Friday, July 10, 2020

"I Am Malala," by Malala Yousafzai--Nonfiction Review

Hey, it’s Friday, so as the song goes, let’s take a look, it’s in a book, and we can go anywhere. So why don’t we take a trip to Pakistan, specifically to the Swat valley during the time the Taliban occupied the valley? I was fired from my first day on the Reading Rainbow by the way—but anyway, today’s book is “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai.   

Malala Yousafzai

What I love about this book:

This book scratches the same itch and feeling as “The Kite Runner” but has the added dimension of being about a real person. You get a snapshot of the culture as seen through Malala’s eyes, and the book puts a human face to the Pashtun people living in the Swat valley. 

Malala’s bravery is the same stuff they wrote epic poems about in antiquity—but in all of those, the hero is usually some burly man slaying some monster. Malala, on the other hand, surpasses that in her attempt to reason with people as far gone as Taliban true believers because it’s the right thing to do according to her interpretation of her faith. She stood up to the radicals and argued that women deserve an education, full well knowing that the Taliban’s typical rebuttal to a viewpoint that they disagree with usually involves a Kalashnikov and a lot of bullets. Then after she was shot in the head by the Taliban and nearly dies, she still makes it her life’s work to fight for women’s rights. 

I admire her candor in telling her story as a young woman in a culture that is by any western standard, is very hard on all women. Still, it’s kind of nice to read about little details of her life, like her and her friend reading the Twilight novels, and her father taking her whole class on field trips. These heartwarming little anecdotes break up the truly terrifying parts when the Taliban came to the Swat valley and generally ruined everything.

Another thing I respect about her honesty is that Malala never tries to describe herself as a perfect person. In fact, she tells numerous stories about how she could be petty, a little vain, and sometimes jealous. It makes her seem like a real person, which of course, she is since this isn’t fiction. As a flawed person, her bravery to stand up to and try to reason with literal murderers seems even more heroic.  

What I don’t love about this book:

After the horror-filled introduction, which is read by the author, if you go in for the audiobook version, there is a bit of a wait until we get into Malala’s story. She had opted to tell the story of her father’s life and her mother’s before she was born. I don’t begrudge her that, clearly, she loves her father—her mother too—and her father seems like an extraordinary man in his own right—but if I’m nitpicky, and I am, it does go on for a while. 

On the subject of things I don’t like that happened, and not to be confused with a suggestion of not including them in the book, I find it disheartening how western culture has often failed these people. A popular self-inflicted myth of Americans is we tend to see ourselves as the heroes of the world. We do this without so much as polling the rest of the world for their opinion on the matter. 

Turns out, at best, we come off as paternalistic and patronizing—at worst, greedy imperialists in all but name only who don’t care about other people’s sovereignty. That viewpoint was greatly exasperated and underscored in Malala’s narrative when President Obama sent in our Navy Seals to raid Osama Bin Laden’s compound, and ultimately kill him, without so much as a howdy doody to the Pakistani government explaining our intentions. President Obama took that action for operational security reasons so as to not tip off the target, was that the right call? I’m not qualified to second guess him on that point, so I’m of the belief that I’d just have to take his word for that was the case. It’s not like the president particularly cares about my—a random schmuck on the internet—opinion. Anyway, I can see her point on why the Pakistani people were upset about the whole thing. 

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Author's Website:

Parting thoughts:

When I was a freshman in college, I had a professor loosely “teach” us about the geography and society of the Swat valley. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when I read this book that I had the realization that, oh, that professor was a racist. This professor explained to my class that those people were all warlike and are unconquerable because they train all of their children to be warriors. One of the “practices” this professor taught of the people of the Swat valley is mothers would randomly slap their children, unprovoked by anything, to teach them the valuable lesson that life is capricious and violent and condition them for the eventual rigors of the battlefield. 

Like most good bullshit, there is a kernel of something that is part of the truth. The people of the Swat valley historically speaking were very good at setting aside their numerous differences to repel invaders. Malala even talks about a famous battle where the Pashtuns, a group of people spread out between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Swat Valley, repelled the British, and fun trivia it’s the same battle where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson was injured. The whole slapping babies part of the lesson? Utter made up nonsense as far as I can tell, but who knows, maybe someone somewhere does that, but I’m pretty sure that would be a disturbed individual, not a cultural norm. Like I said in my “The Kite Runner” review, my vision of what the Swat valley was like had been warped by the general perception that everything that is reminiscent of the middle east—or middle east adjacent in Pakistan’s case—is endless desert.

Clearly, with this photo from Wikipedia, you can see that it isn’t true.

To think, in a place so beautiful, some of the worst modern-day atrocities happen. If there is a God who created everything and everyone, it’s hard to imagine that shooting children in the head for the crime of being a woman and wishing for an education was what he had in mind.  

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