On an overcast, anonymous morning, journalists assemble outside Claridge’s hotel in London. The plan is not to linger: a coach is to drive us to an undisclosed destination where Malala Yousafzai will be waiting. The security arrangements add edge to the existing sense of expectation at the prospect of meeting Malala Yousafzai and, in my case, her father. Malala, celebrated for her refusal to be silenced by the Taliban in her championship of girls’ education, is about to experience limelight of a different sort as a documentary about her life, , is released here. It’s an intimate, inquiring, moving film, directed by the Oscar-winning documentary-maker Davis Guggenheim, who directed, and it has earned a chorus of celebrity approval across the pond, where it opened earlier this month. Ellen DeGeneres, , called Malala “incomparable, impressive, inspiring”. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, sees her as “proof that one person can change the world”. And to Meryl Streep she is “a modern-day folk hero”. But the film reminds us that Malala is also an ordinary girl. Hollywood is a long way from Pakistan’s Swat valley, where she was born.
The coach stops outside a labyrinthine building in a rundown part of town. I feel as if I were in an unlikely dream and wonder if that’s how Malala feels every day. On the far side of a huge, echoing room, Malala and her father have been positioned on a sofa, like stowaways. A table of untouched drinks and snacks is in front of them. It’s 10am. As I walk in, they stand up – smiling. Malala is tiny – a surprise, because one thinks of her as larger than life. Her head is covered in a purple veil through which sunlight shines. With her sweet, wonky smile (bitter souvenir of the Taliban’s attack – her facial muscles are unable to rally on her left side), there is singularity mixed with what I am trying to resist describing as saintliness. I look down and notice elegant, salmon-pink sandals with little heels, scarlet varnish on every toe. At 18, a poised, uncowed figure, she has her own version of glamour. But what I notice most is the similarity between Malala and her father. They have the same twinkle, the same animation. Everything about 46-year-old Ziauddin Yousafzai is lively, down to his flourishing moustache. And in the film he does not hold back in describing the bond with his daughter as being like “one soul in two different bodies”. His story merges with hers.
But . does not give charming Ziauddin an easy ride. It reveals the guilt he felt after Malala was shot in October 2012. He imagines his daughter regaining consciousness and saying: “What happened to me was because of you.” For although he never forced Malala to speak, he never stopped her either (she started aged 11; later she gave opinions to the international press). Speaking out made her a target for the Taliban. Continuing to speak made her a legend. In 2014 she and published her autobiography,. Her charity, , cofounded with her father, campaigns for 60 million unschooled girls worldwide.
Malala’s father gave her a name to live up to – and predicted greatness. She was named after the Pashtun folk heroine , who inspired Afghan tribesmen to defeat the British army in 1880. When Malala was little, she longed for another name. Malalai means “brave” but also “sad”. “My friends would tell me, ‘Change your name – your luck depends on its meaning.’” She picked Mahrow, which means Moon Face, out of a book, but it turned out to be her grandmother’s name. She and her father laugh at the coincidence and explain that it’s disrespectful to help yourself to an older relative’s name. Malala says: “My father was very positive about Malalai.” On cue he chimes in: “I believe in this name as I believe in God.” She emphasises: “Malalai’s name is about the power of voice.”
Malala and “power of voice” go together, but when, in the film’s most striking moment, there is an attempt to delve into her sufferings, it’s the power of silence that speaks. Asked why she never talks about , she says nothing. I ask: was it that she could not answer? “I never like to discuss it because it reminds me of a bad time. To go forward in life, you have to think of the good things, and things have changed, so why think of the trauma, of the pain?” Her father says: “It is just over three years but we never talk about it.” I can see how, by focusing on the positive, Malala and her father hold the past at bay, determined not to give the Taliban a speaking part. A way of surviving? “Yes,” Malala says.
In the film, a doctor at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, where Malala was flown in a coma, recalls that in the early days after the attack, Malala could not believe her father had survived. He was not by her bedside because he had to get his entire family out of Pakistan: “My wife and sons were not safe. So I stayed behind and Malala was taken to the UK and a doctor was put in loco parentis.” Malala rejoices at the memory of their reunion: “It was my 10th day in the hospital. I had no idea where I was or where my parents were, and when I saw my father for the first time and realised he was with me…”
Ziauddin interrupts: “You cried for the first time.”
Malala says: “I cried as loud as I could.”
Her father adds: “And we cried the whole night after we’d left her because she had a problem in her mouth, it was tilted on one side, she was, physically, completely changed.”
Malala says levelly: “They’d not seen me talking…”
Ziauddin explains: “We saw a different…” his stutter betrays his emotion – “Ma… Ma… Malala.”
When I ask where the family’s gift for public speaking comes from, he says it’s a long story but promises to keep it short. Malala whispers: “It will still be long” and giggles. Teasing underpins their exchanges. “Speaking is in our family’s DNA,” Ziauddin continues. He remembers listening to the fiery speeches of his father, the village imam. As a little boy he would wait impatiently for the “emotional” bits. Meanwhile, he worked on his stammer by imitating Demosthenes, the Greek orator who tried to cure himself by keeping pebbles under his tongue. Did it work? “A little bit.” He also recited, and still recites, a prayer from the Qur’an, practised by Moses, who had a stammer. He disarmingly confesses: “When I woke up this morning, I read the Moses prayer in order that I may be fluent in front of you.”
Malala has no problem with fluency – or nerve. It is her fearlessness that amazes. She has been unafraid of telling . And in a breathtaking moment in the film, she ticks off the Nigerian president for his failure to do more for the girls abducted by Boko Haram. Now, she elaborates: “World leaders ignore these issues. They are chosen by people but don’t listen to the voice of people, so how can they call themselves leaders?” She possesses what most politicians can only dream of: the ability to talk with a truthfulness and simplicity that leaves no room for doubt.
But Malala and her father’s style as speakers – and as people – is different. Ziauddin confides: “I make haste, she takes time. Everything Malala does is well-calculated, composed. She is formidable, mature, not bothered about fame, whereas I’m a bit more concerned.” He laughs ruefully.
Malala chips in: “I usually think before saying anything or taking decisions.”
He says: “I rush to things. I am sentimental.”
Are you sentimental, Malala? I ask. “Not very much,” she answers shyly. “I try to think more practically about how things work in reality.” Her father chuckles. “Everyone needs time,” she adds. “I’m not that quick in my work.”
Q uick or no, on 20 August this year, when her GCSE results came out, Malala discovered that she had six A*s and 4 As (one upgraded to A* after being re-marked). She attends an independent school in Edgbaston, on the outskirts of Birmingham, and at A-level is doing history, maths, religious studies and geography. She is considering going to Stanford University in California (as much for the sun as anything), but has not ruled out applying to do PPE at Oxford. Once, she dreamed of becoming a doctor, and, as the film demonstrates, she is a born teacher, but her focus is, inevitably, political.
“As our politicians are doing nothing for us, nothing for peace, nothing for education, I want to become prime minister of my country,” Malala says. “To some people this seems too much – they feel you can’t dream that way, you must have a smaller dream. But sometimes it’s good to dream bigger. This is what I’ve been telling our world leaders: dream big, make your ambitions bigger.”
I ask her father whether the weight of the big dream isn’t too much for her shoulders.
“Malala looks small but her shoulders are very strong,” he says serenely. Doesn’t he worry about her future? “No, I don’t. Allah will protect her. She will make it wonderfully.”
What scope is there in her life for being an ordinary schoolgirl? “I’m a bit cheeky at home,” Malala says, “and fight with my brothers, although they have exaggerated this in the film...” (in it, one of her brothers pronounces her “the naughtiest girl on Earth”). “I’m actually very kind to them most of the time.”
“If their side had been shown, it would have been better,” Malala’s father peaceably concedes.
Malala and her father both miss Pakistan, where “school was home”. Ziauddin founded and was the headmaster of a school of more than 1,000 students. Malala explains: “Our house was inside the same wall.” It was an enlightened place where questioning was encouraged. Now Ziauddin’s life involves meeting world leaders and being an adviser to Gordon Brown, the UN’s envoy for global education. And Malala has been told that should she attempt to return to Pakistan, the will kill her.
I have to ask: where does Ziauddin stand now in relation to his guilt? “I think God looked into my heart and didn’t want me to repent doing the right thing. That is one reason God made Malala survive. If she had not survived, my thinking might have been different.”
When Malala thinks of home, she misses her teachers and friends, but it’s her garden she revisits most often in her mind’s eye: “I planted flowers and seeds in it and, right in the middle, a mango tree.” Above all, she remembers her garden at night: “I’d stand in the garden and look at the stars. Here in the UK I have noticed you don’t really see stars.”
I don’t even attempt to put her right on this point (air pollution the obvious culprit), but as I say goodbye to this unself-important, moral, mischievous girl, the thought flashes through my mind that not only do you see stars in the UK, but that one of them is right here in front of me.