Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea; One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
c2006 Penguin Books, 338pg.

For the past year, I have picked up this book each time I entered Barnes and Noble, and for some reason it always ended up back on the shelf and not in my bag. Fate intervened when I arrived in Berkeley though, as Sister had the book in her personal library - score!

Greg Mortenson began his experience in Pakistan attempting to summit K2, the second highest mountain on Earth. He failed to reach the top, but in his torturous journey down, found a secluded village (and when I say secluded, I don't just mean they don't get cable) that changed his life. He devoted his life to building schools in this impoverished region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, believing in the power of education. The book begins in 1993 and covers his mountain climbing adventure, the struggles to raise money for the schools, and the subsequent successes and failures he has spreading education and humanitarian efforts in the region of the world that spawned the Taliban. Post 9/11, his journey expands to include efforts to educate Americans on the reality of life in this part of the world, as well as dispute common fallacies about Muslim/Arab cultures and people.

To say this book is inspirational is an understatement. Once you get past the admittedly confusing geography, climbing descriptions, and foreign names/places, and get to the heart of the story, you cannot help but be amazed by what Mortenson accomplished. The poverty he encounters is staggering, and the lengths these villagers will go to to see that a five-room school house is built in their village put to shame meager volunteer efforts in our own communities. This book both convinces you of the power of one person and what can be accomplished with great passion, and at the same time, makes you feel incredibly lazy and unaccomplished, regardless of what you have done in your own life.

In terms of the politic aspects of the book, Mortenson initially supports the invasion of Afghanistan (to oust the Taliban and exact retribution for the 9/11 attacks), but always criticizes the United States for abandoning its promise to provide for the civilians in Afghanistan. As the military operations continue and expand to Iraq, Mortenson becomes increasingly convinced (and increasingly vocal) about the narrow-minded approach the U.S. has to solving long-term problems of terrorism in the Middle East. To paraphrase what I interpreted to be his thesis: bombs make an impact immediately and sometimes successfully; books make an impact eternally and always successfully.

It was infuriating, though not unexpected, to read about the hate mail Mortenson received after 9/11, accusing him of being a traitor for helping "terrorists." I am reminded of the quotation that my sister loves, which applies perfectly to Mortenson's mission (and the stupidity of some Americans): "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Had the authors of the hate mail taken the time to read a few articles about the situation (or simply looked at a map or two), they might have realized the intricacies of Central Asia, Islam, terrorism, Al Queda, the Taliban, and American foreign policy. Instead, they chose to irrationally attack an American citizen doing nothing but good for grateful people.

A few of the passages that stuck with me are highlighted below:

"Kim Trudell, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, had lost her husband, Frederick Rimmele, when, on his way to a medical conference in California on September 11, his flight, United Airlines 175, vaporized in a cloud of jet fuel against the south tower of the World Trade Center. Trudell asked Mortenson to carry her husband's medical books to Kabul [to be donated to the Kabul Medical Institute, the country's physician training center], beliving education was the key to resolving the crisis with militant Islam."

Answering a question from a California Republican congressman about the purpose of building schools, when security was the most vital concern for our country, Mortenson replied, "I don't do what I'm doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids. Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities. But working over there, I've learned a few things. I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death."

Please visit for more information on this book and Mortenson's mission.

Other articles/reviews/blogs (focused on this book) that I found interesting:


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