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Book review: “Three Cups of Tea”

I finally picked up Three Cups of Tea after hearing such great things about it from family and friends. This is the true story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountaineer who stumbles into a remote Himalayan village after a failed attempt to climb K2. Grateful for the kindness and hospitality of the villagers of tiny Korphe, Pakistan, and moved by the poverty and lack of education available there, Mortenson promises to return to Korphe and build them a school.

The book recounts Mortenson’s quest to build the school — his return to the States, striving to raise funds, living out of his car, learning about Pakistani culture, networking with people who share his vision. Without any prospective investors in his school, he sends dozens of individually type-written letters requesting funding from famous people he thinks might be interested — Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, etc.

After finally finding an investor, silicon transistor pioneer Jean Hoerni (who suppplements his $12,000 donation with a personal instruction to Mortenson: “Don’t screw up”), Mortenson gets the go-ahead to start work on the school. Returning to Pakistan, he hits a few roadblocks: the near-impossibility of transporting building materials through the perilous terrain around Korphe, the high costs of sturdy materials that will withstand Himalayan winters, the opposition from conservative Muslims to the idea of educating girls. But with the grant money from Hoerni and the help of his Pakistani cohorts, and after many detours along the way, Mortenson reaches his goal of building the Korphe school.

And the rest is history.

Just as intriguing as Mortenson’s transition from mountaineer to humanitarian is the perspective this book provides into the Islamic world. While Mortenson has his share of encounters with the anti-American extremism that plagues the area, he finds much to value in the peaceful Muslims he interacts with. Mortenson sees that despite their poverty and relative “backwardness” to American ways, the villagers have much to teach him about the importance of community and a simple life. Most of the villagers, in turn, see in Mortenson a defection from America’s reputation for arrogance and disrespect toward Muslims. The knee-jerk stereotypes (i.e. all Muslims are jihadists; all Americans are culturally illiterate demagogues) are beautifully deserted.

After 9/11, Mortenson’s school-building quest takes on new meaning. From his perspective as a American intimately familiar with Pakistan, we’re granted a unique vantage point on the war on terror, and the vital long-term role that education can play. It’s brilliant, really. Mortenson observes how much terrorist organizations recruit the uneducated rural poor of Pakistan and Afghanistan, building radical madrassas and brainwashing the kids to become terrorists. Mortenson “competes” with the madrassas by building schools where the kids can get a quality, well-balanced education. He believes in fighting terrorism not with reactive (or preemptive) violence, but with pursuing education and literacy, particularly for girls, as he’s often quoted:

“You can drop bombs, hand out condoms, build roads or put in electricity, but unless the girls are educated, a society won’t change.”

Three Cups of Tea is co-authored by Dalid Oliver Relin and Mortenson himself, with Relin as the ghostwriter through which we see Mortenson’s emotions and personal experiences. This being the first such biographical/autobiographical hybrid book I’ve read, my biggest complaint would be that the writing feels cumbersome and incohesive at times, particuarly when we’re whisked back and forth from objective history-telling to Mortenson’s emotions.

Literary awkwardness aside, I thought this book was fantastic — compelling story, faraway places, adventures of every kind, true tales of goodness. The fact that Mortenson (who’s been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) is able to promote peace in such a hostile place is remarkable. No doubt he put himself in unnecessary danger at times and dealt with personal weaknesses along the way, but his story is classic heroism — a climber’s endurance coupled with unrelenting compassion.

I loved this book; I’m actually kind of sad to be done with it. (That’s how you know a book is good.) Here’s hoping you go buy it right now.

Now, I said — do it!

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