Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Book Group: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. (The book was written by Relin who interviewed Mortenson extensively. Mortenson was...and probably still is...too busy to write a book himself.)

I read this in October, and had the honor of presenting the author, David Oliver Relin, at our library book group that month. He will be speaking one more time for Multnomah County Library at our Writer's Talking Series on January 19.

Before the event I did some googling, and found Greg Mortenson was sought out for expert information when Pakistan's 7.6 earthquake occurred in 2005. I was eager to ask David if the schools and the bridge that Mortenson helped bring into being were still intact. They were.

Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl, "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything...even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."

Greg Mortenson failed to climb K2, and while he headed back down the mountain, he took a wrong turn, missing the bridge that would take him to the village where he'd begun the climb. He found himself in Korphe, another village not found on his maps, and the people there welcomed him and brought him back to health. He happened to ask them to take him to their school. There was none. The children met under the cold sky and used sticks to write in the dirt. From that point he made it his mission to bring schools to those remote mountain villages in Afghanistan.

The people there welcomed secular schools that also would teach girls from the non-profit that Mortenson founded, Central Asia Institute, or CAI. The Pakistani government didn't bother with schools this far removed. But before they wanted a school, the villagers wanted a bridge so they could build the school. That bridge not only helped bring the school, it changed the lives of the women in the small village. David Relin told us marriage is a big deal there. When a woman leaves her family to live with her husband, she may never see them in her life again. One ridge in these mountains might as well be a hundred miles. This little bridge allowed them to visit their families on a weekly basis.

Excerpts, an interview, and audio with Mortenson can be found on Beliefnet here. From Beliefnet:

Often I ask the children, or the elderly, “Why are you doing this?” They’ll say, “This is what Allah wants,” or “This is what is right.” Over here if you ask that question to somebody, they’ll say, “Well, I’m doing this because if I do that, then this will happen and it will lead me here.” It’s very linear. Over there they rely on their faith and consciousness I guess you could say--thinking from your heart.

Has that become stronger for you also?

Well, certainly. The more I do this, I rely on my conscious and my faith. It often drives people here a little bit crazy. But I realized that things can work, especially when you have a dedication to something, and you’re driven by your heart and your compassion for something

David told us that CAI would never be something big like Mercy Corps. (CAI, I can just hear the conspiracy theorists...) That is probably for the best. What makes CAI work are hands-on partnerships that Greg creates with the people he helps. David said it is an example of the kinds of organizations we need to cultivate peace. Still, compared to Saudi oil money (that funds the Taliban madrassas), it is a drop in the bucket.

Greg Mortenson said in Parade, "If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs."

How many times do we have to say that? We pacifists have been saying that all along. Why then do they keep dropping bombs? There is an amusing (now) incident in the book where Greg is interrogated by US investigators who obviously have little clue about the Pakistani and Afghani people they want to know about. They asked Greg if he'd ever met Osama.

David began his talk by telling us that he'd been to all kinds of groups in the previous several months. No matter the group, everybody is fed up with the war in Iraq and the "war on terror." He said, "The enemy is not Osama, Sadaam, the enemy is ignorance. We're going after the wrong enemy." He said we need to turn our attention to the root causes of terrorism, poverty and the need for education. He told us one of the things we could do to counter our own ignorance is to "try to remain sensitive to the phrase over there." So much of what passes for news encompasses anything in the Middle East as "over there." Any bad thing is "over there."

To one book group member's wish that we would address our own poverty here in the US rather than meddle in other countries' affairs, David countered that he's done work on child poverty here in the US. The poorest area in the US, Star County, Texas, is rich compared to these poor mountain villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (That just brings us back around to how simple, and cheap, it would be to stop war and foster peace.)

David clarified an important piece about Afghani politics for us. The Taliban are thugs and gangsters who want payback. (Want another example of that? Read The Kite Runner.) You want to do business, you pay your dues. They don't really care whether girls are learning. This surfaced in the book about one of the fatwas put on Greg's head: the local gangster just wanted some kickback.

David kept himself out of the book as the author, it was all about Greg Mortenson. In the beginning, he does chronicle his first hairy helicopter ride piloted by Brigadier General Bhangoo, who had been Pakistan President Musharraf's personal pilot. He told us that sadly, General Bhangoo had died in a plane crash several months before this October talk. The man was flying an ultralight around K2, intending to fly it around the world.

Other tidbits: David's main translator was Ghulam Parvi, one of Greg Mortenson's main supporters and important local staff of CAI. He said he is a "personal repository of Balti culture." Freaky moment: ibex head in the helicoptor. If I remember right, it was someone's illicit dinner. Ibex are protected, but, um, General Bhangoo has his connections. David showed us some of his photos from the book, and some extras. One he particularly felt needed to be remembered, a photo of the fateful bridge that Greg Mortenson missed when he found the village of Korphe.

The teachers in the schools are graduates of the schools. They have an equivalent of a 5th or 6th grade education, but that is what the villages need, along with basic hygiene and health knowledge. The teachers then get teacher training workshops during the summers. The earthquake zones "are still a nightmare." CAI dropped tents at the sites of the schools that crumbled. If someone wishes to sponsor one school, David told us, CAI asks for $50,000. That's $25,000 to build it, and $25,000 to keep it running and in supplies for a decade.

David began each chapter with a quote. I especially liked this one, and thought it summed up the wise simplicity of the people that Mortenson grew to love:

No human, nor any living thing, survives long under the eternal sky. The most beautiful women, the most learned men, even Mohammed, who heard Allah's own voice, all did wither and die. All is temporary. The sky outlives everything. Even suffering. ~Bowa Johar, Balti poet, and grandfather of Mauzafer Ali.

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