The Sunday Times, 13 October 2013   15 mins read

My year with Malala

The Sunday Times, 13 October 2013   15 mins read

My year with Malala

She’s the most famous schoolgirl in the world. She gets Skyped by the secretary-general of the United Nations, Angelina Jolie drops in for tea, and Madonna has dedicated a song to her. On her 16th birthday in July her photo was projected onto the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, she got a standing ovation at the UN, and Beyoncé sent her an Instagram. Her iPod was a gift from Bono, her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and she is the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

She is also hopeless at getting up in the morning, likes listening to Justin Bieber, telling jokes and mimicking Mr Bean, and fights endlessly with her brother. Doublejointed, she enjoys making people cringe by clicking her legs as she walks, and teases her dad for travelling the world advocating girls’ rights yet never clearing the table at home.

Over the last nine months I’ve been privileged to get to know the real Malala and her remarkable family as they adjust to being uprooted from their remote mountain valley in northern Pakistan to the second biggest city in Britain — and worldwide fame. It all started in January when a an email unexpectedly dropped into my inbox with the subject “Malala Yousafzai”. It was from a literary agent representing Malala, asking if I’d be interested in writing her story.

I was living in the US on October 9 last year when Malala was shot in the head on a school bus on the way home, and, like most people, was horrified that the Taliban could shoot a schoolgirl. Much of my career as a foreign correspondent has been spent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban, so I’d followed her blog on the BBC website in 2009 about life as a schoolgirl in the Swat valley when the Taliban took over. I was in awe of her bravery, risking her life for the right of girls to go to school, and of course intrigued to meet her.

So it is that on a freezing January afternoon I find myself sitting at a kitchen table in a high-rise apartment in Birmingham, being interviewed by a 15-year-old girl, as a blizzard batters the plate-glass windows.

I had travelled up from London by train with her agent. As I am quickly to discover, there is a circus of people around Malala, including a leading PR company, an investment-banker friend of the family, do-good celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, and even former prime minister Gordon Brown, who hired Malala’s dad as an adviser to his own role as global education envoy for the UN. Everyone wants a part of her.

Malala’s dad, Ziauddin, greets us at the entrance of the building. A dapper man with a moustache and a wide smile, he seems familiar. He tells me that we met back in 2009 in Peshawar, when I was interviewing people about the military operation against the Taliban in Swat. “In those days people wanted to talk to me, not my daughter,” he laughs.

He takes us into a modern apartment to wait for Malala. On the floor along the wall are piles and piles of cards and toys, letters from all over the world. Most are from schoolchildren, though later I would discover the pile includes a marriage proposal and offers to adopt her.

As I chat to Ziauddin it is easy to see where Malala gets her activism from. He has a fascinating story of his own, growing up in a desperately poor village and even toying with becoming a jihadi, yet becoming passionate about education and going on to establish his own school with 800 students. It was at that school where Malala was studying — the school bus in which she was shot was his.

In 25 years of travelling the world I have interviewed warlords, dictators, royals and Taliban, yet I find myself nervous waiting for a teenage girl. I had seen an image of her waving when she left the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) a couple of weeks earlier, but I have no idea if she can walk and talk.

The door opens and a short, slight figure in a flowery shalwar kameez, red sandals and a black dupatta shuffles in with a tray of tea. “I am Malala,” she smiles. Her head is covered with the dupatta, but as it falls from her face I can see that the hair on the left of her head is short and flat — it was shaved before surgeons could operate. The left side of her face pulls down as if she had suffered a stroke, and her mouth twists as she smiles, which she does a lot. Her facial nerve was cut when she was shot. She’d had an operation to repair it in November, but it will take time for it to start working. For now, she has to massage her face every day.

I give her a get-well card and teddy bear from my son, who is a couple of years younger than her and has seen her story. Like most teenage boys, he is baffled by the idea that anyone would risk being shot to go to school.

As we talk, I realise she cannot hear me from the left. Later, she explains that her left eardrum was destroyed in the shooting. She does not remember being shot. The last thing she recalls is getting on the bus. Afterwards, doctors tell me how astonished they have been at how mentally strong she is — maybe the memory loss was a protection mechanism. Instead she tells me about the terror of waking up in a hospital in Birmingham with no idea what had happened and her parents nowhere to be seen. She shows me that the bullet went through the side of her left eye and travelled 18in down past her jaw, ending up embedded just under her left shoulder. “It could have taken my eye,” she says. “I might have had no eye, no brain. It was a miracle. I feel like I have been given a second life to help people.”

She places my hand on her tummy. “Feel this,” she says. I feel something hard under the skin and grimace, which makes her laugh. “It’s the top of my skull!” she says. When she was operated on in Pakistan, doctors removed part of her skull so her brain could swell, and placed it there to preserve it. At this moment, there is just skin over her brain.

She is enchanting. Her face lights as she talks and her voice is girlie and full of wonder. Her English is fluent — as her school taught in English — and charmingly old-fashioned, using expressions like “kith and kin”. She also speaks her native Pashto and fluent Urdu.

“My son brings ice-cream cones. Malala eats the ice cream, then asks: ‘What do I do with this?’ She has never eaten a cone”

On the train home, I know I really want to do this. I have reported from some of the world’s least developed places and seen the difference girls’ education can make. I am also dismayed at the situation in Pakistan, where one in three primary-school children don’t go to school and militancy has taken hold. Maybe this one girl’s story could wake people up to what’s going on.

The next time I visit Malala, I meet her brothers: Khushal, who is two years younger than her and bored; and Atal, an excited nine-year-old. Their mother comes in. She is lily-skinned, with green eyes and beautiful. Her name is Tor Pekai, which means raven tresses, though her hair is chestnut. Even though she speaks no English, it’s clear she is being driven mad by the boys. They haven’t been to school since arriving in Britain in November, and it must be hard for them to be all cooped up.

To my surprise, Tor Pekai is illiterate, which makes Malala’s journey even more surprising. The move has been hard for her. She had never used an electric oven or seen a microwave or travelled in a lift. She grew up in a poor, neighbouring village to Malala’s father and, after marrying him, moved to Mingora, the main town of Swat, where the tallest building was two or three storeys. Not only is the Birmingham apartment on the 10th floor but it’s just off Broad Street, with its nightclubs and strip bars — she tells me the scantily clad girls make her feel she is drowning.

Before we can proceed any further with the book, Malala has to have another operation. She returns to QEH to have the skull bone removed from her stomach — and is delighted that the surgeon is a woman. But when the surgeon looks at the piece of skull, she decides not to put it back as it has not kept well and there is a risk of infection. Instead she carries out a titanium cranioplasty, fitting a specially moulded titanium plate in Malala’s head with eight screws. It will do the job of a skull and protect the brain. Another surgeon then inserts a small electronic device called a cochlear implant near her left ear. Malala is in theatre for five hours and has three operations, but is back in the apartment within five days.

A few weeks later, a receiver is fitted behind her left ear and she hears “beep beep” for the first time. To start with, the sounds are robotic, but she soon starts hearing better.

The first time I realise how famous Malala has become is on a bitterly cold Saturday in March when she comes to London for the first time for a day’s sightseeing, including afternoon tea at Harrods. She has travelled with the British doctor Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan when she was shot and ended up bringing her to Britain.

I suggest we meet on the top-floor members’ area of the Southbank Centre as it has one of the best views in London, and I thought it would be quiet. It turns out that I could not have made a worse choice — a Women of the World (Wow) conference is under way and there are women everywhere.

Lots of people try to photograph Malala on their mobile phones. I tell my son to stop them. “Everyone recognises her!” he says. We sit down by a window overlooking the London Eye and a blonde woman from the Southbank Centre comes bustling up, introducing herself. “Can you come and speak to some of the younger women?” she asks.

I explain to her that Malala is tired and we only came in for a cup of tea. But the woman is not to be deterred. “Just a few minutes,” she says. “The session ends at 3 and I will come back to get her just before.” By this time Malala has put her head on the table, and Dr Reynolds and I again explain that she simply can’t.

My son brings ice-cream cones. Malala eats the ice cream, then asks: “What do I do with this?” She has never eaten a cone.

Shortly after, the woman returns. “Are you coming now?” she asks poor Malala.

“I don’t think you understand that no means no,” I say to her in astonishment.

We get up to leave, more people whipping out their phones for pictures. I am starting to realise the fame and power this young girl has — and the demands that are made of her.

As we walk towards Westminster Bridge we pass a carousel of white horses, Wurlitzer music churning and lights shining in the falling dusk. I see her looking. “Would you like a ride?” I ask. She giggles and nods. “You must come too,” she says. We all get on the horses. Her eyes gleam as we go round and round.

The next time I see Malala, the family has moved house. It had become claustrophobic in the apartment, and the Pakistan consulate has found them a house in Edgbaston, near the hospital. I’m amazed when I arrive. The house is enormous, in a wide leafy road with electric gates guarded by stone lions. Inside is a grand piano that nobody can play, and murals a the walls of Greek gods and little cherubs peeking from the corner of the ceilings. Malala’s mum doesn’t like it. “I feel men looking at me,” she says.

It feels as though they are camping in the house. Their belongings have stayed in Swat, as they left the day Malala was shot and taken to hospital in Peshawar, and never went back. There’s also a huge garden with a Neptune fountain and lots of trees, which reminds them of their green valley. Often, I see Tor Pekai wandering the lawn, feeding the birds with scraps from breakfast and singing to herself.

“She used to feed lots of poor children in our neighbourhood, so they’d have food in their tummies when they went to school,” explains Malala. “Now, she’s shocked by all the waste.”

It is Tor Pekai’s lonely figure that brings home how this family has been wrenched from all they knew. Malala tells me her mum was very sociable: women of the neighbourhood gathered in their back yard every afternoon.

“Our house was always so full of people that we never had privacy and sometimes I cried — I couldn’t do my homework,” she says. “Now we long for guests.”

Ziauddin gets to travel the world attending conferences with Gordon Brown, but he misses the school he created. Without him, it has begun to lose pupils. Malala’s brother Khushal tells me he misses his friends. He spends most of his time upstairs in his room playing Xbox. Only the youngest, Atal, has settled quickly.

Although Birmingham has a large Pakistani community, the family is nervous of getting involved. Malala may be admired around the world, but there has been an astonishing outpouring of vitriol from her own people, saying that she wasn’t shot or that her father shot her deliberately so they could get asylum and fame. So widespread is this, that when a doctor friend of mine in Swat finds out I’m writing the book, he emails to say: “You know she wasn’t really shot; it’s all just a drama.” Once Malala says to me: “If Taliban come again I hope they shoot me where everyone can see.”

Each time I visit, there is more movement in her face. The surgeon later tells me it’s the best result he’s ever had. Her mother often hugs her and cries, knowing she nearly lost her. “She treats me as if I’m her youngest rather than the eldest,” says Malala. They make her eat dried fruit with milk before each meal to build her up.

Ah, the meals. Although they say they are lonely, people are always coming and going. As for all Pashtuns, hospitality is important, so anyone who comes is fed. Dinner is often not until midnight. They go to bed late then don’t get up till lunchtime, so I am left twiddling my thumbs in the morning.

The more I go there, the more I realise that although Malala’s mum may be illiterate, she is very strong. I love the teasing relationship she has with her husband, rare in Pashtun society. “‘He even tells his wife’ is an insult in our society,” Malala’s dad explains. I spend so much time with them they begin to feel like family. I take my husband and son to stay and we are overwhelmed by their generosity.

Ziauddin goes to Vienna and is given the famous sachertorte. They know I like chocolate, so save it to cut when I am there, then insist I take the rest back for my family.

“We lost everything,” Malala tells me. “Why should we mind about a cake?” I feel sorry that their first year in Britain has been the harshest spring in 50 years. When the weather finally improves, my son plays cricket and football with them and is astonished whenever he sees Malala on TV.

“She’s just a girl!” he says. Her father has tears in his eyes listening to the children laughing in the garden. He tells me that sometimes when he is napping in his bedroom with the window open, he wakes to hear children’s voices drifting up and panics for a moment, thinking that Malala is not there.

Just before Easter, Malala begins school. In her strange new existence, the police first have to do a security sweep, and it becomes a global event. She tells me she likes it, but has been put down two school years because she hasn’t done the GCSE syllabus. She shows me her homework, which is incredibly neat. Her favourite subject is physics, but she finds it difficult. She’s also finding it hard to make friends. “They see me as ‘Malala, social activist’, not just Malala, like my old friends.”

She Skypes her friends back home. They have kept her seat in the class, though she is starting to realise she won’t be going back. She tells me that she has nobody to joke with here, so she saves her jokes for those calls.

In one of our conversations, Malala told me that she once went to the theatre — a show called Tom, Dick and Harry in Islamabad — and loved it, so I got tickets for Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. As it starts, she is wide-eyed. She jumps at the gunshot as the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, and I hope it doesn’t trigger anything. A long and violent Shakespeare play may not have been the perfect choice — more than three hours is a lot for anyone to sit through, and both Malala and my son fell asleep. But they woke for the swordfight at the end.

fterwards, she says she loved it. “I think it’s a good lesson,” she says. “Hamlet does to Laertes [killing his father] the same as what happened to him and it gets him nowhere. I don’t seek vengeance against those who tried to kill me. They were led the wrong way. I just wish I could have talked to them.”

She is way too wise for a 15-year-old.

One day in mid-April, Time magazine arrives with Malala’s face on the cover, as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. She complains she doesn’t like the photo.

Sometimes when I go to their house I notice elaborate bouquets. When I ask where they come from, they say, “Oh, Angelina Jolie was over for dinner,” or: “The ex-prime minister of Norway dropped in for tea.” The family visits London and is taken to see Boris Johnson. He leaves Malala slightly baffled. “He just kept saying, ‘What’s it all about?’ ” she says. In the paper we read she is favourite for the Nobel peace prize. My son is amazed. “How can she win?” he asks. “She’s always fighting with her brother!” In May, I travel to Swat to visit Malala’s school and village. The area has been under military control since the Taliban were driven out in 2009, so I need permission to go there, and an army escort. Swat is beautiful, its green valleys full of spring flowers, and I can see why Malala’s family aches with longing for it.

I arrive at her school on the morning of its annual spring gala. Since the Taliban days, there has been no sign outside, just a brass door in a wall on a narrow mud road. To my amusement the girls arrive in rickshaws with their heads covered, then the moment they are through the door they throw them off.

Everyone is gathered at the top of the steps in a colourful open courtyard. I told the headmistress I would be keeping a low profile — after all, if Malala is a target, then I suppose her co-writer must be too. But when I come in, I am announced over the loudspeaker and told I will be judging their art show.

Afterwards, when I chat to Malala’s classmates, tears spring to my eyes. All of them are so eloquent and passionate about schooling, even though some of them say their brothers would withdraw them from school at the first hint of any independent thought. One of her classmates says to me: “We could all have been Malala, but our parents wouldn’t have let us speak out publicly as hers did.”

Malala’s journey becomes even more astounding when I visit the village where her parents come from and see the way women are all kept in purdah. I stay with her cousins and am put in the purdah section downstairs. I am starving when I arrive, but we must wait to eat until the men upstairs have been served, taken their fill, and the leftovers come back down. It’s long after midnight when we eat.

Everyone gives me gifts to take back to Malala: clothes, letters, photos. Her cousin Sumbul gives me a shoebox containing a china teapot, a diamanté hairclip, sandals and a bead bracelet, clearly all the treasures she has in the world. Malala and her mother cry when I give them the mementos. They miss home so much. All is going well with the book, except for one thing. Tor Pekai is very religious, praying five times a day, and very conservative, and doesn’t want to appear in the book.

“My family will not like it,” she says. This is complicated. Ziauddin won’t go against her wishes, so my only hope is Malala. “We can’t have a book about you as an icon of girls’ rights, and your own mother not appearing,” I beseech her. She sees the point, and bit by bit Tor Pekai allows a little of her own story to be told.

Pashtuns also have a very different sense of time and no understanding of deadlines. In the crucial weeks before the book is due to go to press, the entire family decides to fast for Ramadan. No food or drink can pass their lips between sunrise and sundown, which, in July, means not dining till 10.30pm and breakfasting at 3.30am. Unfortunately, it coincides with a heatwave. I arrive to find everyone hot, tired and sleepy. The last thing they want to do is work on the book.

Finally, the writing is done, but I still need the family to read it. The only day we have looks set to be Eid, the main Islamic holiday to commemorate the end of fasting, where the children are given gifts of money. “It’s like our Christmas,” says Malala. The moonsighting committee, which announces when Eid will be by the appearance of the crescent moon, is split, and some think it’s a day later. “We Muslims can’t agree on anything!” laughs Ziauddin.

People ask me, is Malala really so special, aren’t there lots of girls like her? She’d be the first to admit that. She is passionate, eloquent and knows she has been given a platform. I have no doubt she will use it, as anyone who saw her speak at the UN in July will agree.

She’s also amazingly level-headed, for which her family must take credit. After all, how many schoolgirls sit doing history homework on the Treaty of Versailles next to a collage on the wall made by Angelina Jolie’s daughter Shiloh? Last time I was there to do the pictures for this article, Malala had been in Dublin the night before, where she had been made an Amnesty International ambassador along with Harry Belafonte.

The award was presented by Bono. “Can you imagine — he was wearing sunglasses at night!” she told me. To her horror, he embraced her hands. “That’s totally against our culture,” she said. Her father laughed. “I can protect you from the Taliban, my dear, but not from Bono,” he said.

Picture credits: Paulo Anunciação/Lambada Productions Ltd

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