"Who Is Malala?"
In the morning my parents came to my room as usual and woke me up. I don’t remember a single school day on which I woke up early by myself. My mother made our usual breakfast of sugary tea, chapatis and fried egg. We all had breakfast together—me, my mother, my father, Khushal and Atal. It was a big day for my mother, as she was going to start lessons that afternoon to learn to read and write with Miss Ulfat, my old teacher from kindergarten.
My father started teasing Atal, who was eight by then and cheekier than ever. “Look, Atal, when Malala is prime minister, you will be her secretary,” he said.
Atal got very cross. “No, no, no!” he said. “I’m no less than Malala. I will be prime minister and she will be my secretary.” All the banter meant I ended up being so late I only had time to eat half my egg and no time to clear up. The Pakistan Studies paper went better than I thought it would. There were questions about how Jinnah had created our country as the first Muslim homeland and also about the national tragedy of how Bangladesh came into being. It was strange to think that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan despite being a thousand miles away. I answered all the questions and was confident I’d done well. I was happy when the exam was over, chatting and gossiping with my friends as we waited for Sher Mohammad Baba, a school assistant, to call for us when the bus arrived.
The bus did two trips every day, and that day we took the second one. We liked staying on at school and Moniba said, “As we’re tired after the exam, let’s stay and chat before going home.” I was relieved that the Pakistan Studies exam had gone well, so I agreed. I had no worries that day. I was hungry, but because we were fifteen we could no longer go outside to the street, so I got one of the small girls to buy me a corn cob. I ate a little bit of it then gave it to another girl to finish.
At 12 o’clock Baba called us over the loudspeaker. We all ran down the steps. The other girls all covered their faces before emerging from the door and climbed into the back of the bus. I wore my scarf over my head but never over my face.
I asked Usman Bhai Jan to tell us a joke while we were waiting for two teachers to arrive. He has a collection of extremely funny stories. That day instead of a story he did a magic trick to make a pebble disappear. “Show us how you did it!” we all clamored, but he wouldn’t.
When everyone was ready he took Miss Rubi and a couple of small children in the front cab with him. Another little girl cried, saying she wanted to ride there too. Usman Bhai Jan said no, there was no room; she would have to stay in the back with us. But I felt sorry for her and persuaded him to let her in the cab.
Atal had been told by my mother to ride on the bus with me, so he walked over from the primary school. He liked to hang off the tailboard at the back, which made Usman Bhai Jan cross, as it was dangerous. That day Usman Bhai Jan had had enough and refused to let him. “Sit inside, Atal Khan, or I won’t take you!” he said. Atal had a tantrum and refused, so he walked home in a huff with some of his friends.
Usman Bhai Jan started the dyna and we were off. I was talking to Moniba, my wise, nice friend. Some girls were singing, I was drumming rhythms with my fingers on the seat.
Moniba and I liked to sit near the open back so we could see out. At that time of day Haji Baba Road was always a jumble of colored rickshaws, people on foot and men on scooters, all zigzagging and honking. An ice-cream boy on a red tricycle painted with red and white nuclear missiles rode up behind waving at us, until a teacher shooed him away. A man was chopping off chickens’ heads, the blood dripping onto the street. I drummed my fingers. Chop, chop, chop. Drip, drip, drip. Funny, when I was little we always said Swatis were so peace-loving it was hard to find a man to slaughter a chicken.
The air smelled of diesel, bread and kebab mixed with the stink from the stream where people still dumped their rubbish and were never going to stop despite all my father’s campaigning. But we were used to it. Besides, soon the winter would be here, bringing the snow, which would cleanse and quiet everything.
The bus turned right off the main road at the army checkpoint. On a kiosk was a poster of crazy-eyed men with beards and caps or turbans under big letters saying wanted terrorists. The picture at the top of a man with a black turban and beard was Fazlullah. More than three years had passed since the military operation to drive the Taliban out of Swat had begun. We were grateful to the army but couldn’t understand why they were still everywhere, in machine-gun nests on roofs and manning checkpoints. To even enter our valley people needed official permission.
The road up the small hill is usually busy, as it is a shortcut, but that day it was strangely quiet. “Where are all the people?” I asked Moniba. All the girls were singing and chatting and our voices bounced around inside the bus.
Around that time my mother was probably just going through the doorway into our school for her first lesson since she had left school at age six.
I didn’t see the two young men step out into the road and bring the van to a sudden halt. I didn’t get a chance to answer their question “Who is Malala?” or I would have explained to them why they should let us girls go to school as well as their own sisters and daughters.
The last thing I remember is that I was thinking about the revision I needed to do for the next day. The sounds in my head were not the crack, crack, crack of three bullets, but the chop, chop, chop, drip, drip, drip of the man severing the heads of chickens, and them dropping into the dirty street, one by one.
Reprinted from the book I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb. Copyright © 2013 by Salarzai Limited. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company; all rights reserved.