Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house
That your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
-TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
For those of us who fell into T.E. Lawrence's account of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turks, Three Cups of Tea should fill a void we've been missing. Like Lawrence, Greg Mortenson is a rare storyteller, adventurer, and former soldier. He's also a father, husband, humanitarian and a fearless taskmaster.

"The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. "The fuel gauges on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable," Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan's most experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn't sure if that was meant to make me feel better."
After a failed attempt to scale K-2, he wanders into the small forgotten town of Korphe, high in the mountains of North East Pakistan. Recovering from his trip, he asks the village chief if he can see the school. Mortenson is taken to an open plot of land where the children are without a teacher. They're seated on the ground, and the wind is blowing their pages. Mortenson pledges to build them a school. This rash decision will lead him to his lifelong cause: breaking the cycle of poverty by providing a balanced education.

But it isn't easy. Along the way, we ride with Mortenson as he works shifts at night as a nurse, trying to save enough money to build his first school. Back in the Bay Area, he lives in squalor, and fruitlessly writes letters to find a benefactor who will underwrite the project. Amazingly, he does. And there starts the tale of buying supplies in a foreign land, underestimating, transporting them on the Khyber Highway in a truck too big for the narrow, winding road. We read about finding a wife, and along the way he gets kidnapped, has two Fatwahs declared against him, and is approached Kirghiz horsemen who have ridden over the Irshad Pass to the equally remote Charpurson Valley in Pakistan to build a school for them. The reader is taken through the "stans," --Baltistan, Waziristan. We learn of the the Wazir, Pashtuns who had not only defeated Alexander, but later, the British as well.

This is a great read not because it's an adventure or a tale of the the human spirit. Three Cups of Tea is essential because it's an approachable primer for those who want to understand how the the Taliban and Al Qaeda used a lack of publicly funded education to their advantage. It's estimated they built twenty thousand schools of their own, known as madrassas. As Mortenson points out, not every madrassa is a hot bed of extremism, but it does give easy access to foment their own interpretation of the Koran.

"They admired war because it was the occupation they could adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to ad gave their lives meaning."
Three Cups of Tea gives the reader a greater understanding of the problems of the region, its tribes and the landscape. More importantly, Mortenson makes a good argument for building schools to break the cycle of poverty and giving reason to go toward a brighter future, offering an alternative to the extremist movement. He, along with other Muslims, views the education of girls as essential to rebuilding peaceful communities. As of 2008, Mortenson's non-profit Central Asia Institute built 78 schools, educating 28,000 students, which includes 18,000 girls. Three Cups of Tea is an incredible story of humanity and offers a deeper understanding to the region in conflict now.

Three Cups of Tea is available in paperback through the site, a portion of which goes to building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.