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‘I was captivated by Malala Yousafzai from the moment I met her’

Christina Lamb, the British journalist who co-wrote I Am Malala, the memoir of Malala Yousafzai, talks about the 16-year-old hero from Pakistan who stood up against the Taliban.

brunch Updated: Apr 27, 2014 12:07 IST
Saudamini Jain

Malala Yousafzai is the bravest girl in the whole world - and also possibly the most famous. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year (and has been awarded several international honours), she campaigns for women's education worldwide, celebrities fawn all over her. Her memoir, I Am Malala, published last year was an instant bestseller.

It all started way back in 2009 when Malala, then an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Pakistan's Swat Valley began writing a blog for BBC Urdu. The area was becoming a Taliban stronghold - television was banned, girls' education was banned and people were being murdered. "On my way from school to home I heard a man saying 'I will kill you'. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone," she wrote then. Over the next few years, after her BBC diary ended, she continued to speak up - often on television - advocating women's education. And so the death threats began and then started piling up. Until one day, in October 2012, Malala was shot by a Talib in a school bus in Pakistan.

After the shooting, Malala and her family moved to England, where she was treated for her injuries (her skull was reconstructed and her hearing restored). The teenage activist became a world-renowned figure.

And also back in 2009, journalist Christina Lamb (a British foreign correspondent, known for her extensive coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan) had interviewed Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a peace activist and educationist in Swat. "At the time, I knew nothing about Malala," she said. When she was first contacted to write the book with Malala, Lamb was hesitant. "I was not sure if there was enough to write about. But I was completely captivated by her from the moment I met her," she said.
We met Christina Lamb at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai last month to talk about what it was like hearing Malala. Excerpts from the interview:

Malala Yousafzai (right, photo: Getty Images), Christina Lamb (left, Photo: Emirateslitfest.com via picasa)

What was interviewing Malala like?
It’s rare to have the opportunity to sit with one girl, one family and just listen to their story of what it was like as the Taliban moved into their area and started taking over, killing people and coming closer and closer. And hearing Malala describe the fear of going to school when girls’ schools were banned and going secretly, books hidden under her shawl, wondering every moment if somebody was going jump out. It was incredibly chilling and compelling.

We did interviews over a period of months at her house in Birmingham. I stayed with her and her family. And she was only 15; but those 15 years had been a time of tremendous change in Pakistan [Musharraf taking over, the effects of the 9/11 attack, Taliban’s incursion into Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination]. And I was very familiar with that change because I’d gone back and forth in those years. But to see it through a child’s eyes growing up and how the country was changing was very interesting.

I also went to Pakistan and talked to people at her school, in her village, saw her old house and met her friends.

So what made her different from her friends – other girls in the Swat?

When I went to her school in Pakistan, the girls in her class were all very eloquent and opinionated. One of them said to me, "We could have all been Malalas but our parents would have never let us speak, not publicly anyway, like she did."

But Malala has also been criticised as being the West’s "PR machinery".

Malala is standing up for education for girls and boys. There are 60 million children not in school at the moment. I can’t see why what she’s standing up for should be controversial. I find it sad that people respond like that.

Her Story Touched Every Heart
In 2012, Madonna dedicated her song Human Nature to Malala at a concertBono sent Malala an iPod loaded with his songs (But Malala, a Justin Bieber fan, had no idea who U2 were!)Last July, Beyoncé instagrammed a photo wishing Malala a happy birthday Last November, Lady Gaga wished that Glamour magazine’s cover that month, which featured her, had been devoted to Malala insteadThis month, celebrities including Selena Gomez and Orlando Bloom recited Malala’s story for the We Are Silent campaign to fight extremism and oppression

The United Nations has declared November 10 ‘Malala Day’ worldwide.

Are you and Malala close – have you become somewhat of a mentor over the months?

(Laughs) I’m not sure Malala needs a mentor. She very much knows her own her mind. We became very close. She talked to me about most intimate things. She and her family have become good friends of me and my family. It was one of the nicest things – not only did we have a book but I have a lifelong friendship.

Yes, she comes from a very different background. But she’s very unusual and very open and interested in everything. She’d gone to an English medium school, read lots of English books and so she was well-aware of the culture outside and I had spent more of my adult life in Pakistan than in my own country and so I understood her culture, and where she was coming from.

She has been receiving so much global attention, has that affected her in any way?
One of the amazing things about Malala is that though she’s always got tremendous global attention (gifts from celebrities and heads of state she’s met), she seems, so far, completely unaffected... She’s from a very close family. Her brothers tease her – her youngest brother says to her, “You know, what have you actually done?”

In your session yesterday, you mentioned that Malala's mother was shocked to see women "scantily dressed" in England. How is she dealing with a new culture now?
Obviously she'd never seen anything like that. So it was a shock. And she's used to seeing a different kind of life. It's a very different kind of life to go from Swat Valley (very remote) to Birmingham, which is a huge city - it would take anyone a while to get used to it. Now they've been there for over a year. She's learning English, she's making friends. It takes time for anyone.

What are you working on next?
I’m doing another book on Afghanistan – how we got into this situation. I covered the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in ’89 and I never imagined I’d be covering another withdrawal (of my own country).

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From HT Brunch, April 27
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