October 11, 2013
Marie Arana is the author of the memoir “American Chica” and the biography “Bolivar: American Liberator.” She was also a scriptwriter for the recently released film about education in the Third World, “Girl Rising.”
Malala tells of that life-shattering moment in a riveting memoir, “I Am Malala,” published this past week even as she was being cited as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Co-written with Christina Lamb, a veteran British journalist who has an evident passion for Pakistan and can render its complicated history with pristine clarity, this is a book that should be read not only for its vivid drama but for its urgent message about the untapped power of girls.
The story begins with Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the son of an imam (a preacher of Islam), who was instilled from boyhood with a deep love of learning, an unwavering sense of justice and a commitment to speak out in defense of both. Like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, Ziauddin was convinced that aside from the sword and the pen, there is an even greater power — that of women — and so, when his firstborn turned out to be a bright, inquisitive daughter, he raised her with all the attention he lavished on his sons.
Malala was born in 1997, as her father was struggling to found his school against a sea of troubles: a deeply corrupt government official to whom he refused to pay bribes; a mufti who lived across the way and objected to the education of girls, a practice he denounced as haram, or offensive to Islam; and the vicissitudes of a fierce jihad, visited upon them from time to time in Taliban raids that evolved from harsh rhetoric to outright killings. By the time Malala was 10 and the top student in her father’s surprisingly flourishing school, radical Talibs had penetrated the valley all the way to the capital of Islamabad and were beheading Pakistani police, holding their severed heads high on the roadsides.
We know how this story ends, with a 15-year-old child taking a bullet for a whole generation. It is difficult to imagine a chronicle of a war more moving, apart from perhaps the diary of Anne Frank. With the essential difference that we lost that girl, and by some miracle, we still have this one. Disfigured beyond recognition by her assailant’s gun, Malala was rushed to Peshawar, then Rawalpindi and finally to Birmingham, England, where doctors reconstructed her damaged skull and knit back the shattered face. But her smile would never be quite the same.
Samira Ahmed writes in this post why women writing about suffering in Islamic states are slated for supporting a patronising attitude towards those societies. The success of harrowing true stories of abuse and poverty led to a special label for books such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But while we can disagree about the literary merits of such “misery memoirs”, neither was accused of being a slur on Irish or American nationhood or the Catholic faith. When it comes to women and women who happen to be Muslim, though, there seems to be a different attitude the author contends. The emerging genre of memoirs about the suffering of women in Islamic states or cultures – which, in western publishing terms, may be described as “misery memoirs” – have been variously criticised for reinforcing “Orientalism”; that is to say, they support the west’s archaic and patronising attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies, rather than actually saying something important about the women in these societies themselves. The author suggests that according to the British publishing world Muslim women can’t write a credible memoir of suffering without it being wrapped up in the struggles of a nation. Yet even if as she suggests we ignore such attitudes, the uncomfortable reality is that the western publishing world is fascinated by such tales of female suffering and misery.
He was a “15-year-old white kid with Dad a diagnosed schizophrenic, rapist and racial separatist and Mom fresh off her second divorce,” Michael Muhammad Knight writes in his 2006 memoir, “Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America.” At home in Rochester, he “listened to a lot of Public Enemy and read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and by 16 had a huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini” on his bedroom wall.
At 17, Mr. Knight, having converted to Islam, was “running around Pakistan with Afghan and Somalian refugees” and studying “at the largest mosque in the world: Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, which happens to look like a spaceship.”
Mr. Knight now writes that his immersion in the world of Five Percenters made him, in a sense, an insider. He does not accept the literal truth of all their claims (and he is skeptical that all Five Percenters do). But he is no longer an outsider looking in.
In his book’s introduction, Mr. Knight offers a bit of advice to other scholars doing fieldwork: “Keep your guard up and keep your distance. You spend that much time with a culture and fail to check yourself, you’ll fall in love and become your subject.”
How will you know when you have gotten too close to your subject? For Mr. Knight, there were clear signs. In 2008, he made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. “Here I am,” he told me, “a quasi-orthodox Muslim in Mecca, walking around the Kaaba” — the shrine Muslims around the world face during prayers — “and I am interpreting it through mathematics, the lessons, Wu-Tang lyrics. I had to make sense of that.”
Although she’d cultivated an academic interest in Islam at university, Willow Wilson’s religious awakening really came in the hospital. She was suffering from adrenal distress, and its symptoms – including insomnia and hair loss – would last for a year and a half. “Being ill had shaken something loose in my head,” the 27-year-old writes in her new memoir The Butterfly Mosque (Grove Press, 2010). “That so many people were well – that I had been well for so long – seemed miraculous.”
After she recovered, Ms. Wilson accepted a teaching position in Cairo: Her decision to convert to Islam came mid-flight, over the Mediterranean. Days later, she would meet her future husband Omar, a pious Muslim and heavy-metal aficionado, at their English-language school. He showed her markets and cafés free of Westerners, and later steered her through her first Ramadan.
When the author was sixteen, he became an Islamic fundamentalist. Five years later, after much emotional turmoil, he rejected fundamentalist teachings and returned to normal life and his family. He tried to put his experiences behind him, but as the events of 7/7 unfolded, it became clear to him that Islamist groups pose a threat to this country.
Mukhtar Mai’s compelling story is one of “Heather’s Picks.” She is a Muslim woman who has suffered terrible violence in the name of “tradition.” There are few like her who have the courage to confront their cultural misogyny. She has refused to embrace silence and is determined to overturn centuries-old attitudes. New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof has placed her in the company of history’s greatest personalities. Gloria Steinem has lauded her extraordinary character. She has inspired Muslim women who are fed up with the miserable status quo of their gender in many Muslim cultures. Unlike Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she has not rejected Islam, nor made defamatory declarations against Prophet Mohammed. Instead, she has deepened her Islamic faith, choosing to tread in the footsteps of the Prophet. Her memoir, In the Name of Honor, was recently released without much fanfare (…) Mai was determined to combat the enemy: illiteracy. As government funds dwindled, she tried to keep the school running from her own meagre savings. It was clear to her that a child’s education was far more valuable than personal wealth. As her story reached the world, donations poured in. The Canadian International Development Agency and Margaret Huber, Canada’s ambassador to Pakistan, were instrumental in providing moral and financial support. In her memoir, Mai gratefully acknowledges Canada as one of the few nations to come through in her time of need. Mai has shunned the limelight, and has no immediate plans for a book tour. Her last trip to the United States was fraught with interference from the Pakistani government. (…)