One of the key characters in this marvelous book on schools told Mortenson, cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, "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." Three Cups of Tea enlightens us simultaneously on three levels of analysis: The foundational level is a remarkable and entertaining tale of a transition from climbing junkie to humanitarian hero; the subsequent level is an enlightening study of a region few have visited or read about; and, the most important level provides a lucid primer for those struggling to aid the Muslim world in countering ideological support for terrorism.
For the reader interested in a book about altruism, Mortenson's efforts, not unlike those of Jody Williams's in her personal campaign to ban land mines, are at once heroic, frustrating and bungling. Still, he constructed over seventy-eight schools in one of the most remote and dangerous areas of the world. For lovers of anthropology, the tale begins in the tiny village of Korphe high in Pakistan's beautiful and impoverished Karakoram Himalaya region, an area rich in openhanded people. For those of us who have labored in this area as well as for the reader, the descriptions vividly evoke its vastness, splendor, and penetrating, unforgettable cold.
For the professional needing context and inspiration in dealing with our long war against terrorism and extremism, Three Cups of Tea provides profound lessons. Foremost, we must "give time to time" and follow local rhythms while not forcing things at a Western pace. We are also reminded by a devout imam to "look into our hearts and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people." Arguably, Mortenson and Relin identify the region's seminal problem: the lack of education and the noxious influence of Wahhabi and Deobandi madrasas.
Some critics will hedge over style or a minor gaff (such as the "red tracers" of Kalashnikovs in a firefight) but this is quickly forgotten and the impact of Three Cups of Tea remains.