Monday, January 5, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

"I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." These words of Greg Mortenson as he appeared before Congress in 2002 sum up the pervading theme of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea -- the story of Mortenson's amazing journey from aimless rock-climber to fearless humanitarian who tirelessly fights to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Part biography, part promotion, it's impossible to read it without being moved.

Written by David Oliver Relin in collaboration with Greg Mortenson, the book opens in 1993 as Mortenson is returning from a failed attempt at climbing Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest mountain. Brooding over his defeat, he loses track of his guide and ends up lost in the alpine wilderness. He stumbles into a tiny village where he's cared for and nursed back to health. He is moved by the people's generosity despite their crippling poverty. When he sees that they have no school, Mortenson leaves with a promise to one day return and build them one. Mortenson himself is homeless with no steady job, no connections, and no idea how to get started. But with his characteristic passion and tenacity, he forges ahead and his life is changed forever.

Eventually he secures funding and learns through some painful experiences who to trust and how to navigate the complex Islamic world as an American infidel. Once the school is finally finished several years later, he realizes that this is only the beginning. So many Pakistani children suffer from inadequate education and it becomes his life's work to build schools for as many of them as possible. There are inspiring stories of students receiving their first books. ("I didn't dare to open them, they were so beautiful.") Or a clean school uniform. ("[T]hat day I held the first set of clean, new clothes I'd ever owned...And I remember thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn't feel so ashamed.'"). There are also troubling accounts of Wahhabi madrassas -- extremist schools that target millions of impoverished children with "a curriculum that emphasizes jihad and hatred of the West at the expense of subjects like math, science, and literature."

Mortenson is especially interested in the education of girls.
"Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities," he says. "But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."
This attitude earns him some enemies from fundamentalists who don't believe girls should be educated. But I was amazed at how many of the conservative Muslims he met felt passionately about the need for their daughters to be educated. Indeed, this book challenged a lot of my assumptions about conservative Islam, reinforced others, and basically shaped a whole new perspective on life in that part of the world. From the other-worldly geography to the poverty to the politics, I felt like I was seeing things for the first time and realized how very ignorant I am about these things.

On September 11, 2001 Mortenson was near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan when he was informed that "A village called New York has been bombed." Mortenson had already been reaching out to the Afghan refugees who had been pouring into Pakistan for years, but after the US went to war in Afghanistan he felt even more drawn to help the innocent citizens of that country. His first-hand accounts of the things he has seen are stirring and call for accountability from our government to fulfill their promises for humanitarian aid.
"People in that part of the world are used to death and violence," Mortenson said. "And if you tell them, 'We're sorry your father died, but he died a martyr so Afghanistan could be free,' and if you offer them compensation and honor their sacrifice, I think people will support us, even now. But the worst thing you can do is what we're doing -- ignoring the victims. To call them 'collateral damage' and not even try to count the numbers of the dead. Because to ignore them is to deny they ever existed, and there is no greater insult in the Islamic world. For that, we will never be forgiven."

He continues to emphasize that our biggest enemy in that part of the world is ignorance. Desperate people will give their loyalty to whatever force (good or evil) promises them a better life. So goes the story of one young man he meets in Afghanistan:
"Like a lot of Taliban, Hash, as he told me to call him, was a jihadi in theory only," Mortenson explains. "He was a smart guy who would much rather have worked as a telecommunications technician than a Taliban fighter, if a job like that had been available. But the Taliban offered him three hundred dollars when he graduated from his madrassa to join them. So he gave the money to his mother in Khost and reported for weapons training." Hash had been wounded when a Northern Alliance rocket-propelled grenade exploded against a wall where he'd taken cover. Four months later, puncture wounds on his back still oozed infected pus and his torn lungs whistled when he exerted himself. But Hash was ecstatic to be free of the Taliban's rigid restrictions and had shaved off the beard he'd been obliged to grow. And after Mortenson dressed his wounds and treated him with a course of antibiotics, he was ready to swear allegiance to the only American he'd ever met.

Three Cups of Tea
is full of such remarkable vignettes. It's also full of contrasts between what is best and worst in humanity. But ultimately, it offers a message of hope. Consider these words of Ahmed Rashid, author of the bestselling book Taliban:
"The work Mortenson is doing building schools is giving thousands of students what they need most -- a balanced education and the tools to pull themselves out of poverty," Rashid says. "But we need many more like them. His schools are just a drop in the bucket when you look at the scale of the problem in Pakistan. Essentially, the state is failing its students on a massive scale and making them far too easy for the extremists who run many of the madrassas to recruit."
Against that sobering thought, the words of Afghan refugee Fatima Batool shine like a beacon. "I've heard some people say Americans are bad," she says softly. "But we love Americans. They are the most kind people for us. They are the only ones who cared to help us."

Three Cups of Tea has given me a lot to think about. It was hard to keep track of the timeline sometimes, and the constant foreign names and places just sort of blurred together for me. The writing is descriptive and anecdotal to help keep the pace going, though I admit it did put me to sleep a few nights. Reading it during the holidays sure emphasized the polar opposites of our worlds and made me rethink things while I was doing my Christmas shopping! If the average American knows no more about life in Pakistan and Afghanistan than I do, then the average American had better sit down with Three Cups of Tea. I can't stress enough how strongly I recommend it. Through it, Mortenson's mission to fight ignorance in these impoverished nations is having the residual effect of fighting our own cultural ignorance here in America -- with a wonderfully compelling idea to use education to promote peace and change the world.


  1. Here, here! I loved this book. Or, rather, I loved this story. You're right about things blurring together. But it's hard to ruin a story like this. It was inspiring.

  2. I've heard many good things about this book. I'll get it from the library when it stops snowing.

  3. I remember seeing this book at Target and looking at it briefly before moving onto my other shopping. I will definitely need to go back and get it from the library. Thank you.

  4. By the way, I'm glad you put "The Eyre Affair" on your list. I was going to recommend it, since it's the perfect book for a bibliophile, but it's already been recommended. I just finished the 5th book in the series.

  5. I'm adding this to my list. It seems like one that gives great perspective on our pampered, spoiled lifestyles, so I'll save it for when I'm feeling poor or sorry for myself.

  6. I am definately going to have to read this. Thank you! I read kite runner and ten thousand splendid suns. They gave me a better perspectve on the afghan life and has given me more interest to read more.