She will come back…..she has to come back. Though the girls were supposed to be working, Azra’s deep, dark- chocolate eyes were fixed on the empty chair, the only one without an owner, towards the far corner of the room. She has to….
“Azra? Are you working? Talk to Syeda and Nasim - this is a group project.” She looked up, her beige hijab rustling, to see her teacher staring right at her. Gulping, she nodded, and turned towards the two other girls at their trio of desks, but they appeared not to have heard the teacher, and continued chatting to one another. Azra sighed. Syeda and Nasim were not really mean - not outright - but they had never talked to her either. All of her classmates were that way. To them, Azra was simply another girl in a headscarf, one of the few lucky enough to attend school in Swat Valley, Pakistan - but a girl who’s near-complete silence made her easy to ignore. Since her family moved to Swat Valley, two years ago, Azra had barely spoken, even to her own family. If her brother, Kiran, had been there, it would have been different -but his death in the Taliban’s attack on their previous home on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border were the reason that they had fled in the first place. No one in Azra’s family minded her silence - all of them grieved Kiran, but in many different ways. Still, though she knew she was incredibly lucky to be in school and safe at the same time, she couldn’t help feeling lonely. There was only one classmate who had ever talked to Azra….and now she might never come back.
Malala. Azra’s thoughts settled upon her once again, as they had for the past three days - though she was usually a conscientious student, her mind had been occupied with only this. Malala Yousafzai had been kind to her - a bit distant, but the kindest person that Azra had known for a long time. And she had been so passionate, so tenacious, about what she was doing - talking about education for all, and equality and an end of terrorism…. But it backfired, didn’t it? Three days ago, Malala and two of the other class members had been shot by the Taliban, riding home from school on the bus. Azra hadn’t been there, but she had heard about it - the bullet had pierced Malala’s neck, head and shoulder. They did not know her condition anymore, but Azra doubted that it was good. Not many survive gunshots. I should know. But she has to come back…..she can’t die….She wished that there was something that she could do, but she wouldn’t even know how to begin…..She was just another of them, her dark eyes and deep black hidden under a soft white headscarf….
“Class dismissed!” the teacher announced, striding to the front of the room, his white robe and black beard flowing behind him.
“You can go...If you didn’t finish the work, there will be more time….Be careful.” he remarked, eyes scanning them as if wondering which of them would disappear from school next. As Azra stood, clutching her books, she turned, but again, Malala’s burgundy chair and desk caught her eye. It looked so barren, lonely even now that none of the other chairs around it were occupied…. And suddenly, she knew what to do. It was just there, a rush of determination, of steely courage, in her mind: a solution, if she could make it happen. It was almost too late. The teacher was herding the girls out the door, the last of them snatching supplies and babbling to each other on their way out. Find your voice. Find your voice!! She needed to speak….and all she could see was Kiran, beaming his teasing smirk, ruffling her hair and scoffing, “Will you be quiet for a change? You talk constantly…” Help me Kiran, my dear, dead brother. Help me to speak up...to do this for Malala…. They were gathered at the door now, almost out-
“Wait.” The room fell silent, the sound spat out, a high whisper. In unison, everyone turned, wondering who had spoken. Then, their eyes fell upon Azra. Several girls exchanged incredulous looks.
“Y-Yes, Azra?” the teacher stammered, regaining quick control. “What is it?” Azra swallowed, feeling their eyes upon her. But she opened her mouth again, and her voice, smooth and soft, like honey, rolled out.
“We kept Malala’s chair empty. We left notes on it, for when she returns. But that’s not enough, not for what the Taliban did to-to one of us.”
“Azra-” the teacher began, but Azra kept going, her voice slowly gaining strength.
“We should protest.” she stated, and everyone’s eyes widened in surprise.
“I know that it is dangerous.” she continued. “But perhaps the Taliban think that there will be no more trouble from us now that Malala is gone, that we will be too frightened and timid to continue what she started - and we should prove them wrong. We can all fight for change, for our rights against tyranny - even if she may be gone. Because that’s what Malala would want - us to keep doing what needs to be done, even if she isn’t here to help us. We should do this for ourselves, for what the world needs - for Malala.” She stopped, out of breath, her throat sore from saying more words in a minute than she had for the last month. She trained her eyes on the floor, afraid of what they would say - especially to her. The girl who was too timid to even speak up in class, suggesting a protest against the Taliban? The silence stretched on, like an unbreakable rope, and finally she forced her face back up to the class’s. Her teacher was staring at her, and she thought that she could see both a gleam of happiness and a tear twinkling in his eye.
“Azra,” he announced. “That is a wonderful idea.”
She noded tensely, then took a deep breath and turned to her classmates. They began, one by one, then in pairs and small groups, to nod. Azra did not smile - she had not smiled for two years either - but inside, something glowed throughout her chest. I did it. I actually did it. Oh, Kiran, if only you were here to see this…. The girls had begun to babble excitedly, and her teacher had to raise his voice to be heard.
“Alright, quiet!” He strode back to the front of the room, then smiled, looking at them all - but Azra in particular - with deep pride.
“Let’s get to work.”
… … … …
A week had past, and they were ready. Azra now stood outside the school, situated along a sandy road and surrounded by a wire fence on three sides and desert on the other, keeping watch, as her classmates, their families, and anyone else willing to participate readied themselves for the protest. They would march, chant, and defy the Taliban in general - and hope to survive. Azra’s chest tightened with worry. What if I am leading these people to their deaths? What would Malala do? But she barely had to think before she knew the answer to that question. Malala would lead the protest, because everyone there had agreed to do it, and because they might be able to make even a small difference. She nodded, feeling the warm glow in her chest again. The past seven days had been strange - Azra had been talking - sharing ideas, encouraging her neighbors to help, directing her classmates - so much that her voice was hoarse. But, between what they were doing now and the news that Malala was still alive, and had been moved to a hospital in Birmingham, England,for even better treatment, she had not been so happy in a long time either. Even her own family was coming to the protest - the family that she could still touch and talk to, that was.
Oh, Kiran, where are you? And then she looked up, into the fading twilight, and found her answer. In the stars, just beginning to twinkle and glimmer above them in the great indigo dome of the sky, she could see the curve of her brother’s chin, the shine of his smile….the soft light of his eyes, watching her from above. And she knew that Kiran was there, looking over her, and that he would always be there, shining in the sky of the country that she was now fighting to live safely in. Oh my brother…..
“Azra?” The door of the school opened behind her, and her teacher stepped out. Behind him, she could see the shadowed mass of people - all of the protesters, ready. She saw some of her classmates grin at her, and her mother, at the front of the crowd, incline her head and smile proudly.
“I’m ready.” she replied softly, finally smiling back. She was - ready to fight for her education, for the peace that everyone around her deserved, for her classmates and neighbors themselves. For Kiran. For Malala. So Azra, the girl who was no longer afraid to speak, who would, for the night, take Malala Yousafzai’s place in the fight for education and peace throughout the world, stepped away from the shadows, followed by a crowd of Pakistanis just as devoted as her. Together, as their voices rose and fell in waves, echoing into the distance, they marched away into star-filled hope.