She became an international icon after surviving being shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. But Birmingham poet Benjamin Zephaniah fears others may be using Malala Yousafzai for political reasons
A year ago, you would have got short odds on Benjamin Zephaniah opening the new £189 million Library of Birmingham.
But then Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, brought to the city for expert medical attention and enrolled at Edgbaston High School for Girls.
After giving an impassioned speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday,she was invited to open Birmingham’s most significant public building of the century on September 3.
And Benjamin Zephaniah, who will tonight give a Birmingham Literary Festival talk on multiculturalism at St Philip’s Cathedral, is thankful she did.
“I’m not very good at opening things,” says the man was voted third in a BBC poll of the nation’s favourite poets, behind TS Eliot and John Donne.
‘‘But I do love libraries and I don’t want to see smaller ones suffering because of it.”
On Friday, Malala could become the youngest person in history to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Benjamin said he fears the schoolgirl may be being, unwittingly, manipulated by some for political reasons.
“Malala is a survivor and I genuinely wish her all the best as a human being, but I fear she can be used and abused by people who have another agenda,’’ he said.
“I think she’s probably getting advice from people about what she should be saying. It’s not all coming from her, what she represents.
“In her home town today, some people hardly know her.
“I think she is a very convenient person for us to really like. She’s the kind of Muslim girl that we want to show we like because we want to see them go to school. But in Pakistan, most girls do go to school.
“Because the Taliban couldn’t survive in Afghanistan (and moved over the border), the West is jumping on the bandwagon and being a bit hypocritical.
“I don’t want to take that away from Malala, but sometimes people can be used so if she says ‘I am going to think these things through and represent girls’ that’s a good thing.
“But there’s going to be some time where they are feting her and loving her up in this way that she will say something that they don’t agree with and that’s going to be interesting.
“When she starts really thinking for herself, she’s probably going to say stuff that ‘we’ don’t agree with.’’
Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, Benjamin turned his own life around – chiefly from within.
“I woke up one morning and I wanted to change my life,” he says.
“But it’s difficult for others. I remember seeing a couple of guys making money on the Soho Road and when I told them I’d had a novel published in six languages it wasn’t worth anything to them – I was the one who had almost ‘sold out’.
“It takes such courage to break away and it can be a lonely world.”
On the subject of ‘multiculturalism’, the theme for his ‘urban sermon’ tonight, Benjamin says it’s a natural progression for people to move on once they feel more confident.
“The big city German, Polish and Jewish communities can hardly be found now because they have disintegrated.
“When you first arrive, you feel more comfortable being around people like you.
“People who eat your food and wear your clothes.
“As they get more confident they want to move around and to be themselves.
“I’ve walked into religious centres all over the world to ask: ‘Who are you and what do you believe in?’ and people are really nice. I’ve never had anything negative.
“I believe in God without religion – which people invented because they needed a narrative. I never put them down unless they put other people down because of their religion.
“We have to tell a story so that it fits into our little brains.
“You have to meditate to really get in touch with yourself, hear your breath and feel your blood pumping around your body. That’s not a trance, just feeling alive.”