Malala Yousafzai, aged 16, spoke today about the power of books when she was given the signal honour of formally inaugurating an ultra-modern £188 million library in Birmingham.
“Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism,” she declared, addressing a 1,000-strong crowd gathered outside the library, said to be the biggest regional one in Europe.
“I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through educating not only our minds, but our hearts and our souls,” she added.
What the audience witnessed was not the child who hovered near death’s door after being shot by the Taliban on October 16 last year for daring to speak out in favour of girls’ education but, as surely as night follows day, a future leader of Pakistan.
That is if she is allowed to live.
It was not just her stirring words but the supremely confident manner in which she delivered her seven-minute speech. Given the slight errors in grammar one has to assume it was a speech Malala had written herself.
“Dear brothers and sisters, books are very precious,” she observed. “Some books travel back centuries with you, others take you into the future. Some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe.”
“Books keep one’s feelings alive,” she went on. “Aristotle’s words are still breathing, Rumi’s poetry will always inspire and Shakespeare’s soul will never die.”
Dressed strikingly with a red shawl partly covering her head, she spoke clearly, addressing not just the people of Pakistan or her immediate audience but practically a global community.
Unveiling a stainless steel plaque marking the library’s official opening, Malala quipped she had challenged herself to read thousands of books. Looking at her today it was hard to credit that this was the girl shot in the head and neck in the confines of a school bus.
When her condition had stabilised she was flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where a large trauma unit first of all saved her life and then set up restoring her shattered skull with metal plates hours and hours of skillful surgery. The result has been little short of a medical miracle.
Malala was gracious in acknowledging her debt to Birmingham, a city with large Pakistani and Indian populations. who tend to get along without too much friction
“We must speak up for the children of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan who are suffering from terrorism, poverty, child labour and child trafficking,” she said. “Let us help them through our voice, action and charity.”
Let us help them to read books and go to school. And let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.”
Addressing “fellow Brummies”, Malala said: “It is an honour for me to be here in Birmingham, the beating heart of England. Birmingham is very special for me because it is here that I found myself alive, seven days after I was shot. It is now my second home, after my beloved Pakistan.”
“The doctors and nurses of this town worked hard to help me recover,” continued Malala, who now attends a local school. “The teachers of this town strived to rehabilitate my educational career, and the great people of this city gave me great moral support.” Far more powerful than any number of US drones, Malala is single handedly defeating the Taliban by demonstrating her love of books.
The new library, which can hold 3,000 people, is Birmingham’s pride and joy. It is located in the city centre, has a distinctive skin of metal hoops and replaces the nearby Brutalist Central Library which opened in 1974. The new library has more than 200 public access computers, theatres, an exhibition gallery and music rooms. It has nine floors, three of which are out of bounds to the public. There is a brown roof garden with wild flower meadow.
Its most valuable books are copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds
of America – worth between £6m and £7m each. As part of the opening ceremony, Malala placed her copy of The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho in the library, the last book to go on the shelves. She has been given membership to access the archive.
Some of her references were slightly religious. “There’s no better way to explain the importance of books than to show even God chose the medium of a book to send his message to his people.” She was clearly no stranger to death. “A city without books in a city without a library is like a graveyard. It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul.”She was sure “this library will continue to enlighten future generations”. It is hard to predict whether her speech will be remembered 50 years from now but some of the quotes were memorable: “The content of a book holds the power of education and it is with this power that we can shape our future and change lives. There is no greater weapon than knowledge and no greater source of knowledge than the written word. It is my dream that one day, great buildings like this one will exist in every corner of the world so every child can grow up with the opportunity to succeed.”