Why the book I Am Malala is too simple an answer, the narrator too quick a martyr and the narrative too slyly an ode.
Image from Flickr via World Bank
By Hasan Altaf
The cover of I Am Malala suggests an entirely straightforward book: a courageous answer to the question posed by a gunman in the back of a school van. The simple portrait that looks out from the bookshelf broadcasts Yousafzai’s bravery (her bare face to answer a man covering his) while also, with its undeniable echoes of the National Geographic photo of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl,” offering an amuse-bouche to the audience: Herein lies a tale of heroism, of wild and untamed lands, of danger and the exotic amid the mountains and valleys. But the tension that runs just below the surface, steady and undeniable as undertow, is also present right on the cover, with the double-barreled, reductive subtitle identifying Malala Yousafzai as “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.”
That subtitle indicates the seesaw between the person as a subject and a person as an object; it hinges on the difference between admiring a person for what they have done in the world and defining them by what the world has done in return. In Yousafzai’s case the two are inextricably linked (although the Taliban need little excuse to shoot anyone, even children), but I Am Malala is all push and no pull: It forces its author into the smallest box possible. To satisfy a hungry audience the book has adopted elements of a thriller, but more than that, more than memoir or biography or even autobiography, what the collaboration with Christina Lamb has produced is an autohagiography. With bated breath, we watch a living, breathing teenager participate in her own canonization.
The book has to be simple, direct, and short, not just in its portrayal of the author herself, which is difficult enough, but also in terms of the larger environment that she comes from, lived in, loved, struggled with, and was hurt by.
This is, in large part, a question of the book’s intentions: It’s billed as an answer, and this time the question has been posed not by a gunman but by an eager audience. That audience, of course, has certain expectations and demands, explicit even if unspoken, of sixteen-year-old Swati girls who choose and are able to tell their stories. They must provide not just drama and heroism, but also stark clarity. The book’s answer therefore has to be simple, direct, and short, not just in its portrayal of the author herself, which is difficult enough, but also in terms of the larger environment that she comes from, lived in, loved, struggled with, and was hurt by.
I Am Malala is at its best when most clearly and completely Malala Yousafzai’s—which is to say when it digresses and indulges in the truer, and therefore more complicated, answers to “Who is Malala?” There are descriptions of school and classmates that reveal her to be not just intelligent, precocious and brave, but also fiercely competitive, as focused as any star pupil on never coming second. She writes simply and powerfully about her family and about growing up, about her wish to be just a little taller or have a magic pencil like the hero of an Indian children’s show. Some of the book’s strongest writing is about the landscapes and history of Swat, lovingly recalled and intimately detailed in their beauty—“Shangla is all mountain, mountain, mountain and just a small sky”—or lack thereof.
“Before I closed the school door I looked back as if it were the last time I would ever be at school. That’s the closing shot in one part of the documentary. In reality I went back inside.”
There are also vivid moments in which the drama the audience seeks comes naturally through the author’s instinctive filter. Of the Taliban’s first arrival in Swat, for example, Yousafzai writes that they “arrived in the night just like vampires”; she and a friend had been reading the Twilight books that summer, and had vampires on the brain. Later, she describes leaving the valley in May 2009 as the hardest thing she had ever done, quoting a couplet her grandmother used to recite: “No Pashtun leaves his land of his own sweet will. / Either he leaves from poverty or he leaves for love.” She can’t avoid adding a third reason, “the Taliban,” unimagined by either her grandmother or the original composer of that tapa. Even this, though, is made part of the myth, a moment for which a box has been prepared by and for someone else: “The documentary makers had asked me how I would feel if one day I left Swat and never came back.”
It is a testament to the author’s tenacity that despite the straitjacket, one can see her working towards what seems to have been her real intention. I am Malala is being marketed as an answer, but really it is a search: for narrative, for a story, for a sense of the journey rather than the destination. This, too, begins right up front, with the strangely Midnight’s Children-style opening (“I come from a country which was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday”), and continues on throughout, from school exams and debate competitions to the arrival of the Taliban (“First, [they] took our music, then our Buddhas, then our history”) and the devastating attack that led to her medical evacuation from Pakistan.
Yousafzai fights for control, at times—“Before I closed the school door I looked back as if it were the last time I would ever be at school. That’s the closing shot in one part of the documentary. In reality I went back inside,” to play games with her friends until she had an argument with one of them, over something so trivial she can’t remember it. The search is most poignant when most palpably hers. Some of her stories about her family, about the legends and stories of Swat, or about school (“By the age of seven I was used to being top of my class. I was the one who would help other pupils”) have the polished, rubbed-smooth feeling of the kind that we all gather to assemble who we are and where we come from. She is, after all, not even out of her teens; at that age, looking for the story of yourself is normal, even for those of us who have done much less and suffered infinitely less. But these, too, from her father’s brief flirtation with more serious religiosity to her own youthful theft of another girl’s toy jewelry, must be reshaped to further the page-turner plot, to provide the believers with evidence of miracles. No incident can be left untouched.
Aitzaz Hasan tackled a suicide bomber and saved his schoolmates at the cost of his own life. He was quickly named a hero, christened the “male Malala,” and became #BraveheartAitzaz, a life compressed into an inane hashtag.
I Am Malala has to tell another story simultaneously, of not just 21st-century Pakistan, but of a whole host of forces, actors, goals, priorities, mistakes, and this proves more fraught. Oversimplifying one person’s life is damaging enough; oversimplifying an entire history, especially one as convoluted and bizarre as this, is deadly, and here the book falls into all the obvious traps. Describing the aftermath of 1979, for example, the text ignores both the nearly forty years that have lapsed and the obvious fact that the writer’s experience has none of the drawbacks of an eyewitness, saying only, “Our biggest intelligence service belongs to the military and is called the ISI. It started a massive programme to train Afghan refugees recruited from the camps as resistance fighters or mujahideen.”
Flattening its heroine to the simplest version of herself—making, that is, a heroine of an individual, a martyr from a fighter—the book cannot leave her to act against a three-dimensional backdrop. The writing becomes awkward, manipulated by the process of translation between writer and ghostwriter in an attempt to bend the vividness of Yousafzai’s language to a different purpose (explaining the political tinderbox of Karachi, the increasingly common Shia-Sunni violence, the infamous blasphemy laws) in a way that is transparently calculated. The audience wants this information, in language that sounds like it could come from a sixteen-year-old, but only in measured quantities. I Am Malala can’t help suggesting the important questions—not just how Pakistan in the 21st century became a place where this kind of thing could happen and why, but also what kind of alternatives and futures it presents for girls like Malala Yousafzai—but exploring too deeply is impossible, because the stories have no heroes, because the questions have no simple answers, and who has the time or the patience to listen?
The nearest comparison, then, isn’t Anne Frank. What we’ve done is turn Malala Yousafzai into our Harry Potter.
Floating over I Am Malala, and at one point explicitly acknowledged, is the ghost of Anne Frank. The comparison has been made before, and while Yousafzai is clearly the more fortunate, there is an important difference. Anne Frank was forced to hide in an attic; the diary she kept there—the narrative she created, for herself and by herself—was entirely her own. In exile, Malala Yousafzai has been granted one form of freedom, but been denied the other for a while. Even the diary she famously kept for the BBC was from the beginning intended for public consumption and shaped by that need; as Yousafzai writes, in one of the uncomfortably metatextual moments in which it becomes all too clear what we are complicit in, “…after a while I got to know the kind of things [the BBC correspondent] wanted me to talk about and became more confident. He liked personal feelings and what he called my ‘pungent sentences’ and also the mix of everyday family life with the terror of the Taliban.”
The nearest comparison, then, isn’t Anne Frank. What we’ve done is turn Malala Yousafzai into our Harry Potter. She is the Girl Who Lived—which is a way of saying that she is Pakistan’s hope, Pakistan’s absolution. Of that, there seems to be no shortage these days. Consider another teenager, fifteen-year-old Aitzaz Hasan: Running late one January morning, he tackled a suicide bomber and saved his schoolmates at the cost of his own life. He was quickly named a hero, christened the “male Malala” and subjected to the same instantaneous process of canonization or, since there isn’t that much difference, fetishization. As Malala Yousafzai became “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban,” Aitzaz Hasan became #BraveheartAitzaz, a life compressed into an inane hashtag.
From a distance, perhaps, that’s fine: Martyrdom is simple, ordained, and, in its way, beautiful. But when you get closer—when you become one of those in whose stead these young people are offered up—it’s an out. Making martyrs is easy business; no explanations, no logic, no hypotheticals are required or even desired. In this case, it means that no one needs to tell the story of how history came to ask this of Aitzaz Hasan; more importantly, it means that no one needs to attempt to answer the questions that his life—a life of, most likely, unemployment, poverty, sickness—would have posed, had he been allowed to live it.
The simplicity of martyr stories is tempting, particularly in a country where most of the narratives crafted over the past six decades—of heroism and victimization, of manifest destiny, of democracy and progress, of the “brotherhood of the people” celebrated in the national anthem—have been shown to be false. This story, though—the story in which the best ending that brave and intelligent young people can hope for, the best ending that we can offer them, is a chance at martyrdom or a living sainthood as stifling and circumscribed as that endured by any Kumari—may end up being the most destructive of all: It asks nothing of its listeners, but simply washes them clean.
Hasan Altaf is an American writer whose work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, The Millions, 3 Quarks Daily and India’s Seminar magazine.