After losing himself in the Karakoram mountain range amid an effort scale K2 in 1992, Greg Mortenson found his purpose in a mountain village cut off from the world, to bring education to Pakistanis and Afghans who've been neglected by nature and their government. This is the premise of Three Cups of Tea, a book that I've just completed. After a series of British dystopian novels, it was a welcome celebration of humanity in an otherwise harsh part of the world.
The first school was built in a village of Korphe, where boys and girls had practiced math lessons in freezing dirt between weekly visits from an unpaid teacher. Mortenson was so taken by the kindness of the village, he saw the opportunity that was lost as kids had no alternative to the fundamentalist Islamic Madrassas, funded by Saudi petrol dollars.
After donations from a French scientist, Jean Horni, Mortenson set on his path through the Central Asia Institute to build schools and provide non-fundamentalist education to the children of Korphe, and eventually to other villages in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I don't want to teach Pakistan's children to think like Americans," says Mortenson on page 209. "I just want them to have a balanced, nonextremist education."
With such tact to listen to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, to create opportunity through their lenses and viewpoints, Mortenson was able to appeal to actual tenets of Islam, of giving to the community and caring for the poor. Something militant Islam seems to neglect in pursuit of political gains.
Mortenson did face his threats, fatwas by political, fundamentalist Islamic and Taliban leaders. But one of the more heartening parts of the story, aside from a girl from Korphe eventually becoming a doctor and asserting herself in a patriarchal society, is the support Mortenson received from conservative and moderate Islamic leaders.
"There are certain Europeans who come to Pakistan determined to tear Islam down," says Syed Abbas (page 191), a conservative shia leader influential in Iran and Pakistan. "And I was worried, at first, that Dr. Greg was one of them. But I looked into his heart that day at the petrol pump and saw him for what he is -an infidel, but a noble man nonetheless, who dedicates his life to the education of children. I decided on the spot to help him in any way I could."
Syad Abbas would later help to persuade Shia leaders to condemn fatwas against Mortenson, and defend him as a better follower of Islamic tenets of charity than clerics bent on halting the schools.
Such help wasn't a rarity as Mortenson engaged more moderate leaders. After 9/11, Islamic leaders protected Mortenson from harmful actions of fundamentalist militant Islam. This even as Americans were threatening Mortenson and his family with death for "helping those Muslims." Moderate individuals in the region blamed the tragedy of 9/11 and the ensuing war in Afgahistan on lack of education and the head-butting of President Bush and Bin Laden.
"Osama is not a product of Pakistan," says Brigadier General Gashir Baz, on page 310. "... 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."
After reading, similarities between small-town America and small-town Pakistan appear. The belief that if outsiders respected the lifestyle of these groups, and tried to work within that framework, whether it be Evangelist Christianity or Shia Islam, then progressive relationships could create opportunity for understanding.
In America, Evangelists are working with liberals, despite their differences, to lobby for proper stewardship of the environment. In Pakistan, an American can work towards empowering woman in a reinterpretation of Islamic tenets of charity and goodwill.
With the Afghan war increasingly more dangerous, and military leaders still mentioning the "picking off" of Al Queda leaders as the real gains in the "War on Terror," I can only hope that policy makers will gradually see that ideological conflict is better fought with books than guns.
"Before I met you Greg, I had no idea what education was," says Jahan, the first educated woman of Korphe, and granddaughter of Mortenson's mentor and Korphe nurmadhar, Haji Ali. "But now I think it is like water. It is important for everything in life."
Instead of being the humble wife, subject to strict limits on her economic future, Jahan is studying medicine and hopes on building and managing a hospital to help children of her village to find their own way. It's a great story. Even better, it's true.