Thursday, July 16, 2009
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
There are times when people recommend books to me, saying "You need to read this," or, "I think you'll enjoy this book," and I take their recommendation seriously. I'll put it on my Amazon wish list and then go on with my life. If I see it on the bookshelves, and my mood is right, I might pick it up. I take recommendations seriously, of course, but I know that they're usually not imperative, in the same way that, say, a doctor recommends quitting smoking because your lungs resemble overcooked corned beef hash.
In this case, however, the recommendation was done by my stepfather, who gave a copy of this book to everyone for Christmas. Seriously, we were opening presents on Christmas morning, and by the time I picked up his present, the whole room chimed in with, "Three Cups of Tea!" Which, indeed, it was. To me, this counts as high praise and an imperative recommendation. I don't usually buy books for people unless I'm damn sure they'll like it, and I have never bought multiple copies of the same book to give to everyone I know. Even though this was a book I probably never would have bought for myself, I bumped it up in my reading queue and proceeded to devour it in a few days.
Now I understand.
This is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American man with a passion for climbing, and his story begins with a failure. He wanted to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world and arguably one of the toughest, as a tribute to his sister who had died some time before. He attempted the climb in 1993 but did not succeed. Indeed, on his way down the mountain, he got lost, and getting lost in that part of the world was close to a death sentence. In the cold and rarefied air, where he couldn't be certain of living through the night, Mortenson's life was saved by a tiny village called Korphe in northern Pakistan.
The residents of Korphe took in this starving, half-frozen American man and helped him get well enough to return home. They showed a stranger great compassion, sacrificing resources that they would need for themselves in order to get through the winter. That in itself would make for a great story. But what happened while in Korphe is the trigger for everything that came next.
While the elder of the village, Haji Ali, showed his village to their guest, Mortenson was stunned by their poverty. Women and children died young, from diseases and problems that are unknown to us in the west. They had no electricity and no running water, and lived lives that were unforgivably hard. But what struck him hardest was the children trying to learn. They had no school - the government of Pakistan was extraordinarily cheap when it came to funding education in its more far-flung villages - but the children were still trying to learn. They would sit outside in the cold and the wind, scratching their numbers in the dirt, trying to learn the lessons that their part-time teacher left for them.
Upon seeing that, Mortenson made a promise to Haji Ali and the village of Korphe: he would build them a school.
I imagine that, looking back on that moment, Mortenson himself is probably amazed by how radically those few words - "I will build a school." - would change not only his life, but the lives of thousands more people around the world.
The book is an account of how Mortenson went about building the school for Korphe, and what resulted from that effort. Just getting that school built was a challenge, financially, personally and spiritually. In addition to the basic fund raising problems that would accompany any such effort, he also had to deal with haggling in a foreign land, keeping other villages from stealing his resources to build schools for themselves, religious fatwas against him, and the discovery that before he could build a school, he would have to study up on bridge-building. Indeed, even once he got all the material into the village, there were cultural divides that put the whole process in jeopardy.
In order to fulfill his promise to Haji Ali and the people who had helped make the school possible, Mortenson had to learn how to work with the people of northern Pakistan, and that's where the story gets interesting. He did not come to them as a savior. He came to them as a partner. He paid special attention to observing their customs and respecting their ways. Though not a Muslim, Mortenson learned how to pray as a Muslim and how to use the tenets of Islam to ensure that he didn't sabotage his own efforts. He made it very clear that the school he built - and all the schools that came afterward - were not his schools. They were built by and belonged to the people of those villages, the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By helping them help themselves, Mortenson became a figure of hope for many remote and uneducated parts of Central Asia.
His charitable works aside, there is another level to this story, one that the writers take great pains to illustrate.
When 9/11 hit, many people's first reactions - including mine - were rage. And we thought of our response the way nations throughout history have: a violent one. Planes and guns and bombs, that's what would show them who's boss! But as time passed, and the initial rage wore down, it became pretty clear that violent retaliation probably wouldn't work on the kind of people who were willing to kill themselves in the name of ideology. There was no way that military attacks would eradicate terrorism. They might allow us to reduce their resources and their personnel, and it looks really good on CNN, but the root causes of terrorism would remain: ignorance and hatred.
I remember telling someone that if we want to stop terrorism, we have to eliminate the reasons for terrorism. We have to educate people and raise their hopes for the future. We have to show them an alternative to the mullahs and the radicals and show them that it is better to raise themselves up than to tear other people down.
Naturally, in a post-9/11 world, I was mocked for my bleeding-heart, peacenick ideas and told that I didn't know anything about anything.
I am gratified to know that I was not the only one thinking that, and even more grateful to know that people like Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute were working with the same goal in mind. By building schools where there were none, by educating women and girls and teaching them to honor their own goals and potential, and by engaging with the vast majority of non-terrorist residents of Central Asia, Mortenson has probably done far more to promote peace in that corner of the world than any military force could. He has not only helped people help themselves, he has shown the compassionate, generous side of America that the proponents of radical Islam ignore. Thousands of students have passed through those schools, which means that there are thousands fewer people who might be willing to die in the name of a warped terrorist ideology.
It's a great book, which opens a vivid window into a part of the world that most Westerners greatly misunderstand. It illustrates the wide variety of cultures and peoples that live in Central Asia, and the cultural history that has given rise to such a potential for conflict. The writing is very engaging, and there were a few points where I thought that the landscape descriptions were worthy of Tolkien - high praise indeed, I should think.
However, if I do have one problem with the book, it does fall with the writing. Aside from its melodramatic turns from time to time (when Mortenson gives a speech to a nearly empty room, you can practically hear the violins in the background), there's a bias problem that bothered me. From the very beginning, Mortenson's co-author, David Relin, admits that he supports Mortenson's agenda in Central Asia. That would be fine if he weren't presenting himself as a journalist, but since he is, I spent most of the book wondering how much of the drama was polished up to make for a more compelling story (which would, in turn, lead to more public support for Mortenson).
Indeed, Relin tells in his introduction how Mortenson gave him a list of enemies, saying, "Talk to them, too." But the only actual criticism of Mortenson came from some CAI colleagues who said, in essence, "He just works too darn hard!" Any other enemies of Mortenson's were either non-existent or caricatured, like the mullahs who brought their gangs of toughs to try and stop the building of schools. The opposition to his work was used as a set up to remind us how awesome he was. For example: several times, local religious leaders pronounced fatwas against Mortenson and his organization. Mortenson's supporters in Pakistan then turned to the highest Islamic court in Qom, Iran, for their judgment in the matter. In what was admittedly a very dramatic scene, the court's decision was revealed: Mortenson's work was the kind of work that Allah would have any Muslim do, and there was to be no opposition by any Shia against him.
And that was that. As far as we, the readers, know, those angry mullahs just said, "Oh. Okay then, where shall we lay the foundation?"
Other than the somewhat messianic tone of the book towards Mortenson, I found it very compelling and enjoyable. It's good to know that there are people like him out there, who are so single-minded in the pursuit of doing the right thing that they will overcome any obstacle in their path to see that it is done. It is also a refreshing view of an all-too-often misunderstood part of the world, a place which we really do need to understand if we ever want to bring the age of terror to a close.
So, I recommend this book. I may even put it up on Bookmooch to see that it gets around. But if you're feeling bleak about the future of the United States' relationship with the rest of the world, this will make you feel a little better. Go read.
"You have to attack the source of your enemy's strength. In America's case, that's not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise, the fight will go on forever."
- Brigadier General Bashir Baz, Three Cups of Tea
Greg Mortenson at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea at Wikipedia
Central Asia Institute at Wikipedia
Three Cups of Tea homepage
Central Asia Institute homepage
Pennies for Peace
The Gion Festival at Wikipedia