"Do you see how beautiful this Koran is? I can't read it. I can't read anything. This is the greatest sadness in my life. I'll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I'll pay any price so they have the education they deserve."
This quote exemplifies the vast situational divide between someone who has had ample educational opportunities, in this case Greg Mortenson, and a typical resident of the Karakoram, in this case Haji Ali, who has not. It typifies the tragedy of ignorance and of the basic human longing for education, a longing Mortenson strongly recognizes in the Balti people and makes his life's mission to satisfy. This exchange between Haji Ali and Mortenson brings more subtlety to the general problem of human ignorance: it is not the fault of the ignorant person, and it does not preclude having self-awareness.
"I wish Westerners who misunderstand Muslims could have seen Syed Abbas in action that day. They would see that most people who practice the true teachings of Islam, even conservative mullahs like Syed Abbas, believe in peace and justice, not in terror. Just as the Torah and Bible teach concern for those in distress, the Koran instructs all Muslims to make caring for widows, orphans, and refugees a priority."
Mortenson here articulates one of the overarching ideas that informs his work in Pakistan: the peace-loving nature of most of the Muslim people with whom he works. He firmly believes in their equal humanity and hopes to inform the American public about what he knows to be true. Especially following September 11th, 2001, this knowledge becomes more and more necessary to achieve any kind of peace.
"How could you even hope to identify the hotbeds of extremism, growing like malignancies in these vulnerable valleys, when they took such care to hide behind high walls and cloak themselves in the excuse of education?"
Here Mortenson is decrying the rapid proliferation of madrassas, which take advantage of local children's disadvantaged backgrounds and train them in militant Islam. Madrassas accomplish this through the veil of providing "education." Mortenson finds them a nearly-insurmountable foe, since they are backed by endlessly-wealthy Saudis.
"We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, the women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans do not do so in the name of Islam... I request America to look into our hearts and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit."
In his speech at the inauguration of the Kuardu Primary School, Syed Abbas presents a humanistic, compassionate response to the September 11th attacks, while also confirming his own (and locals') appreciation for education itself. Like Mortenson, he believes that education is the only antidote to extremism and violence.
"That night, for the first time since starting my work in Pakistan, I thought about quitting. I expected something like this from an ignorant village mullah, but to get those kinds of letters from my fellow Americans made me wonder whether I should just give up."
It is Mortenson's first time home following the September 11th attacks. He is surprised by the strongly nationalistic response (flags adorn every surface, even at the Denver International Airport on Halloween), but he is much more surprised at the level of vitriol aimed at him for expressing a nuanced, humanistic look at Muslims. His argument that they are just like anyone else is met with death threats. It is his first time being sorely disheartened by his countrymen.
"Heading to his mosque soon after another Inge or Aiko wandered into his sights, Changazi petitioned his mullah for permission to make a muthaa, or temporary marriage...
Mortenson asked if Balti women whose husbands were away could also be granted muthaa.
"No, of course not," Changazi said, waggling his head at the naïveté of Mortenson's question, before offering him a biscotti to dunk in his tea."
This is one of Mortenson's first encounters with the kind of sexism that informs most aspects of life in the Baltistan region. He will come to know the extent of sexist attitudes when he starts developing schools chiefly for girls in the region and initially encounters fierce resistance, first from Haji Mehdi and then from other, more powerful, mullahs.
"Through the large square hole in the roof, cigarette smoke and burning yak dung furnaced up out of the room below, fouling Mortenson's perch. And the argumentative voices of Khane's men rose with it, fouling Mortenson's mood. He took a thin jacket from his daypack, lay back on the buckwheat, and spread it over his chest like a blanket. The moon, nearly full, climbed clear of the jagged ridgeline. It balanced on top of the escarpment like a great white boulder about to fall and crush the village of Khane.
'Go ahead. Fall,' Mortenson thought, and fell asleep."
Mortenson's effort in organizing the construction of the Korphe school seems, at first, Sisyphean. His associate, Changazi Khan, pilfers some of his hard-bought supplies, before leading him to a nearby village whose council tries to convince Mortenson that he had promised them a school. Mortenson briefly loses faith in the people of this region, feeling as if, to them, he is less a person than a source of cash flow, before putting those feelings aside and spearheading the construction of more schools.
"'Osama, baah!' Bashir roared. 'Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home... You have to attack the source of your energy's strength. In America's case, that's not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.'"
Brigadier General Baz is responding here to videos on CNN from Baghdad, featuring the American invasion there. He is greatly frustrated with America's misdirected military aggression, arguing that the killing of Muslims in Iraq will only further inflame the Muslim world for generations to come. He knows, as Mortenson does, that the true enemy is ignorance, and the only way to stem the violence is to provide a balanced education to young people in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region to prevent their being recruited by the madrassas.
"'Let's be honest,' says Tom Vaughn. 'The fact is the CAI is Greg. I didn't mind rubber-stamping whatever he wanted to work on. But without Greg, the CAI is finished. ...I began to get angry about the terrible way he took care of himself. He stopped climbing and exercising. He stopped sleeping. He began to gain so much weight he didn't even look like a mountaineer anymore. I understand that he decided to pour everything into his work,' Vaughn says, 'but if he drops dead of a heart attack what's the point?'"
Dr. Vaughn articulates here the fundamental problem with the organizational structure of CAI. Tasks are not allocated evenly, and Mortenson relies not on experts, but on rather random people he meets along the way (taxi drivers, porters) to help him accomplish CAI's goals. It is not a sustainable way of conducting business. This passage also highlights Mortenson's tendency to get so involved with events in Pakistan that he physically suffers for it. This becomes a point of contention in his marriage, too, and Tara Bishop exhorts him to work less and make sure to carve out time with his family.
"'If you want to survive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,' Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. 'The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,' he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. 'Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.'
'That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life,' Mortenson says. 'We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills... Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.'"
The Balti adage about "three cups of tea" is, of course, the foundation for the title of the book and informs the way that Mortenson conducts his business in Pakistan hereafter. Mortenson had, before this conversation, been overseeing the school construction anxiously and with an iron fist. Eager to please American donors and keep the project on-schedule and within budget, he had lost sight of the cultural assumptions of those around him. This conversation awakens Mortenson to a central concept of life in Baltistan, and is an example of the wisdom he so admires in Korphe's nurmadhar, Haji Ali.
Three Cups of Tea Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Three Cups of Tea is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.