The Swat Valley of northern Pakistan, in the highlands between Kashmir and the Khyber Pass, was once a lush, peaceful place. It was ruled by Miangul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb — the Wali, or absolute monarch, of Swat. A modernizer, the Wali built schools for his subjects — girls as well as boys — and toured remote regions where no one had ever seen an automobile.
"A beautiful, pristine place where mountains climbed to the clouds," Zebu Jilani calls the land of her childhood. "People called it the real Shangri-La." The Wali was her grandfather. Princess Zebu, as Swatis still refer to her, recalls playing with shiny rocks that resembled chunks of green glass. "They were emeralds from my family's mines." Then, in 1969, Swat relinquished its sovereignty to the government of Pakistan. So began a 40-year period of decline that led to the rise of the Taliban in 2008. For two years, the people of Swat endured a reign of terror as the Taliban imposed their brutal version of Islamic law. They rounded up political opponents, beheaded some, and flogged others. They held public executions, beat women, blew up schools.
Jilani moved to the United States in 1979. During her yearly visits to her homeland, she couldn't stand seeing it overrun. The money from her family's emerald mines was gone, so she raised money from scratch and soon was opening schools, delivering shelter and medicine to Swati refugees, and founding Swat's first Rotary club. Among the first people she asked to join was Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator and activist who had a teenage daughter named Malala.
You have probably heard of Malala Yousafzai. Only 15 at the time, Malala was a star student at the Khushal School and College in the Swat Valley town of Mingora. A voracious reader of everything from Pashto poetry to the Twilight saga, she wore a navy blue school uniform to her classes in science, math, Islamic studies, English, and Urdu, the language in which she wrote a blog about life under threat from the Taliban. She blogged about battles between Pakistan's army and the Taliban ("The night was filled with the noise of artillery fire"), about helicopter gunships buzzing overhead, about book shortages, her dreams, her favorite pink dress, and about the possible end of her schooling:
"The Taliban have issued an edict banning all girls from attending school."
On her blog, Malala used the pseudonym Gul Makai, the name of a heroine of Pakistani folklore, but her identity was an open secret. "I will get my education. And this is our request to all the world: Save our schools. Save our Swat."
Her father was doing his part to keep the traditions of Swat alive. In 2010, after Pakistan's army restored partial order in Mingora, he helped his Rotary club stage the first public musical performance in the town since the Taliban takeover. "We Rotarians were proud to arrange such a show. It was a brave thing to do, since the Taliban influence was still there," says Yousafzai, a member of the Rotary Club of Mingora Swat. "Things were uncertain, with many threats and frequent assassinations. But we put on a good show."
On a Tuesday in October 2012, Yousafzai was in Mingora, leading a rally of more than 300 principals and teachers to promote education for all. "My friend Ahmad Shah, a fellow Rotarian, spoke before me," he says. "I was on my way to the podium when my phone rang. I handed the phone to Ahmad. A moment later, he whispered the news: The Khushal school bus had been attacked. My heart sank. I could guess who the target was. 'It must be Malala,' I thought. At that moment, the moderator announced my name. With sweat on my forehead, I spoke for about six minutes. As I finished, Ahmad said, 'We must rush to the hospital.'"
His daughter had been coming home when a gunman barged onto her school bus. He threatened to kill everyone unless the students told him which one was Malala. "Speak up," he said. "Or I will shoot you all." As the terrified schoolgirls looked at their classmate, the gunman turned his pistol on her and fired from point-blank range.
Six days after her shooting, the comatose patient was flown to a hospital in Birmingham, England, that specializes in treating wartime casualties. It was there that she opened her eyes.
"What country am I in?" she asked.
Malala stayed humble. She referred to Jilani as "Bi Bi Sahiba" (Revered Madam). And she stayed resolute. "The Taliban thought they would stop me," she said from her hospital bed. "But they won't."
To her father she said, "Be peaceful."
To Jilani she said, "God will help me help people."
In March, Malala reported to her first day of school in Birmingham, a city with the second-largest Pakistani population in Britain. She had a custom-made titanium plate covering the hole in her skull and an electronic hearing device in her left ear, but otherwise she was like any other teen. She wore a green sweater and a pink backpack. "I am one girl among many," she says. During her first days of classes in England, she gathered signatures for a petition supporting the right of every child to go to school.
Her father now serves as an adviser to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy for global education. And while Malala stepped onto the world stage, she kept her focus on Swat and stepped up her day-to-day efforts to restore some of its former glory.
Jilani continues to carry out the often unglamorous task of getting necessities — from tents to antibiotics to bulldozers and steamrollers — to the people of Swat. "Malala's suffering was horrible, but it made the whole world listen to her," Jilani says. "Her fame became a great gift to her cause. I hope that one day she can return to her home and find that our combined efforts have made a difference."
That's Malala's goal too. The other day her father, reflecting on his family's remarkable trajectory, said he hoped to go home someday.
"I dream of a time when we will go back to Swat, our dream valley," Yousafzai says. "And I will ask Malala to join our Rotary club."
Adapted from a story in the January 2014 issue of The Rotarian.