NY: Viking, 2006.
ISBN (hardcover) 0670034827 9780670034826
ISBN (paper) 9780143038252
An interesting variation in the subtitle of David Oliver Relin’s telling of Greg Mortenson’s story illustrates two ways to sell the book. The hardcover book calls itself “One man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations-- one school at a time.” The paperback edition titles itself, “One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time.”
The work offers a creative nonfiction account of a mountaineer who stumbles off the Himalayan peak K2 in 1993. Taking a life-threatening wrong path, he stumbles into an unmapped village far from his intended landing. It’s a life-changing error, both for the mountaineer and the villagers who save Mortenson’s life.
During his recuperation in the village, Mortenson observes the village girls conducting school in the open air because they have no teacher nor a structure. He promises to return and build the girls a school. The adventurer’s gratitude takes on missionary zeal and he cannot stop with the one promise, instead devoting his career to building schools for girls across rural Pakistan. By September 11, 2001, Mortenson’s success has led him to Afghanistan, where he runs afoul of the Taliban, opium traders, moujahedeen, and the CIA. Here is the source of the spin given by the hardbound subtitle as the final chapters of the story focus on Mortenson’s experiences in Afghanistan. It’s an inescapable perspective, but the paperback volume’s subtitle about peace more accurately describes the likely outcome of Mortenson’s actions had there been no attack by the U.S., and a workable strategy should our nation choose alternatives to invasion and religious enmity.
The girls and villages benefiting from Mortenson’s work are Muslim. Mortenson is the son of Christian missionaries and not a convert to Islam. While religious schism plays little role in Mortenson’s commitment, it informs the story in surprising ways. The fathers and village men do not oppose education for their girls, yet one conservative cleric declares fatwa on Mortenson’s efforts, preventing building schools in the region. All of Mortenson’s local supporters are Muslim, too, but are powerless to intercede directly on his behalf. Instead, they petition the “supreme leader” of the Shia in northern Pakistan, who not only declares the fatwa inconsistent with Islam, Syed Abbas offers his wholehearted support to Mortenson’s project.
The story of Mortenson’s various projects fills the book with numerous emotional peaks. Dismal stories of government incompetence, generations of neglect, and abject poverty are sure to be depressing. Then, when the reader gets to see villagers hauling heavy loads up steep mountain tracks, followed by frantic construction ahead of winter culminating in the opening of a girl’s school, knowing that these children’s lives have changed forever is sure to bring tears to all but the most cynical eyes.
Three Cups of Tea offers a compendium of intercultural communication. “Dr. Greg,” as Mortenson is known, adapts to local custom. A natural linguist, he becomes proficient enough to earn the honor explained by the title. Mortenson’s second father, Haji Ali, teaches him that the first cup of tea taken with a villager is taken as a stranger and given out of obligation. The next cup is offered for a guest. The third cup makes one a member of the family.
Perhaps guilelessness helps. In one frightening instance, Mortenson disregards a friend’s advice never to travel alone. He finds himself imprisoned by a warlord and seems at risk of being executed. Beheading has not yet reached the news, so Mortenson fears only being shot. He doesn’t speak the captor’s tongue—he is blazing a trail into new territory—and requests a Koran. Having learned the proper manner of ablution from one informant, and how to read the pages from an illiterate, Mortenson makes a favorable impression. Doubtlessly, the captors have checked out Mortenson’s background and they release him.
Mortenson’s good works created a good name for “Dr. Greg.” As he advances into Afghanistan’s northern frontier, he goes in search of the principal commandhan of Badkshan, a man described as tying spies between two jeeps and pulling their bodies apart, the fiercely reputed Sadhar Khan. Alone and lacking any documentation, having sneaked into town hidden under rotting goat hides, Mortenson approaches a jeep of substantial appearing men. In a strange coincidence, or perhaps a bit of fiction has sneaked under the radar here, when Mortenson says he’s looking for Sadhar Khan, the driver says he is Khan! After a few moments explaining why he’s here, Khan shouts, “You’re Dr. Greg!” A couple years earlier, some riders had appeared near the Pakistan border after an eight day ride, beseeching Mortenson’s building a school for their village. Mortenson had promised he’d see what he could do and was in Badkshan looking to keep that promise. The riders were employees of Sadhar Khan, and they had related the story of the schools and water projects Dr. Greg was fomenting.
Three Cups of Tea has won numerous prizes. The CAI, Central Asia Institute, lists them on their website:
Kiriyama Prize - Nonfiction Award, Time Magazine - Asia Book of The Year, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association - Nonfiction Award, Borders Bookstore - Original Voices Selection, Banff Mountain Festival - Book Award Finalist, Montana Honor Book Award. Throughout the book, however, come allusions to the ultimate prize, the Nobel Peace Prize. Cynics might point to the softcover subtitle as evidence of a campaign to garner that for Mortenson and his CAI. The hagiographic treatment of Dr. Greg’s career might offer support for that view, if not for the actual good that inheres in building schools for girls in the middle of a culture that putatively forbids that type of education.
There may be a segment of reader who would dismiss Three Cups of Tea as one of the “blame America first” crowd. The “fighting terrorism” spin might support that view. For example, as the book draws to a close we see Mortenson meeting Donald Rumsfeld and being fascinated by the man’s expensive and highly polished shoes. Mortenson addresses a military audience at the Pentagon and relates the contradiction between the U.S. war machine and the need for security, telling them:
“these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missile tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?”
Mortenson has his day before the military to no impact, except for a man who offers him unlimited funds to build schools. But Mortenson recognizes his doom would come from any association with the military and he turns down the bribe. Later, he discusses terrorism and security with a Pakistani Major General. They are watching CNN images of civilian casualties in Baghdad. (p. 310)
“Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”
“Osama had something to do with it, too,” Mortensen said.
“Osama, baah!” Bashir roared. “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. 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.”
To writer David Oliver Relin’s credit, he controls the political spin exemplified here, spinning out just enough politics to contrast with the warmth and love that fill the first two hundred pages of the book. It’s clear why the hardcover came out with the “fighting terrorism” tag, given the closing pages’ focus on the existing conditions Mortenson works under. That he’s continuing the work building schools for girls in Muslim countries—and finding support from religious and ordinary citizens—is truly encouraging. Wouldn’t it be great if some reader in political authority is reading and learning the cultural lessons of this hopeful book?
That’s the final Tuesday of leap year February. La Bloga welcomes your comments and responses to what you read, or don’t read here. And, as we frequently offer, we welcome guest columnists. Let us know by leaving a comment, or email here, that you have something to say.