In early 2009, Ziauddin receives a call from his old friend, Abdul Gai Kakar, a BBC reporter. Abdul wants Ziauddin to help him find a young schoolgirl who could write about her experiences under the Taliban. When Malala hears that Ziauddin was looking for a suitable candidate, she volunteers herself. Ziauddin agrees, and Malala begins writing a regular diary. She uses the pseudonym “Gul Makai,” since Abdul warns her that it might be unsafe to use her real name.
Although Malala has given radio broadcasts before, her decision to keep a diary represents her struggle to find a voice for herself and to “come of age” in the act of opposing the Taliban. For the time being, Malala is a long way from the defiant young woman who continues opposing the Taliban even after they shoot her. At this point she uses a false name, rather than saying “I Am Malala.”
Malala writes her first diary entry on January 3, 2009. She talks about her anxiety, and reports a dream she had, in which the Taliban arrived by helicopter. Afterwards, Malala’s words are published online. In the following months, Malala writes about a great number of topics. She criticizes the requirement that all women wear a burqa, arguing that women should be allowed to choose their own clothing. Students at Malala’s school begin talking about the diary, without realizing that Malala is its author. The BBC publishes Malala’s diary and translates it into English. Despite Malala’s efforts to convince others to stand against the Taliban, there are now only ten students left in her class.
As was sometimes the case with the descriptions of Ziauddin’s rise to fame and prominence, Malala’s international fame happens so quickly that it’s difficult to tell exactly how it occurred. While it’s true that many in the international community were looking for an insider’s account of life in Pakistan, it’s almost magical how quickly Malala’s writing becomes internationally known. In a way, this is the most realistic way for Malala to portray her rise to prominence: to an eleven-year-old girl, this event would seem to happen overnight, as if by magic.
On January 14—according to the Taliban, the last day Ziauddin’s school will be allowed to run in peace—Ziauddin is in a bad mood. He knows that he’ll be forced to shut down his school, since nobody will want to risk their lives to study. Around this time, he receives an offer to participate in a documentary about Afghanistan, produced by the New York Times. Ziauddin meets with the American journalist Adam Ellick. During these meetings, Ellick strikes up a friendship with Malala, whose English is good enough to hold a conversation with him. Ellick decides that he wants to focus his documentary on Malala’s experiences in Afghanistan. Ellick arranges to film a scene in which Malala sadly walks by her school. After filming this scene, Malala begins to cry—she can’t bear the thought of not being able to go to school anymore.
While it could be objected that Malala’s involvement in the documentary is somehow artificial—she’s performing for the camera instead of being herself—Malala quickly refutes this argument. The tears that she sheds while walking past her school are real, not play-acted, as she can’t bear the thought of not being able to learn for the rest of her life. The fact that her first international fame comes from an American, however, contributes to much of the criticism Malala faces now. Many in Pakistan claim that she is a “puppet” of the West, and argue that America uses her now-famous suffering as a justification for its continued violence and imperialism.
Malala continues to publish her diary. She argues that the Taliban’s fear of education is unfounded. While the Taliban thinks that education will lead to “Westernization,” she argues, the truth is that education isn’t regional at all: “Education is education.” She also receives a message from Shiza Shahid, a student from Stanford University, who was impressed by Malala’s appearance in Ellick’s documentary. In the future, Malala notes, Shahid would be an important ally to her father.
Malala uses her diary to tell “her story,” but in fact, she also uses it to do much more. She argues that education can’t be dismissed as a cultural thing—it’s a universal human right, a fundamental part of being human. Here, as before, it’s easy to forget that Malala is only 11 years old—her maturity and sophistication of thought would put many older writers to shame.
In February, Malala visits Islamabad, accompanied by her father and Adam Ellick. Ellick buys her American books and DVDs. Malala notes that Islamabad has been devastated by the Taliban as well, and people live in constant fear of a bombing. When Malala returns to Mingora she realizes, as if for the first time, that she won’t be going to school any time soon. This realization is crushing to her.
As Malala grows up, she gains more knowledge of Pakistan itself: she gets a better feeling for its cities, the differences between its regions, etc. It is a strange experience coming of age in a war-torn country, especially when one is in the spotlight like Malala is.