The shooting of Malala Yousafzai has shocked an unshockable Pakistan

The 14 year old was shot at close range because "she was speaking against the Taliban".

It takes a lot to shock Pakistan, given the frequency of bomb attacks, targeted killings, and other violence. But the shooting of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban yesterday has left the nation reeling. Popular talk show host Hamid Mir summed up the mood last night when he said: "I can see the whole nation's head bowed in shame today. I want to ask those who shot a girl, who only wanted to go to school: do you think you are Muslims?"

Yousufzai came to public attention for her blog detailing what life was like under the Taliban, who temporarily took control of her native Swat Valley in 2009. She has been on the militant group's "hit list" since the start of the year. Although her family have said they have received death threats, nothing could have prepared them for the brutality and abruptness of the attack.

She was sitting with classmates on a school bus in Mingora, a city in the Swat valley, preparing to drive home after morning classes. According to eyewitnesses, a bearded man entered the bus and demanded that Malala be identified. He shot her at close range in the head and the leg, also injuring two of her classmates. She was rushed to hospital before being taken in a military helicopter to an intensive care ward in Peshawar. The bullet to the head, which missed her brain, had lodged in her neck. It has now been removed but she remains in a critical condition.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that if she survives, another attempt will be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

In 2009, the government effectively ceded control of the Swat Valley, a beauty spot beloved of Pakistani tourists, to the Taliban. Their takeover saw closures of girls' schools, men being forced to grow beards and the beheading of opponents. Aged just 11, Yousafzai wrote a blog for BBC Urdu under the pen-name of Gul Makai, expressing her anxiety about what was happening around her and her fears that her education would be stopped. After a military offensive in Swat later that clear, the Taliban was largely cleared out of the area. Yousafzai was awarded the country's first National Peace Award, and appeared on national television, carefully sticking to her concerns about education rather than broader criticism of the militants. "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one,” she told one station.

The bravery is quite astonishing, when you consider the fact that major politicians and indeed, entire governments, have shied away from making such bold statements against the Taliban. The aim of the attempted assassination, of course, was to spread fear and discourage anyone else from speaking out against militancy. Sadly, this has previously proved all too effective in Pakistan. When two ministers calling for reform of the blasphemy law were murdered last year, the government’s response was not to stand tall in the face of violence, but to shelve the reform altogether. Attacks by extremists on the country’s Shia minorities - including some chillingly similar assaults on buses - have gone unpunished and practically unnoted. All of this adds up to a culture where extremists can act with impunity. 

It is a bold statement in itself that this attack was possible in an area so heavily fortified by the army. Following the military operation in 2009, top command claimed that they had cleared the region of Taliban militants and destroyed their network. Some have seen this attack, along with other recent incidents in the area, as a sign that the Taliban is making a comeback in the area. While that may be jumping the gun, it certainly shows that they are functional. Some fear that it could herald a new spate of killings.

Politicians across the board have condemned the attack, with government and opposition united in their prayers for Yousafzai. Newspapers and broadcast networks have also been unanimous in their condemnation. Nor is revulsion at the incident limited to educated, liberal circles, with Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar studio fielding hundreds of calls from outraged residents of the city. Protests have been held in Peshawar, Multan and Mingora (Malala’s hometown). Another is expected in Lahore.

Although some have suggested that this may have been a step too far, the moment that will turn the public decisively against the Taliban, such a view is optimistic. The Taliban, after all, are not in the business of winning over hearts and minds. Has the shooting compounded fear? Yes, certainly. Yousafzai’s father has already expressed anxiety about girls in the area being too afraid to attend school, and there can be no doubt that activists will be even more concerned for their safety than they are already. Will it succeed in silencing Yousafzai and other courageous, educated women speaking out against the tide of militancy? As one brave 14 year old fights for her life, we can only hope that it will not.

Activists carry photographs of Malala Yousafzai. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle