Book Reviews Great Lives

Pages to light the dark paths to freedom of ‘a thousand Maria’s’

Jo Manby

A Different Kind of Daughter – The Girl who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight
by Maria Toorpakai with Katharine Holstein. First published in the UK by Bluebird (2016). This edition Bluebird (an imprint of Pan Macmillan): London, 2017

Maria Toorpakai is Pakistan’s number one female squash player, and is a professional player now living in Canada. This autobiography follows her journey.

image show the book cover, showing a girl holding a scraf blowing in the wind, silhouetted against a sunsetIn her prologue, Maria says ‘I needed to be outside, under the open sky and running free.’ However, born and brought up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), specifically Waziristan, in Pakistan, this kind of behaviour was forbidden by tribal law. Even more punitive and suffocating were the edicts of the Taliban, which began to invade people’s lives in this conflicted area and beyond during Maria’s childhood and teens.

Fortunately Maria was born to ‘maverick’, free-thinking parents, themselves teachers and academics. When, still only aged four, she told her father she would rather wear boys’ clothes, he laughed and bought her a yellow T-shirt and shorts. Soon after, she made a pyre of all her richly decorative dresses in the yard of their home, dousing it in kerosene, and ‘all those beads and crystals sparked, destroyed in an explosion of hot embers rising straight into the blue sky’. She immediately put on her brother’s plain shalwar kameez, hacking off her long hair with a sharp knife.

This book is dazzlingly written. The taut, distinctive strength of the words with which she carves up her world is astonishing. When she describes the burning dresses, you feel your own breath stolen from your lungs in the updraft. When she talks about domestic chores you can taste the food: ‘playing mother, washing clothes, killing quail with a sling-shot… we ate chutneys made from mint and guava.’ Before she saw the sea, ‘monsoons and oceans were but beautiful rumors, biblical tales told by old men, patches of blue on a map.’ On her first flight she looks out of the plane window to see ‘silver wings dipping into a long glide over the Bay of Bengal, whose waters married into the Andaman Sea.’

Maria’s father, Shamsul Qayyam Wazir (aka ‘Shams’), had a habit of bringing home ‘lessons’ for his children (Maria has three brothers, and a sister, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, who has become the youngest member of the Pakistan National Assembly and is a Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf [PTI] politician). He ‘had a way of finding and bartering for dilapidated curiosities that were like tiny windows out into the big world… Sometimes he came back with people instead of things…’ Maria was excused school and allowed to run free as a boy known as Ghengis Khan for years, in return for keeping the home in order and looking after her twin brothers. Much of the intensity with which she lives her life comes from the sense of wonder instilled by Shams.

Maria was looking after the baby twins when one of them became inconsolable. ‘The Saraiki woman across the way caught his bloodcurdling cries… grabbed him from me… ’, ran, with Maria, into a neighbouring house, where a Pashtun woman from the Afridi tribe ‘sat on a raft of cushions’, a sleeping baby alongside her. The Afridi woman fed Sangeen with her milk, while the woman of the house chanted a mantra ‘filled with a lulling translucent poetry… I felt her meaning, though I couldn’t decipher a word.’ In this magical, spiritual home, Maria saw flickering candles, a white lotus flower in a bowl of water, pictures of gods and goddesses, holy men and prophets, figurines, a cross. ‘Deities seemed to whisper through the house.’

This experience led to a key spiritual insight, one of many that adorn the book. Shams later took her by the shoulders and ‘smiled a long while, as though he saw a sun shining deep within me… with a ringmaster’s flourish [he] rolled out a giant map of the world, unravelling its four corners over the ground…’ He explained that the Saraiki house was the home of a religious scholar ‘who has as many questions as she has books in her house.’ Then he led Maria to the recognition that it is uncertainty itself that binds us all together and that many people have many ways to reach one God.

Running concurrently with the story of Maria’s life is the trajectory that drives her towards her ultimate goal – to be a world champion squash player. She passed as a boy to be able to play sports. She had to spend three years in purdah, shut in her room practising squash on the four walls of it, because when she was older and could no longer pass as a boy it became too dangerous for her to play in public. She had, towards the end of her book, to have personal security in operation, receiving credible Taliban death threats. But nothing could stop her. As Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner, puts it, ‘Maria is a true inspiration.’ Eventually she has made a new life for herself in Canada through the assistance of the one-time world champion squash player, Jonathon Power.

This book can be found in the Arts, Sports and the Media section of our library, ref AR.7.01/TOO and in the Library catalogue.

More about Maria Toorpakai:


By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

3 replies on “Pages to light the dark paths to freedom of ‘a thousand Maria’s’”

Inspiring, I want to find out more and also whether she won any big games before she received death threats. Maria is an inspiration not only to girls and women around the world but to everyone that has to struggle to do what they love in sports,

Hi Quyen, thank you for your comment. Soon after she started competing as a woman in Pakistan, Maria began to receive the death threats. But prior to that she had won a silver award for weightlifting aged 12 ‘after barely eight weeks in the sport’ and she won first place in the under-13 category at the 2002 Hashim Khan Junior Squash Championship, while still passing as a boy.

And you’re right – she is an inspiration to anyone in the field – and indeed beyond! – Jo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s