In 2012, Pakistani activist and youngest Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai was shot for standing up to the Taliban by continuing to go to her father’s school and Ziauddin almost lost the very person for whom his fight for equality began. Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey And The Fight For Equality, is her father Ziauddin Yousafzai’s story. Here is an excerpt from the book.
The first year or two of our living in the UK were hard for us. Following Malala’s attack, we wept more tears than I thought possible. On top of the injuries to her ear and her face, a chunk of her skull had to be taken out and embedded in her stomach while her brain swelled. She now has a metal plate in place of the shattered part of her skull.
We lived first in the hospital hostel and then moved to an apartment on the tenth floor of a Birmingham tower block. We moved twice more after that. In those early days, my wife, Toor Pekai, would look out of the window and see the women below, so freely walking about the streets in the night air, but dressed in so little by the standards of the women in the bazaars of Mingora. She would weep yet more tears of confusion and fear: “Surely these women will freeze to death.”
Where my tears had not fallen at the first news of Malala’s attack, now Pekai and I would often cry the whole night long, like children. There were so many possibilities of how Malala’s life might be restricted: paralysis down one side of her face, an inability to speak, limited memory. And yet in the morning we would rise up from the hostel bed and go to the hospital for another day filled with deep hope and terrible dread.
Every decision about Malala’s well-being Pekai and I made together. Pekai needed me to act as her translator because she could not understand what the British doctors were telling us. Many men, from my background, do not involve their wives. But for us, there was not one decision made without the other one agreeing, even down to how to tie back Malala’s hair.
With my fear of losing Malala, I felt such terrible guilt that I had not stopped her from campaigning. It was Pekai who got me through this period in which I seemed to be stuck in a loop. I went over my intentions again and again. What had I been working towards that was worth this sacrifice of my child? How could I have miscalculated like this? Malala and I had stood together, united. But this fight almost left me with the dead body of my child.
Once our life settled down, it was very clear that Pekai’s lack of English was impacting everything. She barely knew a word. It was isolating for her, and she had few Pakistani friends. In Mingora, our house had been full of people. But our house in Birmingham felt empty at the beginning. Once Malala had recovered, the boys and Malala were in school during the day. I would often travel as part of the job I was given as an education attaché to the Pakistani government.
Pekai would never complain about being left on her own with the boys. But, still, this did not mean she was happy with this new life in the UK. I would hear her on the phone to a friend in Swat saying, “Why am I not educated? Why is my life difficult? I don’t understand anything.”
One of the earliest English phrases Pekai learned to say was “top up,” because it enabled her to buy a top-up card for her mobile phone, which then meant she could ring friends and relations in Pakistan. We all missed Pakistan, but for Pekai, there were many basic elements of UK life to master, like transport and calendars, that the rest of us found easier. She did not know how to spell her name in English. When she had to fill in forms she had no idea when her birthday was. On top of general day-to-day confusion, Pekai suffered terrible headaches that the doctor said were a reaction to the trauma of the attack on Malala.
…When I was a boy, playing cricket on the roof of our shack, my father would call my name, “Ziaaaaaaaaaa—udina!” And before he had even finished the last syllable, I was by his side. I would just be there before him, so obedient, like an army soldier. But as my sons became teenagers in the West, I did not see that automatic obedience in either of them and I will admit that I wanted it. I needed it.
I would call up the stairs that dinner was ready only to be met with silence. Had they not heard me? Often I would climb the stairs of our house in Birmingham, which felt so strange with its marble surfaces and empty rooms, and open the doors to their bedrooms to find both boys hunched over their computer screens. “Did you not hear me?” I would ask. Sometimes they would not even look at me. “Why are you not like the son I was to my father?” I would say to Khushal, the eldest, who I felt was old enough to understand that I deserved respect.
It was always computers, Xboxes, Game Boys, phone apps. I did not understand these gadgets, let alone know how to use them. My first experience on a computer was when I was 35.
“Why are you ignoring me?” I would say angrily. Where had the liberal Ziauddin gone? The father who saw the error of his ways back in Pakistan and believed in equality and in encouraging his sons to express themselves? Where had the Ziauddin gone who craved a new, softer, freer upbringing for his boys? For about two and a half years, that Ziauddin could not be found anywhere.
Did I revert to an authoritarian type of fathering in fear? Or was it that the boys, now exposed to a society with different values, were less inclined towards obedience and my final word? “You crazy boys,” I’d say to them. “You don’t listen to me.” And I was not joking. But the boys were not living the life I had led at their age, nor even the life they would have led had we stayed in Pakistan. They were forging, or trying to forge, their own paths in a new world.
When we arrived in Britain, the boys were traumatized, particularly Khushal. Dr Fiona Reynolds, the Birmingham intensive care pediatrician who by coincidence had happened to be in Pakistan when Malala was attacked and who had helped save her life, remembers the first time she saw the boys. They were in bunk beds in Rawalpindi, while we waited to be flown to the UK. Atal was asleep, but Khushal, she told me later, was the most terrified child she had ever seen.
The boys did not go to school in the UK until the year following our arrival. They spent most of their time on computer games. There was nothing for them to do. They were bored. Pekai and I talked only of Malala’s treatment, her recovery. Khushal, 13 at the time, would shout at the computer screen. He broke eight controllers. I cannot remember how we came to have eight controllers. Atal, who was 8, played computer games, too, and ate sweets. Neither of them understood anything about their lives. They were frightened boys.
On one occasion at the hospital, at a time when Malala was suffering dreadful headaches and brain fluid was leaking out of her ears, Atal shouted, “I demand my passport. I am going home to Pakistan.” We were all crying.
Fiona, along with her husband, Adrian, began taking the boys for outings to integrate them into the Western way of life. They went to the cinema in Birmingham’s Bullring, which the boys could hardly believe, and to Warwick Castle. They went bowling and to Nando’s, where they ate fried chicken.
When I was at the exact age Khushal was during this difficult period—around thirteen or fourteen years old—I had a few mentors who guided me away from hatred, away from a dangerous path. One of them had been Pekai’s elder brother, and through gentle conversation he brought me back to safety when my beliefs were going astray.
The cleric who was providing me with Islamic instruction believed in jihad and I was being radicalized very successfully. For a very brief period, I wanted a war with the infidels and I wanted to die fighting. I wanted to be a martyr, because this was what I was being taught with the same passion and conviction that I have taught in my life, only in the direction of love.
I look back now and think of Pekai’s brother and other progressive friends in my life and my own kind father, and I say to myself, “Ziauddin, without this guidance you could have become a suicide bomber with a belt strapped to your chest!”
I needed a way of being with Khushal, and at the moment I lost faith, Fiona stepped in again. She was our mentor. “I am really in trouble,” I told her. “Khushal likes you. You like my sons. Please tell me what I can do.”
There is no shame in parents asking for help. We talked together and she said, “These changes come in adolescents and you should be ready to cope with this situation in a noble or wise way. Do not lose your temper and try not to be hard on him.
“He is a good boy,” she said. “It’s a difficult time. He’ll be okay. He’s bright, he’s clever, he’s handsome. It will be all right.”
…For years, in my dreams I have returned to Pakistan. And in the morning, I have woken up to find myself thousands of miles from home. For such a long time, Pekai and I and Malala have longed to have those dreams come true. But for us, for Pekai and me, since the attempt on Malala’s life, everything has been about safety, about safeguarding her life.
It was Malala herself who could no longer bear not returning to Pakistan. “I left my home, I left my country, and it was not my choice,” she said. “I went to school that morning and I never came back. I left my country in an induced coma.”
I will confess that although I am so happy for Malala to travel all over the world without us, I was nervous about her returning to Pakistan.
“Please, Jani, let us just wait one more year.” Pekai was also hesitant initially, and Khushal was frightened.
But Malala meant to go. “If we all don’t go back to Pakistan together,” she told us, “I will go on my own. I have to go.” And so I said, “We are coming.”
I cannot put into words how I felt when our plane touched down in Pakistan and we stepped onto the ground in Islamabad. Not even poets have invented words for something like this. Malala does not often cry. Since her attack, I have seen her cry only three times. But during her first official engagement in Pakistan, in front of three hundred people, she could not stop crying.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said.
When Malala was shot and fighting for her life, her body was lifted in a helicopter from a helipad in Mingora. I sat beside her as she was on the stretcher vomiting blood. We had left Pekai below, standing there with her arms aloft, her scarf in her hands above her head, a direct appeal to God to bring back her daughter safely.
This time, we five were together in the helicopter, healthy and safe, as it flew back over the same mountains to that same helipad in Mingora from where Malala began her journey away from her homeland. It felt like a triumph.
(Excerpted with permission from Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey And The Fight For Equality, by Ziauddin Yousafzai, published by Penguin Books.)