Greg Mortenson’s work during the 1990s and 2000s building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the expression of a distinctly individual perspective towards the world, a resolute character, moral determination, and a deep desire to better the human condition. As a tool of international diplomacy building schools offers a distinct alternative to bombs and soldiers.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time (Viking Penguin, 2006) is Greg Mortenson’s story up until around 2006. Mortenson and David Arthur Relin are listed as authors, though the book reads as if Relin wrote it, drawing heavily on Mortenson. The book is honest about Mortenson’s defects, his disorganization, tendency towards depression, impatience. It describes how he lived in a storage locker while working as a medical assistant in the United States. He seems always to have been an odd character, in the sense of eccentric and maladjusted, also in the sense of possessing an integrity and a will that few others can emulate, that empower him to take up causes that to others would seem impossible. If Mortenson had fit neatly into the mainstream, we wouldn’t have this book and his story.
The title refers to an expression of hospitality in Afghanistan. If a visitor to a home is offered three cups of tea, he knows he has become a member of the host family.
Three Cups primarily focuses on Mortenson’s work in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his efforts to raise support and funds for his efforts in the United States. He becomes friends with a number of tribes. They are at first suspicious of him as a strange American, but ultimately his sincerity, respect for their customs, and knowledge of their culture and languages make them welcome him in. The descriptions of the countryside, the mountains and valleys, and of the villages where he works, are vivid.
Not all war is avoidable. But the approach that Mortenson has taken to building schools in a part of the world that is at present at odds with the United States offers a better way of mending fences and building relations than do bombs and drones that often kill civilians. Many of the people Mortenson meets express friendly attitudes towards America. Many are opposed to Al Qaeda and to terrorism. But when the U. S. operations against Al Qaeda begin in 2002, the charitable notions of these people towards the United States are challenged. The efforts of people like Mortenson offer a counterbalance to the violence and destruction of war.
In ways Three Cups of Tea reminds me of The Places In Between, Rory Stewart’s narrative about his trek across Afghanistan in the months immediately following the 2011 terrorist bombings in New York City. Equally informative, Stewart’s book is more literary in nature, a masterpiece of its sort, though the example of Mortenson’s life and career in itself is compelling and humbling and its own example of a life well lived.