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Review: Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Efforts to Fight Terrorism

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4 July 2008: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2006) is a must-read for those who have given up on twenty-first-century heroes. Whatever else its detractions, the preceding century was rife with heroes, many of whom paid the ultimate price and some of whom gained immortality.

One hero so far not widely known is working quietly to bring peace to a part of the world most of us don't want to think about. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Efforts to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations tells the story of a veteran mountain climber, Greg Mortenson, who attempted unsuccessfully to scale the toughest peak in the world, K2, less high but rougher and more dangerous than Everest. After a valiant battle, he emerged half dead into a tiny village in Baltistan that no one had ever heard of, Korphe, where the God-forsaken, illiterate Muslims brought him back to life with TLC and all the food and shelter they could spare.

From then on, Mortenson was to encounter far more challenging projects than mountain climbing. Large, craggy, young, he found out quickly about the wisdom of the aged, illiterate village dwellers and in his gratitude promised the people he would return and build a school for their children, who were reduced to writing in the dirt with sticks. The people were used to such promises and bid him hale and farewell when he regained his health.

Mortenson did return, procured building materials with the help of one of the villagers, but stumbled up against another wall: first he would have to build a bridge before the school could be constructed. It all happened eventually and with much difficulty""his workers were willing, strong, but untrained. In his aspirations, he had particular hope for the young village girls and concentrated efforts on them as well as the boys. All the people he worked with were Muslims.

The day one young lady returned to him, his first student, was a proud one for Mortenson. She had started out in his first school in Korphe and then graduated from a higher-level school in a close-by city accessible only by dirt roads on high mountain passes, The girl burst in on a roomful of men most assertively, telling Mortenson about her ultimate plans, to receive more education and go higher than working as a local healthcare provider. Mortenson himself was a nurse. Most tellingly, none of the other men in the room took offense""so much had these people learned from Mortenson as they had given him.

Eventually encountering the perfect wife who supported his every endeavor and bore him two children, the latter named for the Khyber Pass, Mortenson began to live a complete life. Yet he was so absorbed by his drive to educate the indigent, an effective antidote to the flourishing hostility of the widespread madrassas, that when he returned to the family home in Boseman, Montana, he would soon pace around in his basement office and then fly away to fundraise or back to the farthest reaches of Pakistan. Like the Doctors without Borders, he was concerned with those in places no one ever went.

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Working with a pittance of finance, Mortenson built his simple structures as widely as he could. If he ever thought his work would be done, the mountain climbed, he changed his mind after imprisonment by a vicious tribe in Waziristan, who held him hostage for days before releasing him and showering him with contributions for his schools. The rule he had broken, foolishly, was not to find a sponsoring war lord before entering the territory to build more schools and gain more support.

Wealth finally came to him after Parade magazine discovered him and publicized his efforts. Suddenly he had $1 million in funds. More schools followed, along with better-paid staffs but also with a new mountain to climb--the education of the God forsaken in Afghanistan.

How can the task of educating the God-forsaken ever end? Emphasizing all he has learned from them, Mortenson is still at it. He has been considered for a Nobel prize--all his accomplishments the result of not summiting what then seemed to be the ultimate challenge. He could have tried again, but he found another mountain whose summit is eternally around the next steep, spiraling mounting road, and the next: peace through education.

This book will appeal to readers in love with those impossible Asian landscapes--the craggy summits of the world and the mystery of those who inhabit them--and those who thirst after impossible goals in general. It will resonate with lovers of peace looking for new ways to pursue their goals and all of us who have scaled peaks and are looking for more, truly untrodden places to learn from and grow with.

For more information on Greg Mortenson and to donate to his efforts, visit

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A jack of some trades, writing and editing among them, Marta Steele, an admitted and proud holdover from the late sixties, returned to activism ten years ago after first establishing her skills as a college [mostly adjunct] professor in three (more...)

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This is a remarkable story and a great review of i... by Margaret Bassett on Thursday, Jul 10, 2008 at 9:14:17 PM
Margaret,In this age of antiheroes and pols domina... by Marta Steele on Friday, Jul 11, 2008 at 6:11:26 AM