Malala Yousafzai’s recent return to Pakistan, after five years of exile, spawned columns of newsprint and dozens of television hours reporting on the heady weekend where she and her family were feted at the Prime Minister House and then taken on a high-security visit to her hometown of Mingora in Swat. Over the years, many books have also been written about and by Malala, most notably I Am Malala, the international bestseller co-authored with Christina Lamb and Malala’s Magic Pencil, her book for children about her dedication to children’s education around the world. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about Malala, not least Malala herself.
Each article, each interview hopes to capture something vital about this renowned young Pakistani woman who defied death, suffered multiple risky surgeries and endured a gruelling emotional journey to face down the demons that threatened first her survival, and then her triumphant return. They all capture the same facts: child activist, secret diary, shot by the Taliban, Nobel Prize, accepted to Oxford. The trajectory seems meteoric, a life touched by the gods, death cheated, the world’s applause, calumny and controversy from her detractors. Yet the complexities that characterise Malala’s life story seem to elude reporters and interviewers when faced with the simplicity and straightforwardness of their subject.
The soft-spoken young woman, a dupatta over her head, a plain face bearing the scars and facial paralysis from being shot (she is deaf in her left ear and also suffers from a loss of vision as a result of the attack), who never raises her voice in anger and refuses to be drawn into moral ambiguity, presents a difficult subject. Can anyone truly ever be this good, this blessed? What about the contradictions, the complexities, the flaws and failures that characterise any heroine or villain worth turning the page for? Or is Malala so much of a paragon that conspiracy theorists have to start inventing mysteries along the vein of “her Nobel Prize is a Western plot, she’s being trained to rule Pakistan, the shooting never happened”? As if, in being cheated out of the Greek tragedy that her death would have been, some are compelled to turn the story into a Dan Brown potboiler.
There is a difference between a life and a story: the problem with trying to write about Malala is that Malala herself doesn’t really know how the story is going to end. Her uncertainty leaves chroniclers adrift and often reaching for neat ways to tie up the endings that don’t ring true to the vagaries of real life.
In her own memoir, Malala has been honest about the twists and turns of her life, leaving readers always wondering whether there is something more to her story, something that she holds back for herself — or whether more has been added on by her co-author, editors or others. But there is a difference between a life and a story: a life unfolds in real time, capricious and unpredictable, while a story can be told to reflect on the past or to predict the future, seeking both a narrative and a conclusion. The problem with trying to write about Malala is that Malala herself doesn’t really know how the story is going to end. Her uncertainty leaves chroniclers adrift and often reaching for neat ways to tie up the endings that don’t ring true to the vagaries of real life.
This intense desire to portray this renowned young Pakistani woman in interviews, profiles and reportage is reminiscent of the same zeal to successfully capture in prose Benazir Bhutto at the time of her return to Pakistan in 2007 — also after five years’ exile. The media went into overdrive, churning out reports and analyses and interviews with her; they painted Bhutto’s return as the conclusion of a long journey, a female Odysseus who was finally coming home to her Penelope, the Pakistani nation. Then, too, reporters and writers sought out that unfathomable element that gave Bhutto the courage to face danger from both the establishment and the Taliban in her search for political success. In this story, too, were the elements of a Greek tragedy in waiting: the hanged father, the first female leader of a Muslim nation, the ousters, the perfidious generals, the helpless children.
But Malala stayed four days and went back, joyous at having set foot on her homeland, and possibly relieved that she still has a sanctuary in the United Kingdom to return to. Many more than just Malala were relieved that this departure took place at all, that it didn’t take place in a helicopter, her face in bandages, her life so nearly extinguished — or in a graveyard. Bhutto stayed for three months and at the end of it, was assassinated. The Benazir Bhutto story — unsolved mystery aside — had finally come to an end. “She knew she might not survive” turned into “She knew she would be murdered”, as the British newspaper The Telegraph reported her sister Sanam saying. History is written by the winners, as the cliché goes, but sometimes it has to be written by the losers.
Objectivity and subjectivity bestow different types of legitimacy and authority on every tale, and Malala’s is no exception. Years lie ahead where Malala will live her life and others will keep writing her story. One day she may try again to write it herself. Nobody can predict what kinds of experiences and achievements will go into a future version, but one thing is certain: there is no such thing as the definitive Malala story because there are the facts, there is the truth, and then there is the sense — different for each individual reader — that we try to make of them all.
The columnist is a Karachi-based author of six books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 29th, 2018