What do you think of when you hear the name Swat Valley? If you are like me, you might conjure images of violence and drone attacks or, perhaps, the search for Osama Bin Laden.

What do you think of when you hear the name Pakistan? Perhaps it’s a similar litany of images. It’s the country where Bin Laden was found. It’s a shadowy place that we don’t really understand, it seems.

When I decided to read Malala Yousafzai, I figured I would read about her struggle for education, her battle back from being shot in the head, and her calling out of the Taliban. Indeed, those facets are in there. What I did not expect, however, was to realize how completely ignorant I am about all things Pakistani.

Malala describes the Swat as if it was a Garden of Eden. Not perfect, of course. She talks about the constant blood battles between families, the consistent frailty of the leadership, and children so poor they were going through garbage trying to find things to sell. The overriding image, however, is beauty. The snowy mountains, the amazing diversity of fruit trees, the flat roofs on which children could play, and the socializing her mother did with the other women of their village.

Some Hard Truths

As an American, reading I am Malala is morally challenging. For me, I realized how much I had been influenced by the media in terms of understanding Pakistan. On a broader scale, however, you learn about how the CIA distributed textbooks that framed everything in war terms. “If you kill x number of the enemy, how many are left out of the total?” The attack on Bin Laden is also covered harshly by Malala. She points out that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people were not informed about the action. This made Pakistan feel that the US did not trust them, which in turn built more mistrust.

The Personal Struggle

More than anything, I recommend reading this book because Malala so beautifully brings home to the reader the struggle she, her family, and almost everyone she knew faced for years as the Taliban slowly started to infiltrate every part of their society. She describes her father’s tears after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the family’s increasing fear as people close to them were killed by the Taliban, and ultimately, of course, her own shooting.

For us, in the world outside of Malala’s existence, she was shot, we heard about her, and then she became famous. But in time between her shooting and her speaking at the UN she went through excruciating pain, both physical and emotional. Her family was not able to join her at the hospital in Birmingham for about two weeks due to bureaucratic confusion. She had nightmares that her father had been shot and that was why he wasn’t there. She had nightmares that her family wouldn’t be able to pay the medical bills so they were staying away for shame. She talks about seeing herself in the mirror for the first time, the left side of her face sagging and most of her hair gone. Her description of finally reuniting with her family moved me to tears.

A Bright Beacon

It is hard, very hard, to believe that this young woman just turned 18. She has already been an activist for over five years, at least. Today’s world gives us much to ponder that is ghastly, negative, barren of hope, and shameful. Against that background, Malala is a modern day hero – the kind we long for and dream about. Read her story. Do not be afraid to learn. Do not be afraid to feel. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book more.

Read more: Naked Determination, 41 Stories About Overcoming Fear, by Gisela Hausmann [Book Review]