Sunday, 31 July 2011

Book Review - Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin (with Greg Mortimer)

#65 on my list of 101 Things to do in 1001 days is to read all the unread books on my shelf... okay, shelves... before purchasing any more of them.

The first cab off the rank was Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin, first published by Viking Penguin in 2006.

File:ThreeCupsOfTea BookCover.jpg

It is a story about Greg Mortensen, an American trauma nurse-mountaineer (or perhaps that should be mountaineer-trauma nurse, given the latter only occurred to subsidise the former!) who failed to summit K2 (for all you un-adventurous lowlanders, K2 is the second-highest summit on Earth after Mount Everest, and has the reputation of being the more difficult of the two to climb. One in four die attempting to summit it, a fatality rate second only to Annapurna) in the early nineties, and who, on his way back down the mountain, exhausted and delirious, took a wrong turn and ended up in a remote Pakistani village.

His meeting of the villagers and their hospitality towards this infidel in his moment of need set him on a path to his new calling in life - correcting the vacuum of education and government support by building schools and other life-improving infrastructure (water pipes; sewing facilities for women; very basic first aid clinics in villages (training someone to administer antibiotics, electrolytes and to dress wounds) etc) in Pakistan, and later in Afghanistan.

After leaving Pakistan, Mortensen (or Dr Greg, as he later became known) couldn't shake the image of the Pakistani children doggedly holding school classes outside in the cold, using sticks to do their sums in the dirt. He had made a promise to the village elder that one day he would be back to help the children, and kept his word. He particularly saw the necessity of providing education for girls, which was completely lacking in this impoverished corner of a largely Muslim country.

Having had plans drawn up, he determined that a school could be built for just USD$12,000, but Mortensen struggled badly to raise funds. Everybody was interested in supporting high-profile charities to build schools for the Buddhist Nepalese children (probably because the profile was raised by Sir Edmund Hillary through his philanthropic work), and nobody was interested in helping the unknown entity that is the Muslim Pakistanis. He wrote over five hundred letters to various celebrities who could very well afford such a sum asking for assistance, and was ignored by all. Eventually, scientist Dr Jean Hoerni, a self-made millionaire from the computer industry and fellow lover of mountaineering, bankrolled the first school and eventually enabled the founding of the Central Asia Institute.

Following several false starts and setbacks, with the help of a handful of locals passionate about bettering their childrens' futures, and finding support in the oddest of places, Dr. Greg and the CAI built 55 schools over the following decade (more have been built since). During this process he had jihads declared on him by conservative regional Muslim leaders, and by the Taliban. More than one school was destroyed due to the fear (shared and perhaps incited by the conservative leaders) that Mortensen was attempting to Christian-ise their children (rather, his schools taught a general-purpose, secular curriculum), with especial concern over the fact that he wished to educate girls. Wiser leaders were able to see that by educating their children, particularly girls, they were empowering the next generation to live better lives, and as such the jihads were effectively overruled by high-level religious leaders and by the high courts of Pakistan.

Published in 2006 but not taking off until it was released in paperback a couple of years later, Three Cups of Tea spent 69 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List (non-fiction), and it is easy to see why it held the attention of a nation in the years following 9/11 and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Mortensen's mission to give as many children of this new generation of Pakistanis and Afghans a non-extremist, secular education rather than the extremist Muslim education provided by Saudi-funded, Taliban-run schools is one man's way of ensuring that the next generation does not have the hatred for the Western world that this one does; that they do not resent the West for the destruction wreaked on their country and to their families during the War on Terror.

In case you were wondering, Mortensen did support the American occupation of Afghanistan, but was wise enough to see that there was no surer way to guarantee ongoing hatred for the West and to set ourselves up for future terrorist attacks than by not providing assistance where it was required, especially when the need was caused by the destructive forces of US (and local) military action, and therefore reinforcing the Taliban's anti-Western message. It helped me see that there is a massive difference between a conservative Muslim and an extreme one, and that there is as such much resentment in the region for the Taliban's extremist actions.

This is a well written, inspiring and interesting book, and gives you a rarely-seen insight into rural Pakistan and a different perspective on what the people of the region think of the Taliban. I did not see it as pro-Muslim mission or publication, but rather, a religion-neutral, pro-education, pro-opportunity, pro-humans one, and I recommend reading it.

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