Friday, January 30, 2009

"Three Cups of Tea"

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

Long before the war in Iraq began, one American was quietly waging peace and fighting against ignorance in remote Muslim villages. Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, an emergency room nurse who often worked shifts no one else wanted so he could pursue mountain climbing. Scaling high peaks was his passion in life until he failed to reach the summit of one of earth’s most challenging mountains in 1993. What felt like failure was the birth of an accidental philanthropist.

After months of conditioning and planning, Mortenson joined a team in 1993 and attempted to climb K2 in the Karakoram Mountain Range, which straddles the border between China and Pakistan. Despite the skill and competence of the other climbers and the knowledge of their Pakistani porters, the team failed. K2 at 28,267 feet above sea level, is among the highest peaks on Earth. Ice, wind, snow, and sun can quickly change climbing conditions, and there is barely enough oxygen to support human life. As a result many, if not most, attempts to reach K2’s summit are futile. When Mortenson’s team aborted their climb, due to the illness and injury of a team member, Mortenson became separated from the team and wandered across the Baltoro Glacier where he nearly died from exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and exposure. Mortenson had the great good fortune to wander into the village of Korphe where he met Haji Ali, whose family took him in and nursed him back to health. This was the turning point in Greg Mortenson’s life.

Mortenson was profoundly grateful to Haji Ali and his wife, Sakina, and their extended family for the kindness and hospitality they had shown him. He ended up spending a considerable amount of time in Korphe and learned much about their way of life, their faith, and the hardships they endured just to eke out an existence. What touched him most of all was the sight of Korphe’s children sitting on the mountain ledge which served as a school room, scratching out their lessons with sticks in the dirt. “I will return to Korphe and build you a school,” he promised his hosts. Three Cups of Tea explains how Greg Mortenson fulfilled that promise not just once, but many times over.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq have long simmered with hostilities. Tribal villages still form the main social structure of much of the Islamic world, and are much more important than national boundaries. Within the Muslim faith, there are two main divisions: the Shiites and the Sunnis. The division happened when the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 AD and left instructions that his cousin (and son-in-law) Ali be his successor, or Caliph. Community leaders, however, did not respect Ali and chose Abu Bakr to be Caliph instead. Across the next few years, a bitter schism festered between the followers of Ali (the Shiites) and the followers of Abu (the Sunnis). The essence of the dispute was whether the Caliph should follow a line of succession, similar to royalty, or be chosen by consensus. Resentment between the two sects boiled over and led to murders and assassinations. In the long run, the Sunnis prevailed and currently represent 85-90% of Muslims world-wide. In spite of their minority status, however, Shiites remain a powerful force in Middle Eastern politics. This is largely due to divisions among various Sunni and Shiite sects, including the Ibadis, Sufis, Wahhabis, Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaydis. While these splinter groups disagree about many aspects of their faith, they do agree on their distrust of outsiders and fear of the corrupting influence of Americans and Europeans.

Greg Mortenson didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he made his promise to build a school in Korphe. Upon returning to the US, following his fateful trip to Pakistan, Mortenson realized the enormity of his commitment. Not only was he poor himself, he didn’t know the first thing about raising money for a charitable purpose, especially for people in a part of the world that most Americans didn’t really care about. Armed with nothing other than determination to keep his promise to Haji Ali, Mortenson found a donor to fund his first school.

That he obtained funding is a testament to his communication and interpersonal skills, that he succeeded in building the school borders on miraculous. There were hundreds of insurmountable obstacles to overcome in order to build the school. Mortenson literally had to build a bridge over a deep and wide ravine before he could deliver the building materials for the school in Korphe. When a local Imam heard of plans to educate girls, he held the project hostage until Mortenson found a way to call his bluff. When funds ran out, Mortenson discovered just how generous Americans can be when they see injustice. It was through a combination of serenity, determination, and love of mankind, that Mortenson found a way around almost every problem which arose.

Mortenson learned early on that Taliban extremeists were filling the heads of villagers with hatred for the United States. With no education or understanding of the larger world, many rural residents of Islamic countries believed the Imams’ propaganda that they and their religion were under siege by “Infidels”. Mortenson understood that the only way to counter this was with education in math, science, language, and vocations, to promote self-sufficiency. Haji Ali and his neighbors very kindly taught Mortenson to let them drive the process; they knew what would work better than their benefactor did. By respecting his friends in Korphe, Greg Mortenson gained their trust and built a reputation as a force of good in Pakistan.

Like most biographers, Mortenson’s co-author David Oliver Relin clearly loves his subject. His introduction, “In Greg Mortenson’s Orbit” is almost reverential. Relin, however, paints a rich portrait of a complicated, intense, and highly unusual person who accomplished Herculean tasks. Interspersed throughout is information about who Osama Bin Laden is and how he became a terrorist mastermind for the Taliban. Various individuals and organizations of the United States government, including the CIA, played significant roles in this story. It is a deeply complicated history of competing agendas which created a nearly ungovernable region.

In his recent book about his years as a White House press secretary, Scott McClellan claims that President Bush’s goal from the start was to spread democracy. Not everyone believes this to be true, and certainly many Muslims did not. Reading Three Cups of Tea helped me understand how unrealistic a goal this was. Democracy is an ancient idea and existed in several societies throughout history. It requires a “social contract” in which everyone agrees to share power and decision-making for the good of society. The Bush Administration’s fundamental mistake was believing that Iraqi citizens, freed of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, would rally together and have their own version of the Constitutional Convention, such as that of 1787 in the United States of America. Instead, invading Iraq destabilized the nation and gave religious fanatics hard evidence that the “Infidels” were out to destroy Islam. By the time Saddam Hussein was captured, life in most of Iraq had descended into chaos.

While it seems that there is no end in sight for the war in Iraq, Three Cups of Tea offers inspiration for a way out: educating boys and girls, men and women, without a political agenda, so they can prosper in their own way and at their own speed. Greg Mortenson with no training or experience in foreign relations and diplomacy created pockets of good feeling towards Americans by helping Pakistanis in remote areas help themselves. The Taliban thrives on ignorance and hardship; education and self determination give people hope and an alternative to religious fanaticism. When Greg Mortenson learned to stop talking and to listen with an open heart and mind to the people he wanted to help, obstacles to building schools disappeared, doors opened, and new resources appeared. . If we want to see our troops come home we would be wise to find ways to emulate Greg Mortenson’s approach to waging peace.

This book reminded me of the aphorism “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” The schools built by Greg Mortenson are teaching Pakistanis that the world is bigger and kinder than local religious fanatics would have them believe. Three Cups of Tea also reveals Muslims to be a gentle and hospitable people. The title comes from the understanding that doing business with Muslims takes a little time and ceremony. The first cup of tea is between strangers, the second between friends, and the third cup of tea makes one part of the family. Once that level of intimacy is achieved, the host family will do anything for their guest, even die.

Three Cups of Tea teaches many lessons. First, one person can indeed make a difference. Second, behind the Islamic terrorists and religious fanatics there are people in families and villages who would love to live in a more democratic society, but first they must be educated and given tools for self-sufficiency. Finally, national unity is far less important than tribal and religious identity. By failing to learn these lessons before going into Afghanistan and Iraq, our leaders set us up for a long, bloody, and exhausting war which may never result in a better life for Iraqi citizens. I believe that if the next administration required all staff to read Three Cups of Tea, the “cradle of civilization” might begin to look less like a grave.

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