A Different Kind Of Daughter by Maria Toorpakai

arnold palmer bookDate Finished: September 2018
Did I Like It? 9/10

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Maria is tough. Growing up with the Taliban all around her, her Mother and Father gave her the freedom to live as she likes. That meant dressing up as a boy and competing as a weightlifter until the age of 12. She eventually found squash and after a period of time this eventually enabled her to move to Canada. That’s the good side, in the book Maria doesn’t shy away from some of the gory details which you’ll soon understand what I mean by that.

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What I Highlighted:

My family were free thinkers, and it was that quality that would eventually make us outcasts within our conservative tribe, at the same time as it liberated us.

Knowledge itself was a stranger, not to be trusted – or even invited in.

There was a simple harmony in knowing what we were all meant to do, where we all belonged. And we did belong – to our station in the home and to our family’s position within the tribe. I believed this until I stopped belonging.

He told me he hiked for hours that morning to clear his head, tracing the basin edge like the rim of a great bowl. I wax his second daughter, but one week old, born helpless into a pinprick on the surface of a boundless earth, where I could be sentenced to death for pursuing any ambition beyond the roles of dutiful wife and daugther, for nothing more than daring to dream.

I never doubted that myth for a moment.

At barely four years old, crounching under the willow tree and spying on the game, I knew that every dream, I’d ever had was eclipsed – I was hooked.

I had a new knowledge that, however I tried, I could never erase.

But neither clan knew that each faction chose the bride and groom with great care and in secret, not as an offering of peace but as a curse and a sentence.

For a long time I’d hated those boys, now we were one and the same.

Just by listening to my mother and sister speak it, I started to learn the language myself, one word at a time. My father always said that our family was like a facotry, working to make intelligent human beings.

I knew her face well, the sound of her voice a torrent of strength as familiar as my mothers; she was the daughter of our once-great leader Zulfikar, and the first female ever elected to lead a Muslim state. Benazir Bhutto – the only hero Ayesha and I had ever had.

One encounter with her hero heightened Ayesha’s resolve to fulfill her political aspirations, and she never once wavered from that path.

The minute you have a gun, you start planning how to use it.

I would need that story for my heart, far more than he did for his ears. I would need it to remind me that the world is full of people, not religions. Deities and temples don’t make us good – our actions do.

Tolerance was the greatest gift he would ever give me.

At home every member of my family called me Genghis – we all accepted one another as we were. Just as there was more than one way to reach God, I decided that there was more than one way to be a girl.

I didn’t think hard about what I did next. The outcome was already clear in my mind – no one could beat me, not there, not ever.

The fact was, I’d enjoyed the raw excitement of the fight. I’d also loved the feeling of winning.

Rightaway, I identified with the strong and aimless hero battling his demons for recognition in a callous city. What he was doing in the ring, I had just done in the streets. My father was right; the timing was perfect.

You didn’t have to be dead, I thought, looking into the voids of their faces, to no longer be living.

I was poised: they didn’t know I was channeling Rocky, – it was the main reason I was still there.

I had nothing to lose but my pride, and that was all I had worth keeping…

Every adversary hid a fatal weakness; you had to find it and dig your way in – this was what my father had taught me long before I learned about the proverbial Achilles heel.

Somehow, when I centered all of my fury and executed the maneuver in perfect form – stance, breathing, and movement – a weight that should have crushed my bones was briefly under my control.

From that moment of victory, I discovered the linchpin of athletics – winning or losing starts in the brain and travels by a single command to the rest of the body.

My first victory has come as easily as tossing a coin in the air and watching it drop, but as far as pure ambition went, I was a featherweight.

Impending puberty stalked me like a death sentence. I lived on a knife blade.

Just the idea of holding a racquet, hitting the ball against those white walls, made my whole body seem to take flight inside itself.

In my entire life, I’d never been more grateful for a stranger’s smile.

I thought I had found squash, but I believe now that it had found me.

But I knew one thing – inside that cube, I’d just found my game.

It wasn’t just a hobby anymore, an occupation that would keep me off the filthy streets and out of trouble, a way to exercies my untamed aggression. Playing squash became the pursuit of my soul. My father didn’t question my sudden obsessive drive- gone at first light, back all battered and swollen at night. Better a racquet than a gun or a fist.

The paradox was a question of survival for me – with that particular hatred would come a distant respect. If I didn’t annihilate that kid, they’d never let me play the game in peace.

I kept at it because the sport itself – its swiftness and the feel of my racquet hitting the ball – took me out of whatever torments I suffered.

A forgotten switch turned on, and every neglected muscle along my limbs suddenly awakened.

Idleness was a far worse enemy than the boys and their taunts.

How long they lingered at my back, watching that first unbroken set of hits, I’ll never know. Whatever their taunts were that day, they no longer meant anything. And as far as bullies went, my recent experience with the scorpion-smokin assailiant just around the corner from home reducded their efforts to the antics of circus animals.

If I thought about winning, which I did every minute of the day, I though about it first in the context of making good on the expense it took to send me there in those torn clothes and castaway shoes.

I wasn’t offended. It was a routine effort. I’d never felt any embarrassment about my appearance; if I had, I would have changed it long before.

I should have known that more than anyone, those athletic Pakistani girls, all of them pioneers in their own way, would accept me as no one else could.

Despite every ambition, the fissure of doubt that started in my mind during that first match soon tore me right open and settled in. From then on, I was doomed.

Whenever we went into the courts to practice, I got crushed. Still, I didn’t give up, not yet. I simply trained longer. Harder than the other girls.

But even more than winning together, losing together bought us closer as a team. At the end of another punishing set of matches, we would meet in our rooms and share the suffering of our humiliation.

War turned the streets into a rumour mill.

Peace came with the game I played – and I was playing well, all over the country, all the time.

Looking back, I realize the heightened awareness itself was a warning.

Swimming inside his proud eyes, at that moment I felt more like a champion than I ever had – or ever would again.

Gratitude shed years from my father.

My whole life was reconfigured – eating, sleeping, breathing – because of a letter tacked to my father’s hatchback.

I lived in a constant state of agitation – living without living, breathing like an animal, walking fast, eyes darting like prey. The Taliban were terrorizing me in the coolest manner possible – a little bit at a time.

Living with such fear finally sucked the life out of everything.

As an act of defiance and survival, I still played the tournaments.

“Puradah” I breathed the word out loud, looked around at the found walls, all of them closing n. I saw what he did – I was no better than a lost girl out there in tribal lands.

One email multipled more than a thousand times in more than two years; sent out into the ether across millions of miles; landing at universities and colleges, squash camps and academies; illuminating the inboxes of international champions and coaches all over europe.

When I played in that room, I wasn’t there at all: I was at the British Open in London, the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur, in the United States up against the best players in the world – and I won every time.

Once I found that belief, I wrapped it up in my mind like treasure and put it away for later – for when I was free.

If the Taliban didn’t kill me, they believed my purdah would.

It didn’t matter to either one of them that I was a Sunni Muslim and that our people often existed in opposition to one another – we were Muslims, and one way or the other that made us family.

I no longer had the energy to continue living a life of self-imposed purdah.

Something had happened to my mind since I’d been ill. At any given time, an emotion or primal urge could overtake me like a rogue wave. When I was hungry, I gorged. When I was sad, I wailed. When I was tired, I slept all day. When I felt anguish, I raged.

My parents gave the thing I needed most of all – their blessing.

I’ve been trying to explain it. This is the best day of your life, not the worst. It is only the worst if you see it through a lens of fear. Bruce Lee called it having no limitation as a limitation.

By the way he spoke to me about our home, as though reciting a cherished player, I knew I would find safe harbour in his.

I never thought a man like him would help a girl like me. But I was wrong.

I remembered then what I was above all else: my father’s daughter. I was a Wazir. Above all things, that meant not being afraid.

And just like that, we were in a rhythm, like two people playing music. It was all so natural and surreal. I was in a court in Canada. I was in a kitchen in Peshawar. I was holed up in a bedroom afraid to go out. I was in an overgrown field in the dead of the night with my brother, playing the game I loved. I was with Jonathan Power. I was free.

Even with Jonathan at my side, stopping to sign autographes, shake hands, and pose for pictures, they all thought I was going to lose – and maybe that’s why I didn’t.

When I was finished, I thought of my family and of every person who had helped me along the way and I just bowed to the ground saying one thing – merabani, thank you – again and again to them all.

We talked about our mutual drive to win, what it really meant and found our common ground. At first it had been about the accoldaes and later, when there had been more than enough of those, it grew into something greater than any accumulation of spellbinding wins, or even ourselves. At some point, we looked at each other across that polished floor and realised the magnitutde of what had happened to us.

After that, becoming world champion meant more than winning at a game – that ambition transmuted into a new way of life and purpose.

Win or lose, our shared passion for sport unites us all. If more people picked up a racquet as we do, fewer would reach for a gun. And a thank you to the many who tried relentlessly to stop me from playing and living as I am, for making me stronger and giving me a louder voice with which to reach all the girls I left behind.