Sunday, 11 January 2015

She is Malala - what the girl who wanted an education taught me

I have just finished my first book of 2015, which - it being the 11th January puts me already behind track on my goodreads target of 42 books in the year - or one book every 8,7 days.  However, it was a rather special book that did all the things a good book should.  It made me think, it entertained, at times it made me cry, and for all the fact that it was written by someone a third my age whom I had never met, who was born and lived half a world away, it was so relevant.

The book was "I am Malala" - by Malala Yousafzai with Christine Lamb.  I had not heard of Malala before October 2012 but the news that a school girl had been shot by the Taliban for wanting to see girls given an education rang around the world and it was not a name I was ever going to forget.

I had been meaning to read this book for sometime, but it was only in October 2014 that I finally plucked it from the shelves of Waterstones and only at Christmas that I started reading it.  None of us can read any book free of our own personal context we see it through the lens of our own experiences and that will always distort and shape what it means to us.  I came to Malala's story from a variety of perspectives.

I am a reader

This is a great book on any level - the story of a real life Harry Potter - "the girl who lived" despite attracting the ire of a vindictive and ineffable evil.  As a narrative it is enthralling and educational.  Human beings are prone to simplify things, to try to reduce the subtle realities and longstanding foundations of conflicts into simple black and white answers.  Above all else people want other people to blame  "it is your fault, you were wrong/bad."  That is so much easier and quicker than digging into the detail.  We are all looking for the TL:DR  summary, but like they say - the well of knowledge is one from which one should drink deeply or not at all.

So this book is an insight into the world of Malala, the world of the Swat Valley, of Pakistan and the Taliban.  Places and people that you might think you know from the snatched videos and soundbites on the news but you cannot know someone or somewhere until you have walked a mile in their shoes, or read their own story. Otherwise we are at risk of projecting some ill-focussed image of what we think a person is. Even then, no matter how much we know or read there is still an element of interpretation that we make which means we gather impressions of a person, rather than perfect knowledge.  Then again, who amongst us even truly knows ourselves - the capacity for self-deceit lies in all of us.

Malala is a pashtun, a muslim, a girl and a pakistani more or less in that order.  When brought to Hospital in Birmingham the hospital staff first assumed she would like western clothes and films of female triumph against prejudice like "Bend it like Beckham."  But Malala is a good muslim, holding to the tenets and expectations of her faith and her culture.  There is no sharp choice being made between westernisation and radicalised islam as media on both sides would seek to portray it.    The simplistic black and white of - "if you are not with us then you are with them" is a key driver of control and repression just as much in the talibanised Swat valley as it was in revolutionary France during the terror.   We in the westernised world can make similar false assumptions the other way - the political and religious structure of Malala's homeland is complex.

Malala tells us of growing up with the taliban and in the aftermath of 9/11.  She tells of poverty and corruption, of coups d'etat and politicians, of ruinous earthquakes and floods - natural disasters that were as much a grist to the mill of the taliban as any medieval plague was to the religious fanatics of those days.  She tells of death and persecution, of misinformation and manipulation.  All in a detail I did not know, which fleshes out the complex political mess in which pseudo-islamic hatred can flourish in ways we in the west simply cannot comprehend.

Human beings are parochial by nature - the tragic death of an 8 year child down the road will occupy local thoughts far more than a score of deaths in Paris, or three dozen in a  crowded market place in Yemen, but who are we to say that any of those lives is more or less deserving of our tears than any other, who are we to criticize for whom people mourn.  Seven billion people will always struggle to be a global community, each group within it more or less blind to its own flaws and obsessed with its own pre-occupations.  We seem conditioned to to see homogeniety in other groups where there is diversity, to see sharp distinction between groups were there is overlap.  Humanity is a multidimensional continuum of peoples, not a sharp divide between left and right, between muslim and christian.  Let us not forget, judaism, christianty and islam all share the same God - my how he must weep to see how his children treat each other.  Malala is entirely and utterly against the Taliban, but that does not make her a Westerner - nor should it.

The best any of us can do is acknowledge the extent of our own ignorance, and resolve to approach others with compassion and tolerance whole trying try to understand the world and our place in it better through education.   And education runs through Malala's story like the word Brighton through a stick of rock.  Education is the beginning, middle and end of her struggle and it should be ours too - and reading this book is an education in itself.

I am a teacher

I work in schools as a teacher.  In the aftermath of Malala's shooting I gave assemblies in a co-educational school to teenagers, a vocal miniority of whom vacillated between finding school a social opportunity, a necessary inconvenience or an infringement of their liberty.   Education is like water - those who have it in abundance take it for granted, some even treat it with contempt, while those who do not will make any sacrifice and brave any danger to secure it.  There are many things that we in the westernised world should value more than we do, but education is perhaps the most underrated.  As the posters say - "If you can read this - thank a teacher."  One of the many poignant points in Malala's book is where she rails against the illiteracy that so many of her country's people have been left with - such that on her first plane flight she saw how many passengers could not read well enough to find the letter of the row their seats were in.

In school I am passionate about the need for people to read - to read anything and everything.  It is through reading that we learn new words, we acrue fresh vocabulary (like tautology),  We shape our thoughts in words. We learn empathy through stories.   As G.R.R.Martin said - the reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the non-reader lives but one. Those who would deny education do so out of fear and a desire to control, to limit people's power to question and challenge the decisions and directives made to rule their lives.  Again and again in the book there are people who Malala or her father find are mis-using the Quran to justify anything from repression to murder.  But those who cannot read the Quran? how can they see through lies?

However, let us not claim too much of a moral high ground.  Remember that translating the bible into English was once a heresy, that allowing the word of God to be read by the masses (well those of them that could read) was considered a sacrilige.  More to the point it presented challenge or the possibility of challenge to the power and authority of the church.  The people who executed William Tyndale (producer of the first English Bible) were no less confident in their christianity than Pope Francis or the Archbishop of Canterbury are today, yet neither of those two spiritual leaders would endorse the actions of their historical counterparts.  Civilisation is a mutable beast which has evolved and diversified over different centuries and continents. Each country strives to find a solution, not the solution.  

Controlling dissemination of knowledge has always been a key element in limiting access to power and the taliban is not the first - nor will it be the last - to pursue that strategy.  However, nothing any of us hear is unfiltered - the priorities and opinions of the person doing the telling will always flavour what we are told and how we are told it.  We cannot change that, but we must be alive to it - critically alive to it.  Seasoning every communication with an awareness of its form, audience and purpose.

I am a father

Malala is her father's daughter - they are a team equally passionate about education.  He has fought long battles to secure funds and open schools with as great a drive as Lord Sugar ever devoted to founding businesses and making money.  Malala speaks eloquently but humbly about her education.  She assures the reader that any girl in her class could have spoken as much or as well as she had about the need for education and for girls to be educated.  The difference is the unstinting admiration and support of her father Ziauddin who refused to accept the commiseration of others when his first child was a daughter.  I am a father of four daughters and my sister is a highly successful senior executive within an international bank.  That they should enjoy and prosper from equality of opportunity to education and to all life has to offer.

Malala writes much about her father and her admiration for his work and his support of what she did. It is as much his story as it is hers and what is remarkable is how much they had done and achieved even before an assassin's bullet projected them both on to the world stage.  What is also true is that there are hundreds of others working tirelessly for the same cause against the same oppression who are not so celebrated abroad, indeed many of whom have been murdered.  I know of Malala and Ziauddin by chance - we should not think that they worked alone, or that they alone deserve our support and admiration.

I am a Writer

I write fantasy novels and I subscribe to the reddit fantasy sub-reddit.  Recently there has been a spate of threads discussing the role and representation of women in fantasy novels.  The debate at times has got quite heated, with authors being accused or feeling accused of being a bad person for not involving all groups and minorities in their writing.  However, I feel that the two polar opposites in the argument are objecting to answers to different questions.

a) Has fantasy literature as a complete body tended to reflect a society view which has disempowered and under-represented women and their role through history?

b) Are individual authors obligated to write stories that reflect and promote the political issues of the day, rather than simply endeavouring to tell a good story the best way they can?

The answer to a) is yes, the answer to b) is no.

Literature can, will and ultimately should change the world.  However, it cannot be compelled to do so either through personal attacks based on assumptions about an author's motives and beliefs, or through some dogmatic insistence on tokenism in the books - some checklist of requirements for an ethically and morally balanced book.  Such a tyranny would be as unjust as any pseudo-ideological tyranny based on a misinterpreted religion.  The story must come first for any writer.

Literature changes the world when the world changes the writers.  As we "educate" writers we influence and change the stories they want to tell.  I don't mean to patronise writers for they are, by and large a pretty well educated lot, but we are all learning all through our lives authors no less than politicians or teachers.  What we learn shapes us and changes us.

When I started writing my trilogy ten years ago I was a father of four daughters with a love of history and fantasy writing - particularly Lord of the Rings.  I wanted to tell an epic tale but I wanted to address some of what I saw as shortcomings in my reading experience.  I wanted  a dark lord who was more than a shadowy malevolence, I wanted a great weapon whose powers were explained and understood, and I wanted more leading female characters.  My books have four women in leading roles and I think they do a fair job of showing that buzz word "agency" which I take to mean characters serving their own needs and ambitions rather than supporting a man's.

No book is written in isolation, but ten years ago I knew nothing of the Taliban or of the community of readers and writers who have enriched me with their thoughts and musings.  Lady of the Helm, and the rest of the Bloodline Trilogy are littered with as yet undiscovered references to history and culture.  Films ranging from the "Bridge over the River Kwai" to "The Railway Children" and the whole panoply of British History have all been threaded into the book. Now, as I contemplate a sequel with another female lead, I have a whole new set of knowledge to inform and enrich my writing; The glimpses Malala's book has given me into how others live.  I will strive to be subtle and to do the sources of influence justice, after all my objective is to tell a story.  But I have new influences, and what I know of Malala - and of many others - is now part of the mosaic of experience which will shape my writing

I am a Westerner

I write this while world leaders are gathering to march in response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and elsewhere in Paris.  France has joined America, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia as nations struck by terrorism in a way that has wounded their National Psyche and mobilised a determination to rebutt the murderers to assert that terrorism will not win.  Much has been written and will be written and a variety of voices have thrown themselves into a fray, which, for all the undeniable unacceptability of murder is still steeped in controversy.

The dead will be claimed as martyrs on both sides.  I am reminded of a Not the Nine O'Clock news sketch involving two opposing politicians having a  heated and ill-natured public debate, until one of them mid-sentence keeled over and expired from a heart attack.  His opponent switched mid-sentence from diatribe to eulogy, "This man is the kind of politician ..... that will be sorely missed."

Perhaps too there is something of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar in our current challenges.  I am thinking of Mark Anthony's eulogy that despite his opening line "I come to bury ceasar not to praise him.." turned a victim into a saint and unleashed a tide of violence that Anthony was determined "will cumber all the parts of Italy until blood and destruction are so in use and dreadful objects so familiar that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infants quartered by the hand of war, all pity choked with custom of fell dead."  He succeeded, with the innocent slain along with the guilty in a way that feels terribly relevant today.

We must eschew that thirst for vengeance, that desire to pile hate on hate, to claim a sanctity for victims who - for all the awfulness of their murders - were no greater victims than thousands of others who have died across the world in a climate of hate, fuelled by imperfect communication, parochialism and inadequate education.  A cynic once said that "The person one loves never really existed but is merely an ideal of the mind, focussed through the lens of the imagination onto the screen it fits with least distortion."  The same is true of the people we hate, we imagine, we project, we rarely truly know.

I have not read every word written about Charlie Ebdo, but I did pick up on some complaints that the condemnation by the muslim world was not as forceful as the writers felt it should be.  Where were the vigils of sympathy in Islamabad, in Cairo, just as they had been in London?  Well - where was the vigil for the 49 muslims killed in a suicide bombing on a mosque in Yemen at the start of the year? We in the west do not have a monopoly on suffering or on thinking we are the good guys and there have been times when our hands have not been as clean as they should.  You may argue that at least our freedom of press ensures misdeeds are (eventually) uncovered and the perpetrators brought to justice,  You may argue that worse has been done to us, though in the totality of the body counts I think there are many more dead innocent muslims than westerners.  The short answer is it is complicated, very complicated.  So much contradictory history has passed between nations that we cannot blame others for their suspicions of us.  Murder is wrong no matter what, but we live in a world where hate can flourish and we will not extinguish that flame with more hate or with guns.

The "I'll ride with you campaign" in Australia was the most glorious response to the cycle of hate on which terrorism thrives.   We need more like it that celebrate our common humanity and reject the cancer of hate.

You might think that Malala, brought out of her world of poverty and fear into the civilisation and security of the United Kingdom would be glad to be free.  But what comes through the book is a sense of loss, of homesickness, for the beauty of her homeland, the companionship of her friends, the neighbourliness of her pashtun culture.  She hopes to return to enrich the world she loves with the advantages of education, good government and tolerance that were the founding ideals of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.  

The enemies of civilisation are the hatred that pits communities against each other, the greed that leads to corruption and the serving of the desires of the few over the best interests of the many, the intolerance that expects others to do and be as we want them to, the ignorance that prevents us from seeing all of that and fighting it.

At the end of it all, as Malala has campaigned so hard and so bravely to prove, education, tolerance and real tangible compassion are our greatest weapons in the battle against hate.  But in saying that I am not saying anything that was not said many times before, but I felt I had to say it nonetheless.