When Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea was published in 2006, publishers were unsure of its reception. Their fears were unfounded. The book’s story of a failed American mountain climber’s humanitarian project to build schools in the most underprivileged parts of Pakistan’s northern areas resounded with millions.
Three Cups of Tea sold 3.6 million copies in paperback and now has a sequel, aptly titled Stones into Schools, which narrates Mortenson’s ongoing efforts to build schools in the region.
So successful has Mortenson’s narrative proved that free copies of the book are being distributed among lawmakers on Capitol Hill in an effort to direct them toward the ‘right’ focus on Pakistan. Presumably, those behind this effort hope that reading Mortenson’s tale — his friendly collaboration with the villagers in Korphe, his marked lack of condescension whilst confronting obstacles in the path of the construction of schools and his perseverance in bringing education to remote areas — would provide US congressmen with some much-needed perspective on the troubled region.
Such intentions are unquestionably meritorious. No Pakistani could object to the refreshing nature of Mortenson’s story and the courage with which he refuses to be daunted by cultural, religious and linguistic differences compounded by an array of naysayers. Indeed, Pakistanis are grateful for Mortensen’s ability to sidestep the perpetual narrative of the Taliban, terror and the exploding Islamist time bomb that routinely defines discussions about Pakistan, particularly on Capitol Hill.
Yet to consider Mortenson’s story of initiative and resolve as solely a project to redeem Pakistan in the eyes of the West would be an error. Several narratives penned with equal inventiveness and with the deliberate aim of delivering Pakistan from the burden of its reputation have been denied such publicity. Similarly, enterprising NGOs that have built schools in rural Sindh and Punjab have failed to catch the international imagination with the level of intensity garnered by Mortenson’s project.
The explanation for the success of Three Cups of Tea thus lies not simply in its prose or sincerity, but also in the tale of redemption it offers to an American reader. In overcoming all odds, rising after failure and transforming meagre resources into a project that would deliver people from the darkness of illiteracy, Mortenson represents the American hero at his best. When he cannot get others to help him, he carries stones himself: physical hardship does not deter him and obstacles are overcome with sincerity of purpose.
The villagers of Korphe are able to see Greg as a person and vice versa; bonds are built and relationships created that evade political differences and historical contexts. To an American reader, weary of the tarnishing of the American hero as he was dragged through the moral ignominy of Iraq and Afghanistan — wars that delivered neither understanding nor enlightenment — Mortenson’s book is dear deliverance captured in 342 delightful pages. The author’s humility is a foil against the hubris of the Bush era, his easy smile and ability to overcome barriers with kindness and yet a firmness of purpose a drastic departure from the bombs and drones that define American officialdom. The cowboy of the Wild West, the risk-taking entrepreneur, the buccaneering explorer are all wrapped into one peaceful package in the person of Mortenson, who manages to construct alone what the governments of both the United States and Pakistan wrote off as impossible.
Rediscovering the American hero is one aspect of Mortenson’s appeal. The other, also in great demand in relation to the Pakistan question, is the provision of an easy solution. As is well known to most Pakistanis, America and Americans have only lately woken up to the existence of a world beyond Europe and the former Soviet Union. This recent introduction to Pakistan’s baffling complexities of history, enmities between Islamist groups, ethnic differences and civilian-military relations can prove daunting, not to mention time-consuming, particularly to American lawmakers looking to coin nifty sound bites on the ‘Afpak’ question.
Mortenson’s book provides a welcome antidote, an adventure story with a dashing hero and devoid of the onerous, complicated denouements that are part and parcel of historical and political tomes devoted to explaining Pakistan. Just as compelling is the simplicity of the solution offered by Mortenson’s project: who indeed can argue with the appealing simplicity of building schools as a solution to bringing people out of ignorance and providing an antidote to extremism.
Yet it is this last facet of Mortensen’s book that exposes the danger in elevating it to a panacea for all the ills that plague Pakistan. Simply put, while education is one of Pakistan’s needs and Greg Mortenson’s efforts are laudable, they do not present a thorough investigation into Pakistan’s structural problems and should not be taken as a stand-in for a deeper understanding of the country. In addition, there are Pakistanis such as Abdul Sattar Edhi who do not have Mortenson’s international fame but who have, with even fewer resources, managed to deliver their communities from poverty and build schools or small industries without the intervention of a foreign saviour.
Undoubtedly, Mortenson is under no obligation to include mention of such people in his own narrative. However, it must be recognised that the uncritical acceptance of his story as the story on saving Pakistan suggests that no local heroes have taken the initiative of improving their own nation. For a postcolonial nation, such omissions of agency can be damning in a historical context where the celebrated hero is rarely one of their own.
The point of this essay is not to belittle or critique the incredible courage and sincerity of a man who chose to fulfill a promise made to a forsaken village that had little hope. Instead, the aim is to encourage those westerners that have consumed three cups of tea in their encounter with Pakistan to perhaps partake of a few more. For Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani-Americans, the message is to know that while we may be overjoyed with just a little understanding we can hope for more, and that we must venerate our own little-known heroes just as much as Greg Mortenson.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim. She is an attorney who also teaches constitutional law and political philosophy at Indiana University. This article was previously published at Dawn (Pakistan).