Saturday, October 18, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

Scratching your head about why many Middle Eastern peoples hate Americans? Many of us are. Ever wonder what it’s really like to be kidnapped by the Taliban or caught in the cross-fire of warring heroin dealers? Maybe not, but getting a true picture, not just how Hollywood might imagine it in a movie, could be educational. Would you like to be a fly on the wall of Islamabad’s Marriott when the world’s press corps arrives? Hmmm, could be interesting to see behind the scenes of TV news.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or even if you just want to be inspired, read Greg Mortenson’s story told by David Oliver Relin: Three Cups of Tea, subtitled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. Since this 2006 book is a New York Times Bestseller, you may already know the story: Mortenson and his nonprofit association Central Asia Institute have built more than 55 schools in the poorest villages of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. What stirred this passion in Mortenson’s soul?

After a failed 1993 attempt to scale the 28,251-foot mountain K2 in Pakistan, the kind families of a remote mountain village, Korphe, nursed Mortenson back to health. While he was in their village, totally dependent on their care, he was humbled by what they gave him out of their poverty. They wrapped him in the plush silk comforter that was their finest treasure, while they slept in the cold under thin, patched, wool blankets. While Korphe villagers’ daily diet was flatbread chapatti, to honor Mortenson’s presence with them and to nourish his weakness, Haji Ali, Korphe’s nurmadhar, or village chief, ordered one of the precious chogo rabak, or big rams, slaughtered. Mortenson saw how close to hunger these Balti people lived.

Mortenson loved the simplicity of life in Korphe and the custom of venerating elders, which gave him the wind beneath his wings, his mentor Haji Ali. But he also noticed the back-breaking labor it took to irrigate fields and orchards with glacial meltwater. And with little connection to the rest of civilization, children were plagued with lice; goiters and cataracts afflicted every family; and villagers suffered in silence with infected wounds and broken bones. Mortenson had gotten to know these families, and he took his medical kit and nursing skills around the village to help—to the point that he soon became known as Dr. Greg. A telling sign of the villagers’ trust in this foreigner, Dr. Greg, came when he was allowed to touch a woman dying in childbirth in order to save her life.

Mortenson also saw firsthand the corruption and neglect of the Pakistani government. What little money was meant for the Baltistan went to the army, and none came to provide schools for Balti children. In Korphe, the children sat on the ground in the open air, weather permitting, to scratch their lessons in the dirt with sticks dipped in mud and water. There was no teacher. When he was strong enough to go home to California, Mortenson promised Haji Ali that he would build a school for Korphe.

Fifty-five Pakistan and Afghanistan schools later, Mortenson hopes that his schools may well prevent Afghan and Pakistani children from joining the Taliban. With the aggressive oil-money-fueled expansion of madrassas, the success of Mortenson’s hope remains to be seen. At the very least, he has improved the people’s quality of life, connecting remote villages with “civilization” by replacing their yak hair bridge with a safer one, bringing clean water to remote villages, and teaching thousands of children to read, write, and do arithmetic.

Because of this book, the eyes of my heart have peeked inside some Middle Eastern cultures and seen true love conquer fear. Although I cannot reconcile the part of the Koran that calls for ridding the world of infidels, I can see that many Muslims believe that only a shetan, or devil, would carry it to that extreme. Many Muslims are also alarmed by the militant hatred taught in the madrassas. Although I don't condone hatred in either direction, I can’t say that I blame Pakistani or Afghan people for indignant feelings when Americans come to their countries and demand the best Americalike accommodations instead of accepting humbler offerings. If we examine our hearts, we often also think our materialistic ways would suit other cultures better than their own beloved, but primitive in our eyes, customs. We really can be very rude guests.

Mortenson is still climbing mountains, now different from K2, and Three Cups of Tea challenges each of us to take ice axes to the glaciers in our own lives and climb higher. Especially relevant now in light of heightened Middle East tensions, this book should be required reading for Americans. We need to better understand the people we are both dependent on for oil and trying to help be more independent of tyrants and terrorists. This book is a great start toward understanding our differences as well as our common ground as humans.

Let's not just talk about the mountains of cross-cultural adventure, selflessness, compassion for the poor, making education a priority, mutual respect, diversity training, keeping promises, or perseverance in the face of adversity. Read Three Cups of Tea, examine your own heart for the -ice of prejudice and cowardice, then go out with melted heart and steel will to reach out to someone different from yourself.

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