I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and just started I Am Malala (Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb). I’m not far enough along to compare the two books (the former stirred conflicted emotions in me, though it is definitely an insightful read even if the prose at times is a tad pretentious) but Malala’s initial descriptions of the Swat Valley took me back to the mid 1990’s.

Oddly enough, and as a brief aside, passages mentioning the history of Swat recall two other books I’ve read recently: Winston Churchill’s Malakand Field Force (Malala notes that “he was not very complimentary about our people” while not shying away from some of the less flattering characteristics of Pashtuns herself. Churchill is quite racist, and not just in a condescendingly colonial manner, in his memoir) and Marc Aurel Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India, in which the author explores the archaeological ruins of ancient Buddhist stupas in Swat, following Alexander the Great’s path of destruction.

But it is Malala’s description of her home valley that brought back old memories. She describes the valley in broad, superlative terms, and although she uses some hyperbole it is generally fitting. I have very fond memories of Swat, from brief visits with my family years ago. It is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and I remember the mountains and the greenness, and the rushing torrents of water. The Swat River was horrifying in its tremendous speed and violence, and the rickety cable cages that spanned the river only intensified the feeling. Other streams were joyful, and I remember sliding off of large, slick rocks into placid pools of cool water. Pakistani boys blew air into their shalwars to create makeshift water wings, puffing up their legs into huge balloons.

We ate at a restaurant with another angrez family or two, and the river rushed by underneath and we ate recently caught trout from the stream. We have a family picture from that visit; it was the one photograph I had with me through years of difficult boarding school, and even into college. It still exists, in its gold frame, somewhere in our house.

I remember a man by the roadside, and he had an AK-47. For 100 rupees you could take a few shots at the hillside with his weapon. Like at a state fair, only you didn’t win any prizes. (My memory being as leaky as it is, this particular incident may have occurred to the south and west of Swat, at a different time.)

But my fondest memory is of the 1994 World Cup. We were staying in one of those old British-style hotels, with low, sloping roofs, metal chairs and tables in the trimmed yard, and chai whenever it was desired. I’ve had to check Wikipedia, and apparently that year’s World Cup was held in America. I remember the final. We were probably ten hours ahead of the actual action, and I was allowed to stay up late (it was my record for staying up late for many years to follow) to watch the final match between Brazil and Italy. Brazil’s team struck a chord with me, and their victory in penalty kicks ensured that I would be a Brazil football fan for life.

Swat was never home for me, like it was and is for Malala. Nevertheless my memories of the green, gorgeous valley remain, in large part due to the warm memories I have of our whole family being together, and good times with friends and football. News out of Swat since the Taliban invaded in 2007 has been difficult to bear, and following Malala’s story has been alternately tragic and hopeful. I’m curious what the rest of her memoir holds. And reminded that I am often glad to be in America, where books like hers aren’t generally in danger of being banned.

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