Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson, mountain climber With David Oliver Berlin, journalist

An astonishing and uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones, who, beginning in 1993, waged a humanitarian campaign right under the Taliban’s nose, by building 81 schools, primarily for girls, in Pakistan (including 15 in Afghanistan) serving some 25,000 students by 2009. “If it were possible to clone fifty more Greg Mortenson’s, Islamic terrorism would become a thing of the past.” Wrote John Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air. This mountaineer turned benefactor, Mortenson (“M”), after being touched by the kindness of the gentle Pakistani’s with whom he shared tea – which by local, Pakistani custom, is summarized as “the first cup is as a stranger, the second as a friend, and the third as member of the family”. A very well written chronicle of a modern hero’s determination to persevere against all odds, it resonates with danger, intrigue, romance and Samaritan deeds. Conversely, the Taliban was and is widely hated by Pakistanis for its oppressive rules (full beards for men, burkas for women, no education for women, and conscription of men into the Taliban military, etc.).

Some of the journalist-author’s, Berlin’s, imagery is incisive and lovely . Consider these snippets: “Inhabiting the eye of history’s storm…Snoring in languid concert…the stars pinpricked the fabric of twilight…The night became bitterly crystalline…Profound silence brooded over the valley…the facsimile of sleep that high altitude inflicts…drifting in and out of consciousness to a groaning soundtrack of the glacier’s mysterious inner machinery…sleeping just enough to be thoroughly disoriented…The peaks were painted garish sugary pinks and violets and baby blues and the sky, just before sunrise, was windless and clear…where memory fringes into mere sensory recall…a shard of sun gleamed in her eyes…This riverine corridor carved between 20,000-foot peaks so numerous as to be nameless…this lunar rockscape…The dusty murk along the depths of the gorge and the high-altitude sun brushing the tips of the Himalayan granite towers felt more like his natural habitat…his struggles and insomniacal shifts in America felt as insubstantial as a fading dream…With a mountain climbers fixation…the melt-water from the glaciers boiled down ravines over lichen-covered boulders…these mountainous juts and crags held him…On the top of the overloaded, badly balanced Jeep, Mortenson swayed under a two-foot pile of supplies, yawning irremediably close to the ravines irregular edge, shimmying over mounds of loose rock fall, while glancing tremulously down at the shells of shattered vehicles hundreds of feet below the precipice, where dozens of vehicles plummeted every year…The greater danger in Pakistan is not bullets but the roads…”

Through age 14, Mortenson lived in Africa as a Missionary’s son, then, moved to Minnesota. A good student and athlete, he enlisted in Army on graduation from high school to take advantage of the GI Bill that pays for college later. He climbed every mountain he could, while becoming a Registered Nurse. He lived in his truck or in the most squalid flats or in the barbaric outdoors. A poor budgeter, he was always broke. After deciding to build a school for girls in Pakistan, he calculated that he needed $12,000 to build one school, and raised exactly that. He scrambled and scratched and begged his way through endless donors to build 81 schools, serving 25,000 students by 2009. Sadly, his heroic achievements pale in comparison to the hundreds and sometimes thousands of huge madrassas’ (religious-military schools) that Arab oil money builds every year, to train soldiers and terrorists to fight the West.

After 9/11, Mortenson’s world changed. His endless returns into Pakistani war zones were “as heroic as the firefighters racing up the teeming steps of the burning World Trade Center to save lives.” The good Muslims treated him like a god. The U.S. drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, especially into its mountainous regions, where Mortenson’s schools were being created. American planes endlessly bombed innocent women and children and Pakistani men who were not America’s enemies; these permanently maimed or dead victims were called “collateral damage”, expendable, a “necessary” price of the war, by the U.S. military, and we ignore them. As Mortenson lamented, “There is no greater insult in the Islamic world and, for that, we shall never be forgiven.” In its tribute to Mortenson, the headline of Parade Magazine’s cover, read, “He Fights Terror with Books”. In the article, Mortenson was quoted as forewarning us, “We must win the War on Terror with books, not bombs.” The Obama’s and McCain’s of the word remain deaf to such humanitarian admonitions.

After the Taliban were driven from Afghanistan, the previously non-extant drug trade exploded, and Afghanistan became the source of two thirds of the world’s raw material for the heroine trade. The prosperous opium lords enlarged their militias making local governments largely irrelevant. These armies of drug traders fought the Russians, the Taliban, the Americans and anyone else who trespasses upon their lucrative turf. The U.S. government can take full credit for this change of power in Afghanistan.

In March 2009, Pakistan’s government presented Greg Mortenson with its highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan). He remains a World Icon today, and many celebrities have followed his lead, by funding the widely-publicized construction of low-cost schools in the Middle East and Africa. Mortenson, who eschews publicity and continues to live largely in the basement of his humble home, has generated a loving light which has shown millions a safer road to peace.