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Malala Up Close: A Heroine And A Joking Teenager


Say the name Malala and instantly one thinks of a heroine known to millions, the schoolgirl from Pakistan's lush, once idyllic Swat Valley who dared speak out when the Taliban invaded her home and tried to prevent girls from going to school.


MALALA YOUSAFZAI: The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullet would silence us, but nothing changed except this. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.

MONTAGNE: Malala Yousafzai gave that rousing United Nations speech in 2013, just nine months after she was nearly killed. Since then, a best-selling memoir, a Nobel Peace Prize, so extraordinary is her story that at 18, it conjures the glory of a Joan of Arc - or more fittingly, a brave girl who is Malala's namesake. In the Pashtun culture of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Malalai of Maiwand is legendary. Back in 1880, the teenager, armed only with her voice, rallied her countrymen to victory in a battle against the British.


M. YOUSAFZAI: She raised her voice (foreign language spoken). It is better to live like a lion for one day then to live like a slave for a hundred years.

MONTAGNE: A new documentary about Malala Yousafzai begins with her narrating that dream-like scene of the fabled Malalai. The film is directed by Davis Guggenheim and called "He Named Me Malala." The he of the title - her Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. They now live in England. In Pakistan, he was a teacher. And the film makes clear she grew up at his knee. When we all sat down, Malala told us what inspired her father.

M. YOUSAFZAI: He named me after Malalai of Maiwand, hoping that I, too, would have a voice like her and I, too, would have a name like her.

MONTAGNE: Ziauddin Yousafzai, you didn't just name your daughter, Malala, after this very heroic figure. You also did something quite extraordinary with an old family document that shows the family tree that goes back hundreds of years. What did you do?

ZIAUDDIN YOUSAFZAI: My cousin brought the family tree after a few weeks she was born. And I just look at the tree, and there are all men. And I had only daughter. I just picked up the pen and drew a line from my name and wrote there, Malala. She will have a name. She will have an identity.

MONTAGNE: And it comes out in the film. Davis Guggenheim?

DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I've seen this family tree. And when you see it, it strikes you - there are only the names of men. And so to take a pen and to change that document forever is also an act of saying this girl will be different.

MONTAGNE: One thing we discover in the film, you grew up in your father's school. Tell us about that.

M. YOUSAFZAI: I had this love for school since I was born - going to the classrooms, talking to those empty chairs and listening to teachers. Maybe it was because of my father as well. I loved his speeches, and I loved teachers' lectures.

Z. YOUSAFZAI: Right. She even at the small age, she used to appreciate my speeches. And now she criticize me a lot. But in those days, she was very supportive to my speeches.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

It turns out there is a lot of joking in the Yousafzai family, like this scene from the film where the whole family chimes in after director Davis Guggenheim asks Malala's littlest brother about his big sister.


ATAL YOUSAFZAI: She's little bit naughty, little bit - that much.

M. YOUSAFZAI: What do you mean she's naughty? What does she do?

ATAL: She just slaps me every time when I meet with her when I come from school.

M. YOUSAFZAI: It is a sign of love. It's a sign of, like, how much I love you and how much sweet and cute you are for me. That's why I give you just a slap on your face.

MONTAGNE: One of the things that's very intriguing in the film is how much, Davis Guggenheim, you catch them all as a family. Were you surprised at that yourself?

GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, I mean, when I walked into...

MONTAGNE: Now, this is in Birmingham, England?

GUGGENHEIM: This is in Birmingham, England. The first day, I took a cab to their house and knocked on the door. I didn't know who I would meet. This is family from 7,000 miles away from where I live. And when the door opened, it was a family just like mine. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of teasing, some wrestling. Like, that's incredible that these amazing people are just human beings.

M. YOUSAFZAI: Yeah. And, like, the fighting with brothers, that should not have been included 'cause I'm such a nice sister.


Z. YOUSAFZAI: Davis has done a great job highlighting these fights. I'm very thankful.

GUGGENHEIM: I mean, that's so interesting. But, like, what do we as Americans know about the Muslim world? We know this very narrow vein of information. Often, it's violent. But that's a very, very small part of that population. And so when you meet this family, you see this lovely, very human, very normal family. It could easily be my family.

MONTAGNE: The documentary opens almost three years to the day, Malala Yousafzai, since the Taliban boarded your school bus, shot you in the head, wounded your two friends. When you look back on that day, what does it mean to you now?

M. YOUSAFZAI: I don't remember that incident. And that is a very good thing because I don't feel that the girl who was shot was me. I received so much support from people and their prayers and their best wishes that kept me strong and never made me think back about that horrible moment.

Z. YOUSAFZAI: In the beginning days, her mother is thinking, in different ways, had she been there, she would have protected her. In the beginning, we had very bad dreams as well. And when she was attacked, that was the saddest and the most tragic moment of my life and our family life.

MONTAGNE: What do you mean when you say you don't feel that girl who was shot is you?

M. YOUSAFZAI: Well, when you get attacked, it's a very difficult moment in your life. And I don't consider that as part of my life because it's a sign of weakness for me. And I do not want to be known as the girl who was shot - never. I want to be the girl who fights for girl's rights to get quality education, and this is who I really want to be.

MONTAGNE: Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, along with director Davis Guggenheim. The new documentary is "He Named Me Malala." Thank you very much for joining us.

M. YOUSAFZAI: Thank you so much. Wonderful talking to you.

GUGGENHEIM: Thank you, Renee.

Z. YOUSAFZAI: Thank you very much. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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