February 11, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

In honor of my coffee embargo this week I'm going to review the book 'Three Cups of Tea.'

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson’s life work to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The schools are primarily (but not exlusively) for girls, who have fewer educational opportunities than boys but more positive impact on poor communities when educated.

I've been avoiding this book. I thought it would be tedious or depressing and I’m a bit of a book wimp – I usually only like happy books or at least books with happy endings. Endless toil in the Pakistini backwater to build schools the Pakistanian government has failed to build while being shot at by terrorists and drug lords didn’t feel like my thing.

Not that I’m against it, I think it’s great - go girl schools! - but I would have been good with an article or a brochure.

How wrong I was.

The book got off to a slow start, with more details about mountain climbing than I strictly wanted but well written. And somewhere along the line I bought into the vision of schools for girls in Pakistan and got genuinely interested in the people portrayed in the book.

The Pakistani people, that is. I'm afraid the American policy makers don't fare quite as well. The US military elite comes across as a bunch of rich old guys wearing rediculously expensive and shiny shoes surrounded by mindless laptop-toting minions. And Congress is portrayed as a mob of well-intentioned (for the most part) but mentally sluggish, overweight, ill-informed bureacrats.

Except the late Sonny Bono's wife Mary, who is totally cool.

For those of you who haven’t read the book I want to share a couple of passages that struck me as important. I will leave you to interpret them as you think best.

Passage 1, in which Mortenson responds to a Republican congressman who asked (right after 9/11) why schools matter when national security is at stake:

“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 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.”

Passage 2, in which Brigadier General Bashir Baz speaks after watching wailing Iraqui women carrying children’s bodies out of a bombed building on CNN:

“People like me are American’s best friends in the region. I’m a moderate Muslim, an educated man. But watching this, even I could become a jihadi. How can Americans say they are making themselves safer? Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against American for the next two hundred years.”

He also talks about Osama: “As a military man, I know 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 American’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.”


OK, I lied, I'm going to offer my thoughts about these remarks.

On the one hand, I think it's a bit rich of the Arabic world to do nothing to help the poor in their own and neighboring countries and then point their fingers at the US for not showering aid on them. If you're a government you have enough money to offer rudimentary education and the whole sitting around waiting for aid theme got a bit old by the end of the book.

And to Brigidier General Baz I might inquire if the US is supposed to finance the education of one billion Muslims so they don't bomb New York any more?

On the other hand, I remember sitting in social studies class as a pre-teen and being struck by how the teacher stressed the importance of American generosity to Japan and Germany after WWII. This generosity re-shaped the world dramatically by creating allies out of enemies, although some of that good will has understandably eroded over the last eight years, and was good for the US economy, too.

Since that brief time of enlightenment we seem to have lost our path. What the book showed was that there are mostly good, decent people in that part of the world who will move mountains to help themselves if just a little bit of support is extended. And for whatever reason, their own government isn't willing or able to extend that helping hand.

So Greg does it.

And just a thought here, that may do more for national security than dropping bombs on people.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. My friend's father was working in the State Department in Pakistan and he had a lot of scary stories.

  2. I agree with you & Mortensen's assertion (passage 1) that anti-american sentiments and terrorism isn't created out of thin air. The US sure has squandered a lot of goodwill lately. Let's hope that can change, and soon!

  3. Sounds like interesting reading.

  4. I'm absolutely sure this book has changed my life in some way, but it's just not apparent how yet. It's right up there on my favorite books list. (Just bought the young-reader's version for my daughter.) One of my favorite passages was when the tribal leader sent his non-swimming kid downriver, floating on goat bladders, to get an education.

  5. I thought I would hate the book too but I liked it. I even almost, nearly, should've gone to see Greg when he held a conference not half an hour away from me.

    Your writing is so succinct, and you thought the coffee ban was a BAD thing!


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