Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber. Not your neighborhood outdoor store brand of mountain climber either, a real mountain climber. In 1993 he visited the Pakistan Himalaya Mountains, specifically a summit called K2 in the Karakoram district, and set out to scale K2. Long story short, he failed. He came off that mountain lost and broken and near death, but was taken in by a local village called Korphe. They saved his life, and by the time he was well enough to realize it and head home, he had decided he would come back and help this impoverished group of people who had given so much to help him. That turned into a dream of building a school for the Korphe children. Greg raised enough money (in the most desperate, sad, and interesting ways) and returned to Pakistan to build the school. Long story short, he was able to build the school despite incredible opposition and numerous glitches.

Then, one school turned into another. And another. And another. And eventually Greg Mortenson was in charge of an organization called the Central Asia Institute building schools all over Pakistan. He dealt with many issues along the way, and nearly lost his life numerous times. Eventually he was able to build schools in Afghanistan as well. As far as I can tell, Greg Mortenson is still spending most of his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, building schools. He learned the process of getting things done (usually the hard way) in Pakistan, and also was fortunate to receive wise counsel from some of his friends in Korphe. One mentor explained to Greg that to thrive there he would have to respect their culture, their ways. The first cup of tea he shared with a Pakistani was as a stranger, the second was as a friend and honored guest, and the third was as family member, for whom any of them would die. Greg Mortenson learned to share many cups of tea with his acquaintances in Pakistan.

Mortenson was in Pakistan on September 11, 2001. He made some foolish mistakes during this time, in my opinion, such as returning several times in the months following 9/11, remained in the country even after he was specifically told it was a very dangerous place for American citizens, and approached the Afghanistan border "just to see what would happen" (what happened was he lost his passport and had to waste weeks getting one back and explaining to the hyper paranoid Intelligence Agency what he was doing there in the first place-he was lucky he didn't lose his life). He had a front row seat to the events that occurred in the Middle East following the terror attacks on America. Soon, the motivation for building these schools evolved from merely wanting to return a kindness to wanting to help promote peace in the world through providing an opportunity for educating Pakistan's youngsters...an opportunity other than the Islamic Wahhabi madrassas, many of which at that time taught (and may still teach) militant jihadi Islam. "The madrassa system targeted the impoverished students the public system failed. By offering free room and board and building schools in areas where none existed, madrassas provided millions of Pakistan's parents with their only opportunity to educate their children." (pg. 243)

 Mortenson believed then, and continues to believe, that the most important and effective way to fight terrorism is to prevent future generations from being trained to hate. The schools built by the Central Asia Institute are traditional Islamic schools which honor the culture of this country, but without the harsh militant agenda. The more schools that are available for children (especially girls) to attend, the better a chance the people have at rising above the hate that spews from some of Pakistan's best-known inhabitants (the Taliban and al-Quaeda).

I thought the piece about how Greg met his wife Tara was super sweet, and sort of awe-inspiring. I was a little concerned that this book seems to imply that Greg was married to building schools in Pakistan and was involved with his family only a little the side, though. I certainly hope that isn't an accurate assumption. It would be sorrowful for a man to accomplish so much in the lives of other families while forsaking involvement with his own.

I learned so much from this book. I had no idea there were so many various people groups in Pakistan, nor did I have a clue about the way most Pakistanis felt/feel about the Taliban. I also learned quite a bit about the Pakistani government, and (from Greg Mortenson's point of view, anyway) the United States's great successes and great failures in the days following the September 11th attacks. It made me remember how scary and broken we all were in America on September 11th, but also to realize a new perspective on the events that took place in the years leading up to and following the attacks on the United States. It made me angry to read that the yellow humanitarian food packets that American military planes were dropping down to Afghan refugees closely resembled the bright yellow pods of unexploded cluster bombs. (pg. 279)

This book has been plaguing my life as a reader for well over a year now. As I have inched through it, it has taken up space in my bag, my laptop case, my backpack, my bookcase, basket of books, and my stack of books on the bedside table. I started it over a year ago, when it was first released in paperback. Everyone was talking about this book, and how I just had to read it. I'm a library girl, not much a book purchaser (except for my children's collection), but in this case I made an exception. I've read it on and off ever since then, frustrated because it wasn't a very friendly read. It was difficult, and sad, and did not truly catch my attention until about 180 pages in.

This is very unlike me. I believe life is too short to read bad books. I know there is great value in seeing a book through to the end no matter what you think about it. In this case, I never felt like Three Cups of Tea was a bad book, it just required a lot of effort to read. More so than just about any other book I've read. The names of the cities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the unfamiliar names of individuals Mortenson encountered, and the ever-changing rules and politics were so confusing. There is a map included at the beginning of the book, and I wish I had remembered it was there to go back and look up the name of each city rather than relying on my mind's very abstract notion of where those cities were in relation to one another. There is also an index provided so that would also be very helpful to readers. Those are some mistakes I feel as though I made when reading this book. I underestimated it, I did not put forth significant effort to keep the people and places straight, and I did not use the index to refer to places, people, and issues. In essence, I'm saying that this book isn't meant to be read casually. It's meant to be studied and discussed. So I'm reiterating that Three Cups of Tea is not a bad book, it's just a difficult one. Approach with caution, handle with care, and for crying out loud, use the maps.

For more info, follow Greg Mortenson on Twitter- @gregmortenson

or see his website: http://www.threecupsoftea.com/