Days after winning Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize, Viji Alles tracked down the BBC Urdu Service journalist who first brought the teenager to the world’s attention.
Malala Yousafzai nearly didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize; nearly wasn’t nominated for the prize in 2013; didn’t almost address the United Nations General Assembly; may well not have been feted across the world for her extraordinary spirit and fortitude.
Remarkably, the young girl with the kind eyes and the ethereal poise so unbecoming of a 19-year-old nearly didn’t become a beacon of hope for millions.
That ‘honour’ – if being shot at close range for having the audacity to demand that girls like her deserve an education could be so described – could well have gone to an altogether different young girl.
Her name was Aisha and, like Malala, she had been just one of the many thousands of girls whose life had been crushed under the oppressive weight of Taliban rule in Pakistan’s restive Swat Valley, an area of staggeringly stark beauty in the northwest of the country.
Aisha was the first name put forward by Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai – who ran a private school in the Valley – to a BBC journalist who was looking to ‘ghost write’ a weekly blog detailing life for people living under the Islamist thugs running Swat at the business end of their Kaleshnikovs back in 2008.
When Aisha backed out of the project, Mr Yousafzai proffered his then 14-year-old daughter Malala and the rest, as they say, is history.
The journalist was Abdul Hai Kakkar, an endearingly verbose Pashtu who was working for the BBC Urdu service at the time. Kakkar had returned to Pakistan from London in 2005 before heading to Swat in 2008.
He subsequently left Pakistan in 2010 and his life today, intriguingly, mirrors that of Malala’s: a Pakistani in semi-exile in Europe, disillusioned not only by the political factionalism slowly disintegrating his country but by the “nightmarish” nature of being a journalist in Pakistan: the constant reporting on extremism and violence; where stepping out to work amounts to signing one’s own death certificate, particularly if one is disinclined to toe the party line.
He now lives in Prague, the ancient Romanesque capital of the Czech Republic, plying his trade with Radio Mashaal, the Pashto service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the American-funded broadcast service first conceived during the Cold War to counter communist propaganda in Eastern Europe but which has since become renowned for servicing countries where freedom of speech has been stifled.
Kakkar spoke to the UKAsian about his joy at Malala’s Nobel honour and how it all began.
Abdul Hai Kakkar
What went through your mind when you found out that Malala had won.
I spoke to her after she was announced as the winner. Congratulated her. They have become part of the family. I was actually told by my Editor to keep an eye on Nobel news but because she had not won last year I was just going through the motions and didn’t have too much hope. In fact, her father didn’t have too much hope either. That’s why she was in class when the news broke. When I heard it I remember trembling inside. I was so happy. I tried Ziauddin’s number for several hours but understandably it was too busy. I got through to him eventually!
Did you feel like part of you had won, given your role in the Malala story?
Well some people say that my contribution is as important as what Malala has done. But I personally don’t think I had much to do with it. A large part of the immense work she has done is down to her and her father. I was just doing my job and I was trying to do it as creatively as possible. My job was to give a voice to people in the conflict-stricken areas that I was working in. The victims of terrorists. When I went back to Pakistan in 2005 I had to very quickly make a decision about how I would go about my work as a journalist. Most of the Pakistani media have to toe the line with the country’s military. What most people want to do is to keep the military authorities happy. People want to go on foreign trips with the Prime Minister, go to dinner parties and so forth. So I asked myself, should I shake hands with the people in power or should I work for the people? For that I didn’t need to go to any of the power corridors in the country.
That’s how I ended up in Swat. All I wanted to do was to give a voice to the voiceless people who were suffering day in and day out under the Taliban. To show what life was like for a young girl under the control of these extremists. My contribution was purely journalistic but I don’t take credit for it. Credit belongs to Malala and her father.
What do you say to the people, particularly in Pakistan, who say that Malala doesn’t deserve to win and is painting Pakistan in a bad light?
I think you have to see the Malala saga in the Pakistani context. From the outside it may seem like the country is being wracked by radicals and extremists but in fact, the people in power are terrifically friendly towards Islamic extremists. Whatever opposition there is, it’s just the powers throwing soil in the eyes of the West. I think what Malala has done is to shake that infrastructure, the foundations for which were laid by Zia Ul Haq and which have been continued by others. The alarming thing is that this very same infrastructure is propped up by academics, a huge number of journalists and politicians who then strengthen it with the necessary intellectual, physical and narrative infrastructure required to further their ends, which is to keep the country in continual turmoil. It’s not often that you get someone like Malala who comes along and forces these people to re-think their strategies. So whenever they get the opportunity they will try to paint Malala in a negative light.
Of course, there are people who take it to be the truth as well but it’s just a counter narrative put forward by some flustered people who are part of the establishment. It’s certainly not representative of most ordinary people in Pakistan.
Soon after Kailesh Satyarthi was named co-winner, he met with Prime Minister Modi and they had a highly publicized meeting. But what of Nawaz Sharif? You could say that the state has disowned her. He will issue some mundane, evergreen press release just to keep the world happy but apart from that, nothing of substance. They would be far more aggressive with the vitriol against her if she wasn’t such a celebrated figure around the world.
It’s all well and good to celebrate the courage of Malala. But what do you think she has achieved on the ground in Pakistan?
I think there have been two things in particular. The first is that a very significant counter narrative has emerged against that of the state: the religious, conservative narrative that has long been dominant in Pakistan. The liberal and secular elements of Pakistani society had, for a long time, been stricken and had little or no voice. Malala gave them a voice and galvanized them into coming out into the open and saying ‘No’ to militancy and to extremism and ‘Yes’ to pluralism and democracy and freedom of expression. So the people and the narrative that had been marginalized are no longer so.
Secondly, the world’s attention really focused on Pakistan. Donors went to Pakistan, spoke to the government and the people and focused their work, often in spite of being reluctant to do so. People felt an obligation even. And it inspired people. Millions of people felt like they had to do something even if it was in a small way. It may not seem like it to the outside world but there’s been a huge shift in sentiment in Pakistan.
Then what about the scores of girls who are named Malala? It is very symbolic in a country where girls are second class citizens. I think above all, her real legacy will be felt many years in the future when those same girls will be inspired by her. In a society where there often seems to be very little hope, that’s a great hope.
Malala didn’t almost become the Malala that the world now knows…
I had known her father for a while when I started reporting on the school closures in Swat in 2008. Mr Yousafzai is a superb contact. I told him about the idea of getting a young girl to write about what they were going through and he immediately came back with a girl named Aisha. But she pulled out of the project after her parents said that it would be too dangerous. That’s when Ziauddin came back and said that his daughter would be a good alternative. She was immediately enthusiastic. Because there was no electricity, no internet or anything we had to do everything over the telephone. But the problem was that I knew my phone was being monitored by the government. So I began using my wife’s phone and gave Malala a pseudonym – Gul Makai.
It was funny because I remember someone writing a Facebook post saying that the telephones belonging to the wives of the journalists working for the BBC Urdu service should be monitored if the government wanted to track down this mysterious blogger. We were all staggered at how popular the blog was in Pakistan and, in particular, Swat.
The great thing is that she was such a superb observer and was very witty. She had a very mature and acute understanding of her surroundings. She also loved metaphors and it was a dream for a journalist looking for a good quote!
What was the immediate impact of the blog?
The blog was published for about three months and everyone was trying to track her down. I didn’t want her to be harassed with even a phone call. I didn’t even tell my closest friends. The Taliban was very cruel. There was a real coldness to them but I think Malala really gave people strength. It also strengthened civil society in Swat as well. And the blog was seen outside Pakistan: there were editorials in numerous western newspapers, opinion writers frequently quoted her and it really brought home to the people of Pakistan the plight of this lawless corner of their own country. It made people think that whilst they were going about their lives normally, in another part of their own country a sort of medieval law was being imposed on innocent people.
You must have been devastated when she was attacked.
I couldn’t believe it although I had this suspicion that she would be targeted. I knew how the militants worked. They bided their time as well. She was targeted four years after the blog was first published. I remember Ziauddin calling me and asking me for a recording that Malala had done for the BBC to include in an application that the family was sending for a children’s award. The application mentioned that Malala had been the blogger who was calling for education for girls. Immediately afterwards, the Taliban released a statement saying that Ziauddin and I were responsible if anything happened to Malala. And of course, the United States. It was a terrible time. My wife and I couldn’t eat or sleep. Nightmarish.
What differences do you see between the 14-year-old you first met and the Malala of today?
I think she has always been blessed with an amazing amount of confidence and poise. She is never afraid to speak her mind and had a sense of freedom even when she was being oppressed by her circumstances. I think she’s got even more poise now because she has had such global exposure. But it’s amazing to think about the journey that she has been on. To go from being shot while you’re going to school to winning the Nobel Prize, speaking at the UN, moving in the circles that she does, it’s just extraordinary.
Your lives are quite similar now given that you both are exiles…
It is tragic but I’m confident that she will one day return to Pakistan. If it’s difficult for journalists, you can imagine what it would be like for her. But I think there’s an even greater sadness that I feel when I am alone and I’m thinking about her. And that’s the fact that we have all snatched her childhood from her. It’s not just the Taliban. The abandon which a normal 17-year-old would feel and enjoy, Malala cannot. She can’t go for a picnic, a wedding, go out with friends. She can’t have all those things. She can’t be naughty or mischievous. She has to be very composed and always have the knowledge that people will judge her. How will she feel about that when she grows up? What questions will she ask? That’s the saddest part of it all.