Au Revoir Mes Enfants, Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, biography, Book Review, Breaking Bad, Comics, Education, Feminism, Girls Education, Islam, Lolita, Malala Yousafzai, Marjane Satrapi, Muslim Women, Pakistan, Persepolis, Politics, Public Education, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, The Girl Who Was Shot by the Taliban, The Washington Post, Ziauddin Yousafzai
Two of my co-workers in the Writing Center had a code. I use the word code because the English language is poor and I don’t have any other word for inside reference between two people who share a friendship or relationship. The code was simple. B would usually complain that she was tired or anxious and didn’t feel up to going to class that day, and so she thought about going out to grab some food instead. S, her friend, would look at her and utter one word: Malala. Upon utterance of said word B would groan and usually say “you’re right, you’re right.” At this point S didn’t necessary have to continue for often the code word Malala would be enough to remind B or her responsibility as a student, but on occasion she would follow the code with “what would Malala do B? Malala wanted to go to school.” B would usually tell S to shut the fuck up, but she would still smile, nod, and eventually go ahead and go to class.
This may at first sound like a bad parody of stereotypical white women or a sketch you might see on Amy Schumer, but my co-workers were genuine in their affection and adoration of Malala, and this affection demonstrated the influence of the woman who, while I had yet to actually read her book, I still respected tremendously for her passion and mission in life which was to help girls all across the world receive access to an education. My little sister, who happened to be friends with B and S, which I just realized makes my entire opening sound like a bluff, would usually do nothing but sing Malala’s praises and often point to her copy of I am Malala and utter the same phrase over and over again: “you need to read that book.” Much like people who told me that I needed to watch Breaking Bad, I trusted them and fully recognized that the book was not only worth my time but would be enormously satisfying, but for whatever reason I decided to hold off. Hype can be a deterrent as much as it can be a help and so I waited till sometime after finishing Breaking Bad before I actually picked up Malala’s book and read it.
I’ll begin by noting that there was a pronounced lack of meth, but I suppose that was the post-afterglow of finishing Breaking Bad, and now I’ll shut the hell up about Breaking Bad and give Malala the attention she deserves. Though you should definitely get around to watching Breaking Bad when you get the chance.
Malala Yousafzai was fifteen when she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban. She and a group of students were on their way to school when a squad stopped the truck, demanded to see her, and when she openly admitted to her identity she was shot. She managed to receive proper medical care before she and her family received political asylum in England where she was given expert medical aid and from there began a new career as quite possibly the most important feminists since Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan. Men, women, and children the world over flocked to her giving up their prayers, thoughts, money, and time so that she might become well, and in the mass rhetoric which surrounded the story of Malala an important figure was largely cut out of the picture: her father.
I Am Malala is a book about Yousafzai’s life, but I was surprised when I was reading the book to discover how much of the actual memoir was not actually about Malala but about her father Ziauddin Yousafzai.
She describes in one passage her villages reaction to The Satanic Verses and the Fatwah.
My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room. Many students argued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld. My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!” (46).
This passage immediately struck me because I have just such a parent. It’s almost laughable now that people were, and still are in some small pockets of the United States, outraged by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As the series was continually published this fervor over young children performing magic in a seemingly religious-absent world only grew and book burnings were a popular spectacle on the evening news. In my own state and county, I remember hearing whispers of this mysterious book Harry Potter, and one evening the local news even interviewed a man who spoke to a reporter honestly when he said he would refuse to let his children read the book lest they become enticed by devil worship and witchcraft. There was passion all over Texas about Harry Potter and in the midst of the ballyhoo my mother, being the amazing woman that she is, looked at me and said, “Why don’t we actually buy the book, read it, and then decide for ourselves whether the book is evil or not?”
Like Malala, I was blessed with a rational level headed parent who taught me the most important lesson of my life, and from there every summer until The Deathly Hallows was published, my mother would buy the new Harry Potter book and read it to us. Malala’s story is often the story of her father, for while Malala spends time narrating the details of her life, the dramas that take place between her and her school chums and family and friends, there is a great deal of attention payed to her father, specifically his efforts to build a girl’s school.
While Yousafzai’s struggles tend to occupy a significant amount of the book, Malala’s memoir is just as much a reflection on her cultures, sometimes noting the detrimental aspects it had on its people particularly women:
I am very proud to be a Pashtun, but sometimes I think out code of conduct has a lot to answer for, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned. A woman named Shahida who worked for us ad had three small daughters told me that when she was only ten years old her father had sold her to an old man who already had a wife but wanted a younger one. When girls disappeared it was not always because they had been married off. (66).
She goes on to note:
We have another custom called swara by which a girl can be given to another tribe to resolve a feud. It is officially banned but still continues. In our village there was a widow called Soraya who married a widower from another clan which had a feud with her family. Nobody can marry a widow without the permission of her family. When Soraya’s family found out about the union they were furious. They threatened the widower’s family until a Jirga of village elders was called to resolve the dispute. The jirge decided that the widower’s family should be punished by handing over their most beautiful girl to be married to the least eligible man of the rival clan. The boy was a good-for-nothing, so poor that the girl’s father had to pay all their expenses. Why should a girl’s life be ruined to settle a dispute she had nothing to do with? (67).
A fair question, though I note the irony in the sentence for in a few years Malala herself would become just such a victim, not in a local domestic dispute, but in fact a philosophical and multi-national conflict. Since September 11th, an event which she actually describes the perspective in her home country, the United States has undergone a profound paradigm shift in terms of foreign policy and this has influenced seemingly every aspect of society. Looking over just a few recent contemporary events is enough to see this, though perhaps the best example is the Muhammed Cartoon contest that took place in Garland, Texas last year. The coordinator of the events, a woman by the name of Pamella Geller, continues to defend her position and action of hosting such an event because for her it was a reaffirmation of American civil liberties, rather than a baiting action against Muslims. I wish I could say events like this were few and far between, but since that wretched day(and even before it) this has only been the most recent and most publicized example. It’s not uncommon to read or hear of Church gatherings in the United States where copies of the Quran are burned to mass applause. Baiting and protests of Mosques is not uncommon, and the other day I even read of an instructional comic strip about helping people suffering from public instances of racism. It’s telling that the young woman in the cartoon who plays the recipient of the abused is in fact a Muslim woman. While this obvious reactionary behavior has manifested in my country, a nation that prides itself in its rhetoric of being open minded and accepting of all people, I’ve observed as well a pernicious rhetoric:
Muslim women and girls need to be saved from the despicable society and culture which persecutes them without impunity.
The Reader may object instantly, wondering if I am about to negate the testimony and actual film evidence that women in Muslim societies tend to suffer under patriarchy and bullshit sexism. I am not. Malala herself notes in the book that young women in her society tend to suffer greatly from fundamentalist Islam, and she’s not the only one.
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis came into my life when my little sister showed me the film Au Revoir Mes Enfants. It’s a French film; a period piece about a boy’s school operated by priests during World War II where two young boys meet and become friends before it’s discovered that one of them is Jewish. Before the film even began a black and white advertisement came on in which a woman was singing along to the song Eye of the Tiger in Arabic, and when the title Persepolis followed I knew that I had to see it. The film in turn eventually led me to the graphic novel. Persepolis as a book is not just an autobiography of a woman living during 1979, for it moves past this period into the reverberations of the war and way life changed for individual people living in Iran at this time.
Perhaps the best panel, in my estimation, is the one that explains the rise of “the veil” and Satrapi’s attitude towards it:
Like Satrapi’s memoir, the book Reading Lolita in Tehran explores this repressive environment. I discovered this book about the same time that I found Persepolis, though to be honest, I can’t remember how that book came into my life. All at once it was there and I was reading the book and enjoying it tremendously and not only for the fact that it gave me yet another argument to employ when defending the novel Lolita from half-assed critics. The book is written as a kind of memoir by Azar Nafisi about a secret book club she formed with a group of students that she taught at Tehran university. The book is divided into four main chapters with smaller sub-chapters, each main chapter is centralized around one particular author. This division, which I note follows the same rhetorical pattern as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, allows for Nafisi to construct her own personal narrative of the events around her while she and the group of all female students discuss the works. The first chapter begins after the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini has assumed power and Nafisi notes her personal reaction:
Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced on us by the regime—how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate on one’s job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Bronte because she appeared to condone adultery. (10-11).
The idea that totalitarian repression dwells on the superficial rather than the substantial isn’t anything new and Satrapi herself presents just such a moment of this idiocy:
Both of these books provide enough first hand testimony to make the argument that fundamentalist Islam, when combined with unfettered political power, is nothing but a repressive totalitarian madhouse where murder, rape, sexism, and torture are allowed free reign, but it’s important to recognize that these elements are only one element in these women’s lives. True they may steer the direction their lives and mundane actions take, but in the second half of Persepolis Satrapi notes that really is but one answer to this oppression of the individual:
All of these books speak to the fact that Muslim women don’t need to be “saved,” they need to be afforded opportunity to make their life whatever they want it to be. The attitude that Westerners can “save” Muslim women from their homelands reeks of White Savior Complex and a desire to appear morally and intellectually superior, when the evidence is clear that Muslim women can stand as intellectual equals alongside Western women.
Malala herself says this outright when she writes:
But I said, “Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.” Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human. (162).
Human is a nice touch there. I wish I had written that sentence. My admiration for Malala’s diction here is really just to point out the most important facet of I am Malala, for while the world took comfort in the fact that Malala had survived the ruthlessness of the Taliban and enjoyed telling her story to show everyone that terrorism is bad, the real woman Malala appeared in the pages she had written I came to know.
I am Malala is not just a book about damning terrorism because the book is about more than that. It’s about demonstrating the idea that education is fundamental to the success and health of civilization. After Malala is shot, and she describes the political drama that created a conflict in ensuring she survived, she talks about her attacker in such a way that is admirable and almost unbelievable:
I felt nothing, maybe just a bit satisfied. “So they did it.” My only regret was that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them before they shot me. Now they’d never hear what I had to say. I didn’t even think a single bad thought about the man who shot me—I had no thoughts of revenge—I just wanted to go back to Swat. I wanted to go home. (282).
Revenge is rooted in impulse in the human species and so when we are slighted, offended, hurt, or damaged by others there is an initial impulse to bring harm to someone else, to validate the pain one has experienced. That’s why Malala’s reaction to be shot in the head is almost unbelievable. But in fact it demonstrates the very idea that courses its way through the body of this memoir and that is that education can lift people from the base impulse and remind them of their own humanity and find reason. Education is what can alter the course of a life, and looking to my own experience I know this is just the case. My parents reading to me every night before bed, buying me books, paying for my education; it was these gifts that helped me become the person I am.
Education also reminds me of the dangers of stereotyping. About a year ago the graphic novel book club I’m a part of read the new Ms. Marvel comic book in which the main character was a young Muslim woman. The series was beautifully drawn, and the characters were fun to read and learn about. When it came time to give our opinions most everyone at the table agreed the book was charming and enjoyable, but one of my friends explained that he couldn’t enjoy it. His argument was that the characters were Muslims, people like ISIS who were killing Americans and from there the people at the table began either to stare at the table or try to mumble under their breath. I interrupted him, asking about the character’s costume and the scene was averted, but that moment lives on. Terrorists like the Talbian, and ISIS, and Hezbollah, have come to be the faces of Islam rather than the exceptions, and this is conflict because this creates the idea that all Muslims are despicable repressed psychopaths.
I am Malala challenges this position. Evil individuals will always exist in human society, and while some will seek educations and use what they learn to harm their fellow human beings, most will spurn the idea of learning because it is far easier to squeeze a trigger and kill someone. Likewise, the survivors of evil run the similar trap of becoming the very forces they despise, for revenge, or the desire for it, is an easy impulse that can story good people. Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary young woman because she has faced such a force, suffered for her bravery and integrity, and written her narrative to inspire others. Education is a powerful institution because it can revolutionize the way people live their life.
In a later passage, before her family leaves Pakistan, there is a brief moment that reveals the character of Malala:
When I heard they would be in Birmingham in two days, I had only one request. “Bring my school bag,” I pleaded to my father. “If you can’t go to Swat to fetch it, no matter—buy new books for me, because in March it’s my board examination.” Of course I wanted to come first in class. I especially wanted my physics book because physics is difficult for me, and I needed to practice numericals, as my math is not so good and they are hard for me to solve.
I thought I’d be back home by November. (285).
There is a sweet charm in this, but there’s also room for inspiration. Malala is a girl, not an idealistic hero, just a girl who wants to learn. Some would try to make her into some kind of icon, and in many ways she is, but her memoir serves the function of balancing this public icon with the real living breathing young woman who is driven by a passion to discover, succeed, and learn and in turn take what she has acquired in knowledge and ensure that other young women have the same opportunity. Too often the stories of the Middle East are tragedies, but in the case of I am Malala, there is a narrative of hope and determination.
A book of this caliber is sure to leave its mark on society. B. and S. being my first and final example it’s clear already that I am Malala has done just that.
I’ve mentioned Breaking Bad throughout this essay but only because it became a running gag and also because I really haven’t seen a television show that has left me so satisfied apart maybe from Stranger Things on Netflix. My constant reference to it is in some small way a subconscious effort to indicate that Malala’s book is tied to greatness. One final Breaking Bad reference:
I like moments in which personality of people appears, rather than the ideals people want them to be. This can manifest sometimes in character failings, and other times as little eccentricities. Whether it’s her love of the TV show Ugly betty or her loves of books, Malala appears throughout her memoir as a real human being and one passage which I didn’t get a chance to incorporate reveals this:
I liked doing my hair in different styles and would spend ages in the bathroom in front of the mirror trying out looks I had seen in movies. Until I was eight or nine my mother used to cut my hair short like my brothers’ because of lice and also make it easier to wash and brush, as it would get messed up under my shawl. But finally, I had persuaded her to let me grow it to my shoulders. Unlike Moniba’s, which is straight, my hair is wavy, and I liked to twist it into curls or tie it into plaits. “What are you doing in there pisho? my mother would shout. “Out guests need the bathroom and everyone is having to wait for you.” (145).
While I was touching up this essay I found this article from The Washington Post about I Am Malala. Hope you enjoy: