Sitting on a six-hour flight from San Francisco to New York, flying from one end of the continent to the other for a business trip, I finished watching “He Named me Malala,” the documentary about a marvelous girl from the Swat Valley.
From the opening scenes, of her lying on a stretcher, eyes closed, her round, innocent face bandaged, I found myself not just riveted, but also emotionally distraught. Almost every scene that followed brought silent tears to my eyes, from her father who started a school, and who overcame a boyhood stammer to speak out bravely and openly against the Taliban later in life, to Malala’s mother who, in her own childhood, sold her school books in exchange for a handful of candies and consequently remained illiterate, yet raised three remarkable children including Malala. As the film ended, somewhere over middle America, a part of me wanted to quit my corporate job and return to open a school in Pakistan, a dream that I have long held and which, perhaps, I can still make happen one day. If this little girl stood up and fought against the darkness that encompasses Pakistan, then so can I – in my own small way – I thought.
Watching the documentary also reminded me of the time I quit Facebook. It was the day that Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. One of my friends had posted a comment filled with jubilation at Malala winning the award. I don’t recall the exact words but the ‘Status Update’ ended with a long series of exclamation marks, as if Pakistan had just won some cricket match against India. In response to this celebratory hurrah, I responded that perhaps we, as Pakistanis, should be more circumspect.
As Malala’s father says in the documentary, Malala was not shot by a person but an ideology. The last forty years have seen Pakistan slowly move from a liberal democracy to an illiberal one. Today, no one can really speak out against this ideology – the ideology that shot Malala – which has taken deep roots in Pakistan. We liberals can keep claiming that the Taliban are not us, but the ground reality, and many of our laws, suggest otherwise. How can we be jubilant at Malala receiving the Peace Prize but not recognize, at the same time, that the thing that shot her in the face is our country’s de facto ideology, or at the very least key parts of it? The reason why the Nobel Committee gave Malala the Peace Prize was not to hand Pakistanis some kind of trophy, resulting in a virtual bhangra on the internet, but to bring attention to the desperate situation of women and their education in places like Pakistan. It was something to be taken with a modicum of sobriety, especially as Pakistanis.
It seemed that the Nobel Committee had given Pakistan a trophy, resulting in a virtual bhangra on the internet
But my friend responded to my post with even more jubilation and rubbed it in my face with even more exclamation marks. This was when I decided to quit Facebook. But before I shut down my account, I thanked my friend for making me see the light.
While my interaction with my friend was the straw that broke the camel’s back, quitting Facebook was really just a part of a broader re-alignment of my relationship with the internet. Facebook was fun but I was wasting too much time on it. Another reason was that Facebook was becoming too much about competitive consumption, reminiscent of the well-known bumper sticker: He who dies with the most toys, wins. Only, perhaps on Facebook, he who dies with the most ‘likes’, wins. I also realized that whatever little ‘connecting’ was taking place between myself and my friends on Facebook, was a sad imitation of the real thing. Had my friend and I had a similar exchange face-to-face, the interaction, I am sure, would have been much different. She would have understood my perspective, I think, and I would have perhaps better understood where she was coming from.
There was, however, a certain pattern to my last-ever interaction on Facebook before I quit. Over the years that I had been on Facebook, which coincided with the rise of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan, I found myself often bemoaning the turn that Pakistan was taking towards extremism. Often, as happened after the Mumbai attacks, I felt a certain sense of shame at being a Pakistani. This concept, I soon realized, is a hard one to bear for us Pakistanis. We are proud, proud Pakistanis. Honor and dignity are our life’s blood. In the documentary, even poor Malala, after she is shown clips of Pakistanis bad-mouthing her, doubting her integrity and questioning her motives, when she is asked how it made her feel to hear these things from her fellow Pakistanis, she could not bring herself to criticize the country she loved. Pointing to ugly truths about ourselves, as a people and as a country, unleashes not just defensiveness but a questioning of one’s patriotism. In my case, I was often told that as an expat, I know nothing of ground realities and should keep quiet. That I have no right to criticize from my comfortable perch in the West. If the logic of this argument is correct, only someone in the US can criticize Donald Trump for his outrageous comments, or only someone in China can criticize it for its poor humanitarian track record. Clearly, this is not how the world works, or should work.
Despite what my friends may think, Malala’s story and her Nobel Prize are bittersweet for me. She reminds me of all that is great about Pakistan, from its beautiful children, to its picturesque lands, like Swat, where I long to be able to travel again as I once did in my childhood. Her version of Islam — she says in the documentary that she doesn’t hate the Taliban for what they did to her – reminds me of what Pakistan was, and still could be: the land where saints preached love and tolerance, and had followers that cut across religions, where great religions and traditions intermingled over millennia to form a culture whose vibrancy and creative contributions to numerous art forms are unrivaled.
But Malala’s story and the Nobel Prize, also leave me with a certain sense of shame and sadness. Shame that we could not protect this one little brave girl from the hands of the bearded monsters who had openly announced their intent to kill her. Shame that she is a contested figure in Pakistan; that we Pakistanis have not united behind this innocent and courageous girl and her cause. While the rest of the world rallies around her with supportive applause, we really don’t see the depth of her heroic personality and contributions.
In hindsight, I wish I could go back to that day when Malala won the Nobel Prize and explain to my friend how I was feeling. For it is only now, after having watched the documentary, that I have found the best way to explain my feelings about the inappropriateness of doing a virtual bhangra on Facebook for Malala winning the Nobel Prize. It came to me during the scene where Malala is asked if she would go back to Pakistan. She replied that she could not. ‘They’ would kill her, she said. This reminded me of the other Nobel Prize winner that Pakistan has produced, Dr Abdus Salam, who also lived in exile outside of Pakistan. Malala, I have come to realize, is Pakistan’s new Dr Salam. (As though confirming this suspicion, when asked in the documentary about her favorite book, she picked up, from her a bookshelf filled with books, a book on Physics: Stephen Hawkins, A Brief History of Time).
Malala and Dr Salam are Pakistan’s best and brightest. One was honored with the Nobel Prize for his scientific mind, the other, for her heart. Both deeply patriotic. Both exiles. While making us proud of their achievements, they represent a troubling legacy which Pakistanis need to face.