Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

49436UPDATE: I have since learned that there are serious questions about the veracity of Mortenson’s charity work and story. I have left my original review intact, but readers should read Jon Krakauer’s investigation.

I would not have read this book if it hadn’t been chosen as our campus read. I don’t go for inspirational books because they tend to irritate me something awful. Three Cups of Tea was not bad. It’s a report about Mortenson’s project, the Central Asia Institute, that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in villages that wouldn’t have had schools otherwise.

The first chapters were everything I feared. The narrator, Relin, sounded like he had a serious case of hero worship. And if the saying about the three cups of tea got repeated one more time, I probably would have had to chuck the book across the room and fake it during the book discussion last Thursday. But once Relin got to the genesis of the project, the book improved a lot. Mortenson–whose name is down as an author but who I think was more of a source of information rather than a writer on this one–attempted to climb K2. He got lost on night after evacuating another climber and ended up in a village named Korphe. In gratitude to the Baltis who lived there, Mortenson promised to build them a school. The Pakistani government has little control or influence in this part of the country, and there are no schools or services in northern Pakistan.

Mortenson is not a good fundraiser. His first attempt to get funds involved typing 580 letters and sending them off to various famous and influential people. It was only the sheerest luck that one of those letters ended up in the hands of a philanthropic-minded wealthy scientist. Jean Hoerni, the scientist, gave Mortenson the money he needed to build the school and–after some mishaps and a request from the villagers–to build a bridge across the river that cut Korphe off from the rest of the region. When other local headmen found about the Korphe school, the Baltis requested that more schools be built. Thus, the Central Asia Institute was born. Since that time, almost two decades ago, Mortenson and the other members of the CAI have been raising and distributing money to build over a hundred schools in the region. Unlike other aid efforts, which just disperse money, the CAI’s schools come with strings attached. For example, the members of the villages have to provide the labor to build the school, and the schools have to increase enrollment by girls 10% every year.

After September 11, Mortenson ran into another snag…from the United States government. During the general freak out, the CIA held Mortenson for questioning after his passport was damaged. As well as illustrating how ineffective the initial hunt for Al Qaeda was, the incident also shows just how little we knew (and still don’t know) about this part of the world. We don’t know the languages. We don’t know the ethnic groups. And we definitely don’t understand their world. Even more disturbing than the questioning, Mortenson also started receiving hate mail from Americans once people heard about his project. The ones who sent the mail had tarred all Muslims with the terrorist brush. It was an infuriating passage to read. But I remember those days, when our (Americans) ignorance about Islam was so extreme and when there was so much fear going around. I’m not all that surprised, to be honest. I still got the urge to try and track them down and educate them. But I’ve learned that you can’t easily change people’s minds when there’s fear involved.

Beyond being an inspirational book, this is a good book for learning about what south central Asia is like, how people live, and where terrorists really come from. This book makes the excellent point that education is the silver bullet to stop terrorism. During the latter part of the book, Relin writes about men with suitcases full of money from Saudi Arabia came to set up faux-madrassas. A madrassa is supposed to be a religious school, like a yeshiva or seminary. But the madrassas being set up were just places to indoctrinate children. Mortenson’s schools, were a secular curricula is taught, is an antidote to that. It gives children and their parents an alternative. Mortenson’s schools specialize in teaching girls because, as the man himself points out, girls tend to stay put. The boys take jobs and leave their villages. The girls stay and marry and have children. If you teach the girls to take care of themselves and their families, they pass the benefits on to the next generation.

Not only is this book a good way to learn about south central Asia, but it’s also a good way to learn about Islam. I think Americans have learned more about Islam in the last eight years, but Three Cups of Tea is a good reminder that there are as many varieties of Islam as there are Christianity. While there were two fatwas issued against Mortenson, they were both overturned. The local head imam, Syed Abbas, was a huge supporter and help in the project. He was one of the men who helped Mortenson get those fatwas overturned. In both cases, Syed Abbas and other pointed out that there’s no reason in the Qu’ran or Muslim doctrine not to teach females. The mullahs who issued the fatwas were not “true Muslims.” They were manipulating the religion for their own reasons. Not something unique to Islam, I daresay.

Three Cups of Tea is not a bad book. It content is very interesting and its flaws come from Relin, I think. A critic for Booksmark wrote that “Despite the important message, critics quibbled over the awkward prose and some melodrama. After all, a story as dramatic and satisfying as this should tell itself.” It’s true. Mortenson’s story should have told itself. It didn’t need any dressing up. I was pleased to learn that the man himself is writing a follow up, titled Stones into Schools, about building schools in Afghanistan. I wish him all the luck in the world.