Five years ago when I interviewed a schoolmaster campaigning against Taliban who had taken over his remote mountain valley of Swat in northern Pakistan, I couldn’t imagine how it would change my life. He was the father of Malala Yousafzai, the girl who was shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, and so when they were looking for someone to help tell her story they contacted me.
I always try to tell my stories through people but as a foreign correspondent always flitting from one conflict to another, I don’t kid myself that I ever really get to know what it is like for one family to live through such nightmares. So it was an amazing experience to spend half a year listening to one girl’s story and co-authoring “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By the Taliban,” published last fall.
And Malala is an astonishing 16-year-old. Not only is she the bravest girl I have ever met but she has absolutely no bitterness at what happened to her. In fact she says her only regret is that she didn’t get a chance to speak to the man who shot her so she could explain why it is important that girls like his own sisters and daughters go to school.
The girl behind the story is an endearing mix of being incredibly politically sophisticated and eloquent yet also an ordinary teenager who likes listening to Justin Bieber and playing cricket in the garden.
It’s been a true privilege getting to know her and her family. My son at 14 is the same age as her younger brother and our families have become friends.
Malala has stayed down to earth considering all the adulation she has received worldwide. Every time I go to their house there is another international award or bouquet from a celebrity. Her iPod was a gift from Bono (preloaded with U2 songs she’d never heard of!) and on her study wall is a collage by Angelina Jolie’s daughter.
But, sadly, in her home country, it’s a very different matter. If you look at Twitter or the Pakistan media you will see astonishing abuse denouncing her.
I feel angry that Pakistan refuses to embrace the girl who puts such a different face on their country than the Taliban and terrorism now so widely associated with it. Malala shrugs it off. “They are people who have been disappointed too many times by their leaders,” she says.