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*****Three Cups of Tea

One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations. . .
One School at a Time

by Greg Mortenson

with David Oliver Relin

Reviewed June 30, 2006.
Viking, New York, 2006.  338 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (MCN 371.822).

Greg Mortenson’s story began when he failed to reach the top of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.  On the way down, he took a wrong turn and wound up collapsing in a small village in northern Pakistan.  The kind people took him in and cared for him.  When “Dr. Greg” got better, he looked at the village.  He saw the girls trying to learn outdoors, in wind and weather.  He made a rash promise to come back and build them a school.

It was extremely difficult to keep that promise, with very little money.  He tried sending letters to rich people, but 500 letters only got one response.  Eventually, he found a sponsor through his mountaineering connections, someone who had also seen the need in that part of the world.

So Dr. Greg went back and took on the adventure of buying the materials for a school and getting them to the remote village.  After buying the goods, he found many other people wanting him to build the school in their villages.  When he finally reached the village where he had promised to return, he found that he needed to build a bridge before he could get the supplies into the village.

The book tells of Mortenson’s continued efforts.  After he went back to America to try to raise money for a bridge, he lost his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment.  But he kept going, and eventually one thing led to another, and he is now the head of Central Asia Institute, which builds schools all over remote Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The schools allow both girls and boys to be educated, with whole new possibilities open to them.

Greg Mortenson is not a Muslim, but he works with Muslims and respects their beliefs.  When a village leader issued a fatwa against him because he hadn’t paid a bribe to build a school, the case was tried in shariat court, and the fatwa was overturned.  “ ‘It was a very humbling victory,’ Mortenson says.  ‘Here you have this Islamic court in conservative Shia Pakistan offering protection for an American, at a time when America is holding Muslims without charges in Guantanamo, Cuba, for years, under our so-called system of justice.’”

His work began years before September 11th, 2001, but naturally after that the climate changed drastically.  A mullah was scheduled to speak at a school dedication a few days later.    Part of his speech included, “These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to show our Muslim children the light of education….I request America to look into our hearts, and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people.  Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education.  But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit.  In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.”

After 9/11, Mortenson’s work got more attention.  He told a congressman, “I don’t do what I’m doing to fight terror.  I do it because I care about kids.  Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities.  But working over there, I’ve learned a few things.  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.”

In another comment he said, “People in that part of the world are used to death and violence.  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.”

A Pakistani friend also had good insight on the situation.  “Osama, baah!  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.  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.”

An Afghani warlord also spoke with eloquence.  “ ‘Look here, look at these hills.’  Khan indicate the boulderfields that marched up from the dirt streets of Baharak like irregularly spaced headstones, arrayed like a vast army of the dead as they climbed toward the deepening sunset.  ‘There has been far too much dying in these hills,’ Sadhar Khan said, somberly.  ‘Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahadeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban.  Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile,’ Khan said, turning to face Mortenson.  ‘We must turn these stones into schools.’”

At the start of the book, the co-writer, David Oliver Relin, says, “As a journalist who has practiced this odd profession of probing into people’s lives for two decades, I’ve met more than my share of public figures who didn’t measure up to their own press.   But at Korphe and every other Pakistani village where I was welcomed like long-lost family, because another American had taken the time to forge ties there, I saw the story of the last ten years of Greg Mortenson’s existence branch and fork with a richness and complexity far beyond what most of us achieve over the course of a full-length life.”

“As I found in Pakistan, Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute does, irrefutably, have the results.  In a part of the world where Americans are, at best, misunderstood, and more often feared and loathed, this soft-spoken, six-foot-four mountaineer from Montana has put together a string of improbable successes.  Though he would never say so himself, he has single-handedly changed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and independently won more hears and minds than all the official American propaganda flooding the region.

“So this is a confession:  Rather than simply reporting on his progress, I want to see Greg Mortenson succeed.  I wish him success because he is fighting the war on terror the way I think it should be conducted.  Slamming over the so-called Karakoram ‘Highway’ in his old Land Cruiser, taking great personal risks to seed the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.

Relin has communicated this vision, and completely won me over as well.  I almost cheered when I saw this book had made The New York Times Bestseller List.  I hope that many, many people hear about what Mortenson is doing and support his work.  Fighting evil with good is wondrously more effective than bombs.

Besides that, along with all the inspiration, you’ll get a fascinating, gripping, and well-told story.  How can you go wrong?

You can find out about Central Asia Institute at

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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