families on the air. Eventually, Pashtun from the valley begin attacking Pakistani soldiers, many of which refuse to fight fellow Pashtun Muslims.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the book describes this era as violence and intimidation increase. Pashtun culture was historically famous for its arts and dancing, something put at risk under the Taliban which banned such things. She writes of the assassination of a famous dancer, who the men loved to see dance but hated for dancing. "We love the shoes but hate the cobbler. Admire the scarf but not the maker." The Taliban grew in power and prestige, and began shutting down schools or destroying them. Music and various games were banned, targeted assassinations and suicide bombings increased steadily, police began to resign en masse out of fear, while the nation turned a blind eye as Malala's foray into public media drew attention. She writes of the frustration of seeing outraged stories from abroad about human rights abuses in Pakistan when, in reality, people had "no idea" how bad it actually was Pakistan. Throughout the book, she quotes the Koran against the teachings of the Taliban mullahs and writes of her love for Allah and her belief that Allah wants everyone to be educated. Her family allows her to be in public without a veil, something which brings scorn on everyone.

Her family had great hope when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan to campaign for President. It is no surprise, but still quite sad, when she is brutally assassinated, ending any real hope of reform in the country. After the government is forced to re-take Swat valley in force, it cowers against the fierce resistance. Eventually, a peace deal struck. Malala was supportive at the time as everyone just wanted peace, she disapprovingly quotes Hillary Rodham Clinton's criticism of the peace deal. But in the end it was a sham and the Taliban re-took villages. Eventually, the army intervenes under American pressure and 1.8 million evacuate the area and many live in refugee camps. During the evacuation, Malala meets Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and boldly asks for aid was told incredulously that billions were already being given. She is only 12 years old at this point!
Her family later returns and begins to rebuild the school and their lives.

Due to her fame, a Stanford-educated Pakistani takes her on a tour of the capital and she is even granted an interview with top Pakistani military brass. She received many awards, but didn't seem to like it because she would miss school to accept the award. She traveled to Karachi and other points and writes of their worsening condition under greater Taliban influence. Her family is constantly hearing of death threats and government agents frequently visited their house.

Eventually, she is gunned down on her bus by a lone gunman, who is never caught. She is transferred from an inadequate military hospital and is blessed to have well-trained doctors who insist on adequate care for her. There's a lot of anxiety at this point, she's writing about events she would not have had first-hand knowledge of, being unconscious or delirious for much of it. The world outcry is so great that Pakistani political leaders are pressured to move her out of the country for free care abroad, and eventually she winds up in Birmingham, England. Due to ridiculous red tape, her family joins her 16 long days later as she recovers in the hospital. It's amazing that her brain and memory remain in decent shape given the bullet she took to the face. She chafes at the pressure that Pakistani officials put on her to not put her country in a bad light, to allow them to "save face."

Her family's new life abroad is difficult for them, particularly her mother who is a conservative woman. One suspects Malala's mother would not approve of much of the personal nature of what is written, particularly the part at the end about her mother allowing herself to be photographed uncovered for the first time. But the book is deeply personal, and one hopes that it's at least mostly true.

I enjoyed this book, it's a bestseller for a reason. As human beings we have to decide whether we oppose what is happening in Pakistan, and why we oppose it. If we agree that every human has fundamental rights, including the right to education, we must determine WHY we believe it. For the Christian this is relatively easy, because we believe every person is created in the image of God, and contains something precious and immortal-- an eternal soul-- that is to be guarded. Malala has a similar worldview in that regard, and one can easily see her as a kindred spirit.

Five star book, everyone should read it and remember it.

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