Three Cups of Tea – A Critical Review

By Ali A.

Different readers must have read this book with varied emphasis and with different take-away lessons. The variation in their readings was probably informed by their educational, professional, geographic, ethnic and national backgrounds, also their knowledge of the Pak and Afghan regions and cultures, and, furthermore, their understanding of current American involvement in these regions, its motives and history.

But, not all readings of that book are equal and not all facts and lessons from that book are worth taking. No doubt the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The point is not to question those values. It is to scrutinize the ideas (and solution) of ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in this book. A particularly useful way to approach this is to contextualize and question the underlying normative assumptions and politics of the book’s narrative against the backdrop of American hegemonic expansionism.

This critical examination is important. Because it is relevant to how our humanitarian activists, policy makers, and general concerned audience including you and I, understand those regions and peoples. It is also relevant for the kind of measures we adopt for ‘solving’ the regions’ problems, deciding what is the ‘right’ thing to do, who should do it, and how.

Questioning Humanitarian Intervention
First, the book never questions the idea of “humanitarian” intervention by an imperial power like the US, but only debates the method of such an intervention: That any such military intervention should be accompanied by humanitarian reconstruction efforts, which supposedly would be good for the local people and for long lasting American security interests. No reflection on Washington’s past record of military interventions and its outcomes is presented, and no appraisal of US motives and geo-strategic interests in the region. The question should be asked first: What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violation – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ and ‘humanitarian interventions’?

Messy Politics
Further, in explaining the cause of extremism and ‘terror’, the book conveniently mutes the messy political history of the region. Perhaps because that history would point to the pivotal role that CIA, ISI, and Saudis played in creating the menace of terrorism and extremism in the first place. What should not be forgotten is that the Cold War was not fought in America or Europe but in regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan which are still paying the price of that war. But, the continuing presence and politics of regional and global powers receives no attention in the book. Instead, the roots of the problem are smoothly traced back to ‘internal’ issues: the problem with competing interpretations of Islam and with local socio-economic and cultural conditions. The silence on the role of ‘external’ factors which funded and nurtured extremism then allows this narrative to present ‘our’ involvement as only humanitarian and benevolent: ‘we have nothing to do with their mess, we only want to help them fix it because we are able to do it and therefore we should do it with good faith’.

False Sense of Self-Righteousness
As the book pampers the blissful ignorance of Americans of the imperial and exploitative policies of their government, it appeals to – and reinforces – a false sense of self-righteous philanthropy in them. However, not philanthropy but social justice should be the idiom of American interaction with the rest of the world. The difference the second perspective makes is huge, because it induces an attitude of humility and guilt as it induces a critical awareness of politics. What Americans need to understand is that their affluence, luxury, extravagant “way of life”, ignorance, and apathy are all directly linked to wars and exploitation of people and resources by their government in other parts of the world (and in their own country too). And each American, especially those directly benefiting from the imperial exploitations, is morally responsible for the actions of their government. They owe it to the oppressed people. And the place to start is to put a stop on their government’s military adventurism as well as economic and cultural exploitations in other parts of the world.

Normative Assumptions
Further, before they could help other people, they should seriously reflect on their own biases and normative assumptions. The narrative in “Three Cups of Tea” never seriously reflects on how colonial-istic and problematic it is to try ‘changing cultures’ of other people through what ‘We’ consider to be the ‘right’ thing to do, through military means or soft humanitarian interventions. To save those people, to civilize them, to help them progress, is this not ‘white man’s burden’ in a new guise? A liberal imperialism of sorts? “Three Cups of Tea” mentions in the passing another book “Ancient Futures” but never really connects the moral of that book to its own overriding message, especially the message presented in its second half. From the brief mention of that book in “Three Cups of Tea”, “Ancient Futures” appears to suggest that there can be multiple ways to be modern, and people do not necessarily need to follow the West-European or American route to becoming modern. In fact, their definition of ‘progress’ and ‘modern’ may be very different from ‘ours’. This moral lesson that was shared in “Three Cups of Tea” was helpful, but it did not have any significant impact on its own grand narrative or message, which remained couched in the trope of “tradition vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive”, “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”. At various point in the book one notices that the farther one gets from one’s tradition and ‘conservativeness’ and becomes like ‘us’ in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one becomes. Such measures of ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ become especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan and Tahira by the author-s.

School Building, Yes, But What Curriculum?
The contention here is not about building schools or providing other welfare services to people. But about the kind of education being given, imparted with what assumptions and at what cost. From my experience in the Gilgit-Baltistan region so far and observing the outcomes of some welfare projects being run under similar organization, including Aga Khan, I have observed some striking patterns. I wonder what kind of ‘development’ is this that detaches children from their roots and land, makes them lose their identity and self-worth? And what kind of ‘progress’ is this that is defined primarily in material terms, individual and community, but without consideration for values and tradition, and for social justice and environment. It’s one thing to adopt boiling practice for drinking water but quite another to start considering your traditional dress as dirty and backward. The character of Jahan in the book also illustrates this problem.

Simply constructing schools is not the solution. But we would have to look into – and design our own curriculum and teachers training programs – what kinds of identities are being constructed in the process, what role models are being presented, what is the outlook of the world and sense of purpose that are being imparted, and what tastes, desires and values are being constructed through school curriculum. We need to ask similar questions about other development projects: what cost to people, culture, and environment?

Gross Misrepresentations
Apart from problem with the normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations that need thorough scrutiny. That includes elements of fictions in the book. For example, as Nosheen Ali points out in a footnote, “Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 (pp 233-235) because she died in Autumn 1997″.

I also have serious doubts about his kidnap episode in Waziristan. Those familiar with the geography of the region know very well that the Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan) are miles apart from Peshawar and the FATA areas (where Waziristan is), and it makes little practical sense to expand the project to that far-away region when Mortenson had not even completed his first school in Korphe, Baltistan. On the same note, the November 1979 issue of Time Magazine, covering Iran hostage crisis, through which the co-author, David Relin, constructed an emotion-filled, deeply touching narrative of fear and hope in that episode may have been quite inspiring to readers, but it is very unlikely for that English language, 15 years old issue, with a “garish painting of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini” on the cover to be found in a cell located somewhere in Waziristan. The whole episode is filled with holes that were never satisfactorily addressed, leaving too many doubts. (One can similarly question his excursions into Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime and until the publication of the book.)

That episode, however, was critical to collapse starkly different geographies and cultures into each other to frame this story within combating “terrorism” discourse. Nosheen Ali’s exposition is quite elaborate on this point. She also hints that perhaps that was intentional on the part of the author-s and publishers to make their story more marketable. They perhaps wanted to engage with the current war-on-terror discourse seriously and sincerely – but evidently uncritically and un-self-reflectively – through their own liberal/humanist modernization solution – that of ‘ignorance and backwardness are the root cause of terror in the Muslim world’.

On problems with such humanist interventions, their underlying assumptions and politics, see:

Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code

Ali, Nosheen. 2010. “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan”, Third World Quarterly, 31: 4, 541 — 559


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08 2010

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  1. Ali A. #

    ‘Three Cups of Tea’: Inspirational memoir inaccurate, says ’60 Minutes’
    April 15, 2011


  2. 2

    In this New York Times best seller, Greg has given his biography in details. He belongs to a below average family, passing days in miseries. His education, his job training etc. etc. clearly declares his social status.
    What a strange thing.. While working with the village communities of such a part of the world, which Americans declare the most underserved region of he World, within no time Greg Mortenson becomes a) Doctor (Medical), Philanthropist, Historian, Religious specialists with reference to Islam and Buddhism, Politician, Bureaucrat, Critic and analyst on Army matters, climber, humanitarian, lover and follower of Mother Tressa, (where people believe a new date of death for the pleasure of Greg), Saver of Balti children in special and Pakistani Children from Taliban. He also comments on the role of Saudi Goverment, Iran Government, Pakistan Government etc. etc. claiming that he is a humble social worker. He also comments on the personal lives of different people and groups of the area, for which no body can allow and tolerate. And in the end, the ignorant American Readers blindly believes on the tales of the book 3 cups of tea.

    If you listen to the people on the other end, we declare the book is full of false stories, based on one sided, specially designed against Islam, Balti culture and Pakistan as well. People condemn the contents of the book.

    Now see: On page 141 (1st edition) about Korphe Mosque he writes: “It had stood for nearly five hundred years, and had served as a Buddhist temple before Islam had established a foothold in Baltistan”.

    On page 142 Greg injects a very poisonous remarks telling: “ A few months earlier, Mortenson had read in the Islamabad papers about Pakistan’s latest wave of Sunni-Shiite violence. A Skardu bound bus had passed through the Indus Gorge on its way up the Karakorum Highway. Just past Chilas, a Sunni-dominated region, a dozen masked men armed with Kalashnikovs blocked the road and forced the passengers out. They separated the Shia from the Sunni and cut the throats of eighteen Shia men while their wives and children were made to watch. Now he (Greg) was praying like a Sunni at the heart of Shiite Pakistan. Among the warring sects of IslaM. Morenson knew, men had been killed for less”.
    This had never happened. The story is totally false and based on ulterior motives of Greg Mortenson and his humanitarian work. The American readers should know, that in the 21st century, nothing is hide out of the eyes of the print and electronic media. The CBS TV, BBC, VOA and other International TV channels have their reliable reps in Islamabad, one can ask and verify this story. It is biased, dishonest and totally false story. Greg Mortenson want to divide and destroy the religious harmony of Baltistan and Gilgit, and injects poison among the new generation, for whom he claims to be the Hero.
    Greg has put black paint on the faces of the Americans who will travel in the mountain in the future.


    Rabia Reply:

    seriously give me a break!… Mr pervi OR whoever you really are!… i am from baltistan and the whole region was once buddhist, there are many mosques which were buddhist temples before the region was converted to islam. I went to a mosque which was a buddhist temple 700 hundred year ago. so that is not a lie. secondly, get your facts right before writing, you really think the biased media is going to report innocent shia killings by the wahabi (not sunnis). there have been many occasions in the past where buses were stopped at a particular place in the karakarom highway and shias killed for no reason other than hatred. This happened again just recently, see the link: Chilas is a hub for wahabi/taliban extremists, one of my cousins witnessed the barbaric killings of shiA men. I actually think morteson did a right thing to highlight this so ignorant people out there know what is happening in pakistan and the sad thing is the government does not condemn such killings. THERE WAS NO ULTERIOR MOTIVE, THIS HAPPENED AND IS STILL HAPPENING AND THE STORY IS 100% ACCURATE. so do some research before accusing others for being false. and finally, most of the population of baltistan are SUFI-NOORBAKSH not SHIAS or sunnis. 95% are suffis and they are peaceful people who live with both sunnis and shia. they pray like sunnis so get your facts right baltistan is not the “heart of shia” and 95% people pray like sunnis. May God correct our own faults and guide us before we point our fingers at someone who we don’t even know about. AMEEN


  3. 3

    Dear Ali and Friends. I am Ghulam Parvi for whom Greg Mortenson praised in his book three cups of tea.I know him, I worked him, I taught him, I helped him morally, physically and financially. Before publishing the book, when Greg showed me draft book, I told Greg and David that they have included many false stories and quite wrong picture of local culture and religion and law, Greg promised and committed that he will not included those false stories, but they published. Every reader should know that I was the translator to David Oliver Relien, when Greg brought David to Baltistan to polish the stories of three cups of tea. I am the eye witness to say that David and Greg has included false stories.

    He proved himself to be a dishonest and false story teller. He and David has made the book interesting, with fictitious stories. When he says himself, what and how his humanitarian services mixes with Saudi Arab, Iran, Kuwait, Religious conflict, Wahabism, Taliban, etc. etc. He has shown him as Hero, while he has not mentioned great services of the local people, local organizations and groups.

    Does the American Readers believe over the stories? Without confirmation. Strange. Do not the publisher of America need permission to publish ones reference, who is defamed. Are the American writers, publishers and humanitarian workers like American Army, who blamed Iraq for having mass destruction weapons, attacked Iraq against the will of UNO, and then later committed that there were no weapon of mass destruction and the report of their CIA was baseless.


  4. Ali A. #


    Thank you for reading the post-s and your thoughtful feedback. Ms. Momena, thank you once again for your comments.

    To Vivek Veron,

    I am still working in the area, and will be here for a few more months at least. Let me share some bits about the crisis the Gilgit region is currently experiencing (along with the rest of Pakistan, with floods, price hike, and general economic and political turmoil).

    We were without electricity and water for the past several days in Gilgit and its surrounding areas (the power stations were flooded and swamped by rain. From yesterday, in my area, we started getting electricity, but for only 4-5 hours a day.). The gas people use for cooking has run out and so has diesel and petrol because of the blockage and damage on the “Pindi Road” after heavy rain and landsliding. The Pindi Route is practically the only land route which connects this region to the rest of Pakistan. The route is heavily used to transport medicine, fuel, food, and other goods. We get daily two (airplane) flights from Islamabad, but they can be very unreliable in uncertain weather conditions (which are not uncommon).

    So theoretically speaking, we are on the course of developing a major humanitarian crisis, especially considering that the cold season is around the corner, unless the government act swiftly and repair the road. With the usual incompetence, laziness, and corruption, so typical of our government-s, continuous rain and flood have added to the challenge of repariing the damages.

    But there are a few positive things within this crisis that I have observed and that I want to share here:

    One, for a variety of reasons, people in many areas – individuals, local businesses, and whole villages organized by jirgas and jirga heads or ‘numbardaars’ – tend to rely on themselves, and in the current crisis, came together to fix damaged dams and roads in many places, wherever they could. That was mostly how water and electricity were restored in the areas I am connected with.

    Two, in many rural areas (of the Gilgit region) where local economies are very much food and general-use items based (in addition to tourism), despite the shortages we didn’t see an extra-ordinary general hike in prices (contrast that to Karachi, where prices of some food items have increased more than 100-150% especially with the arrival of Ramadhan). Many local shop keepers in my area consider it ‘dishonesty’ to take such unfair advantage of the shortage, even when their own stock is running out and they have no guarantee of getting new stocks soon to keep their shops running. The big Gilgit city witnessed many exceptions to this good trend though.

    Three, people of this beautiful region, which is full of natural resources, have for centuries lived in a very modest, steadfast, self-sufficient, and, to a large extent, environmentally sustainable manner. Many rural areas still rely little on ‘modern’ facilities for living their daily lives. The place where I am staying, most people own a small garden or farm outside of their houses, with a village-wide water irrigation system (small channels supplying melted ice water from glaciers). People also know long-tested cultural techniques of preserving food, water, wood (for fire), and procuring basic life-saving items. In short, these people know how to survive under severe conditions.

    So I am quite optimistic that the people here would be able to manage the current cris-es (at least somewhat better than those living under tragic conditions in the slums of Karachi and other urban areas, who are often migrants from the rural areas, and perhaps even better than middle class families – with fixed daily or monthly salaries – in many places, whose income-s may not be enough to help them survive with dignity in the face of multiple crises going on in Pakistan).

    I just wanted to share this optimism about this particular region; however, the points here are not meant to suggest that these people don’t need help in the current crisis, or help with general ‘development’ in certain social areas (like health and education).


  5. Ali A. #

    Dear Nabeela,

    “Three Cups of Tea” was about Pakistan and Afghanistan, hence it was more relevant – and sufficient for my purposes – to build the argument based on the politics and histories of these two regions. To discuss other regions and cases – Muslim or otherwise – may have had some insightful uses but was not needed to make the point.

    “Lies my teacher told me” was referred to in my other piece, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code” as cited in the original post. May want to check that piece for additional references if interested. Howard Zinn’s book is a classic, and has been around for quite a while, along with tons of similarly critical books. (If you haven’t already, might want to check out the young readers’ edition of the “People’s History”). But the challenge, again, is how to get such works to engage popular imaginations. Toward that end, if I may suggest once again, feeding people with the same, blissfully ignorant and self-aggrandizing narratives (like “Three Cups of Tea”) is not very helpful.


  6. Nabeela #

    Dear Ali,
    There are glimmerings of changing the American education system approach to teaching history, I highly suggest James Loewen’s “Lies my Teacher Told Me” and Howard Zinn’s “A Young People’s History of the United States.’ Would that these books were required reading!
    I guess what I find somewhat depressing about your vitriol is that you only seem concerned with Muslims getting pounded. Critiques of USA as the Covert Bad Exploiter started up in the 80s with Chomsky et all and the whole Central America debacle (Nicaragua, El Salvador, et). You mention none of these countries. Why? Because there are no Muslims down there, just a bunch of Catholics?
    And at the beginning of the 20th century, Mark Twain gave a very scathing account of the effects of colonialism around the world.
    THe point is, these voices are out there, they are just not always heard. You say it is apologetic, but you fail to realize how difficult it can be to make your message heard to a broad audience and still keep true to what you want to say. There are a lot of corporate interests that will bend messages to their liking. It can be a Faustian deal: we give you the platform, but you have to tone it down.
    Mortenson has a new book for you to read, “Stones into Schools”. Maybe he addresses some of your issues. At least it will be fodder for a future potential blog posting.


  7. Vivek Veron #

    The response to the comment by Ali itself should be a separate post on Ink. Ali, would you share with us your experience in the Gilgit-Baltistan region?


  8. Fatemah M #

    Great discussions and wonderful article.

    Check an article on today’s counterpunch :)


  9. Momena #

    Mr. Ali, you have convinced me. Apologies for the impulsive response on my part.


  10. 10

    Excellent critical commentary definitely coming from a post-colonial school of thought. Media literacy at its finest.


  11. Ali A. #

    Dear Ms. Momena,

    Thank you for you thoughtful comments. Let me try to address them one by one:

    1. In case you missed it, the book is written in the style of a realistic biography and partly as ethnography. Read the Harry Potter series instead if it is just courage and compassion that you are looking for and if that is your only criteria for judging the worth of this book. This book deals with some serious issues and the representation of the regions and solutions that it offers has some severe implications. And for that reason its narrative should be seriously engaged. A New York Times bestseller that was subsequently published in two condensed versions for kids between 4 and 8 and 8 and 13 in the year 2009 and a required reading not just for school kids and social work majors in many US schools but also for senior commanding officers in the US military, “Three Cups of Tea” has sort of become a canon for policy makers, social workers, and school teachers in many institutions. The impact of this book can perhaps be seen from the following boastful statement on the book’s official website:

    “Three Cups of Tea is required reading for US senior military commanders, for officers in the Norwegian War College, Forsvarsnett, for US Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Canadian Defense Ministry members. The book has been read by General David Petraeus—CENTCOM Commander, Admiral Mike Mullen—Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, and . . . several other US military commanders who advocate for building relationships as a part of an overall strategic plan for peace. Mortenson has addressed the National Defense Senior Leadership Conference at the Pentagon, visited over two dozen military bases, NORAD, and been to the Air Force, Naval and West Point Academies.” (

    2. No doubt, the US has created a mess in the Afghan-Pak regions. Good that we are on the same page on this point. What you also need to realize is that the current US presence in those regions is not out of altruism and benevolence. Furthermore, the continuing presence is actually exacerbating the political conditions there. For example, in Pakistan, we did not have any suicide bombers before 9/11, now we export them! Thanks to Bush and Musharraf’s anti-terrorism policies! In the case of Afghanistan, you may want to read on the phenomenon of “neo-Taliban” in Afghanistan (see, for e.g., Tariq Ali’s column cited below), who were not trained in the traditional madaaris of the 1980s but are from common Afghan people who have joined resurgent militant elements only after the American invasion, in reaction to continuous American bombardment and other misadventures in their country. What you also need to realize is that American intervention in these regions are themselves a kind of terrorism, which continues to breed more terror and violence in reaction.

    3. Of course, a few external factors have been ‘mentioned’ in the book, but never considered in the diagnosis of the main problem. The stinger missiles that you name were mentioned only in the passing and in inconsequential terms (see pgs. 213 and 217). And, if you look at the narrative carefully, even after ‘mentioning’ the external factors, the logic or cause of terrorism is basically traced back to the INTERNAL factors in the book: Conflict in interpretation of religion; the “good” and “bad” Muslims in that region; and, above all, illiteracy (as illustrated in the title of one of its chapters: “the enemy is ignorance”).

    However, contrary to the book’s message, anti-Americanism in most parts of the world is not a result of “ignorance” but of direct experience with the consequences of American exploitation. Without considering and addressing the POLITICAL causes, trying to change CULTURE through books and education in Muslim societies won’t be much effective. It is a wrong diagnosis of the problem in the first place. Moreover, such culture-centered understandings of the issue have at times contributed to justifying Washington’s hegemonic expansionism. (See Abu-Lughod and Saba Mahmood’s articles cited below.)

    4. On the issue of false sense of self-righteousness, my basic contention is about the idiom of American engagement: philanthropy vs. social justice. The book does complicate the narrative of American engagement to some extent, but, as I argue in the review, the basic idiom remains the same. The courage and compassion that you find very inspiring in this book also feed into this idiom. I have made this point already in the review – so, won’t repeat that here. For further elaboration, you may want to read Lila Abu-Lughod’s and Saba Mahmood’s articles (cited below). You may also want to look at the politics of “Good vs. Bad Muslims”, which is part of that cultural idiom and discourse (See the article cited below).

    5. Ms. Momena writes “… the book presents an accurate portrayal of the situation there and there must have been intimacy between Mortenson and various characters to have had such a rounded depiction of the people in the NWFP region.”

    Firstly, you may want to read again my argument under the heading “Gross Misrepresentations”. Secondly, have you ever been to that region to know if the book presents an accurate portrayal of the situation there? Do you even know the difference between “NWFP” and the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) where Mortenson actually did most of his educational work [around 50 pages of the book are devoted to areas outside of the Northern Areas. The map entitled ‘The Northern Areas’ at the beginning further indicates the focus region of the book]? Do you know the distance there is between Waziristan (FATA), NWFP, and the Northern Areas and how starkly different their politics, histories, and cultures are? The Gilgit-Baltistan region, a 60-75% Shia region has nothing to do with the Wahhabi /Taliban style terrorism (by book’s own admission, the first Wahhabi madrassa in that region was opened in 2001, and the existence of a madrassa is not always synonymous to radical militant education), yet throughout the book, especially in the second half, the “region” and its problems are primarily analyzed though the lens of curbing terrorism (through building schools).

    How were these different regions collapsed into each other in “Three Cups of Tea”? Not through showing any parallels between their cultures, political histories, or geographies, but through Mortenson’s travel, and through that the readers were given the impression that these starkly different regions can all be understood as one geographic and cultural entity – untamed and dangerous, in desperate need of education and enlightenment.

    With regards to indigenous culture and life, “Three Cups of Tea” misleadingly characterizes rural as essentially wild, poor, and ignorant, and therefore inclined on extremism and terror. Quite the contrary, rural areas in Pakistan – especially the places with sustainable living patterns and rich traditions – can’t always be considered “poor”. One should also bear in mind that the rural areas in most of Pakistan have been historically known for their pluralistic cultural environment with emphasis on devotion and diffused religious culture and practices. That is especially true for the Northern Areas with very rich and diverse cultural histories.

    To automatically equate “rural” with backwardness and ignorance is quite presumptuous and misleading. But, the overly simplistic-and-generalized depiction of ‘rural as wild, poor, and ignorant in Pakistan inclined on extremism’ was instrumental for the author-s to make the case for their kind of solution: ‘Build schools before madrassas gets them’. The subtext of this solution is that secular education would turn students into ‘modern’ Muslims (read: “Good Muslims”, defined as modern, progressive, tolerant, pro-West) and remove their misunderstandings and ignorance about America (because to have those “misunderstandings” is wrong and characteristics of “Bad Muslims”, defined in the dominant cultural discourse as backward, fundamentalists, violent, and anti-West.). This subtext contradicts your claim that Mortenson’s solution is just about building schools and the curriculum choice is on the locals. For without the modern, secular curriculum that is by default the established curriculum in Pakistan, with all its faults, how is a school any different from a madressa. It’s the curriculum that makes all the difference and that is the key factor in Mortenson’s solution, even if he does not speak about that in open terms.

    6. Ms. Momena writes, “The book proposes education and books as the solution, not wars and weapons.” At some points in the book, I agree with you, one does get the impression that the character Mortenson (as depicted in the book) opposes the American war-s and proposes books in place of wars. However, on pg. 294, Mortenson explicitly states that he supported “the war in Afghanistan” . He further says on the same page, “I believed in it because I believed we were serious when we said we planned to rebuild Afghanistan. I’m here [in Afghanistan] because I know that military victory is only the first phase of winning the war on terror and I’m afraid we’re not willing to take the next steps.” So, Ms. Momena, if you look at his message closely, he is basically asking for a well-rounded strategy for war on terror, in which books should follow bombs in any post-war reconstruction efforts. In other words, ‘development’ should be part of US war strategy.

    If you have doubts about how his message is being taken by policy makers and military strategists, consider the following comment from Major James Spies, the Counterinsurgency Operations course director at West Point:

    “Mortenson’s involvement in central Asia is critical to a holistic approach to assisting other countries. The military has re-learned the lessons of counter-insurgency that point out the need to build up the whole of a society to assist them in solving the core problems that created an insurgency.” (¼/20090309/NEWS/90309037)

    7. On the point about imposing normative assumption, as I suggest earlier, despite mention of some self-reflective works (like “Ancient Futures”), the grand narrative of the book remains couched in the tropes of “backward vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive”, “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”, in a new-Orientalist kind of narrative. As I suggest earlier, at various point in the book one gets the impression that the farther one gets from one’s tradition and ‘conservativeness’ and becomes ‘like us’, in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one seems to become. Such MEASURES of ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ are especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan and Tahira by the author-s. Read closely the pages 195, 299-303, and 312.

    For example, when Jahan says, “I couldn’t take my eyes off all the foreign ladies…They seemed so dignified. Whenever I’d seen people from downside before, I’d run away, ashamed of my dirty clothes.” (p. 195)

    Or, when the book describes Tahira’s aspirations with these words: “Tahira, wearing a spotless white headscarf and sandals that wouldn’t have been practical in the mountains, told Mortenson that once she graduate, she planned to return to Korphe and teach alongside her father, Master Hussein. “I’ve had this chance,” she said. “Now when we go upside, all the people look at us, at our clothes, and think we are fashionable ladies. I think every girl of the Braldu deserves the chance to come downside at least once. Then their life will change. I think the greatest service I can perform is to go back and insure that this happens for all of them.” (p.312)

    Ms. Momena, you may be seeing Jahan or Tahira as mere individuals who are asserting their personal aspirations. I am seeing their views as part of a pattern. It would take too much space to get in the debate of what’s wrong or right with this pattern and based on what perspective. Now, I am not saying all of these problems can be traced back to the curriculum being taught in those schools. The argument I presented is not just about what’s in the content but also what’s not in it and therefore what becomes the default presumption and bias. In that regard, in the review I hinted at some observations from my experience in the region and talk with people there. See the point about Western Enlightenment.

    Furthermore, when I talked to people, I find that their aspirations and experiences of educational development and consequences are much more nuanced and multi-faceted than what was flatly and romantically presented in “Three Cups of Tea”. To give you just one example from a workshop that I conducted a couple of weeks ago in an area close to Gilgit, in which I emphasized on taking a comprehensive and cultural-sensitive approach to educational development, one community worker shared a concern that a single-minded emphasis on female education has created a disbalance in some places where you now have about 90% female literacy rate but very low male literacy rate. Now there aren’t good marriage proposals for these girls, many of whom end up in relationships that are less than satisfying to them. He connected that to the increasing number of suicide cases among educated females in a particular community. The observation, no doubt, requires further research into the causes and here I only present that as just a question to problematize the single-minded emphasis on female education advocated in “Three Cups of Tea”.

    The observation also raises a number of other related questions here. The approach shared in the book is ‘ask people what they want and help them to get that’. You see that careful, contextual approach in the first few cases in the book, but then building-schools becomes the one-solution-for-all-problems for the rest of the places, especially in the second half of the book, with a focused emphasis on female education. We see no dialogue or critical exchange that should be the key ingredient of his advocated approach. Instead, the book relies on a very simplistic, if not misleading, diagnosis of local cultures and their problems (as I argue in my review) and advocates its single-minded solution to a problem (Wahhabi-Taliban style terrorism) that does not exist in the Northern Areas. That contradicts the approach that the book advocated at the beginning.

    Community workers from the area shared a variety of experiences and approaches in their comments in my workshop, which were not always in agreement with each other, but they presented a quite complex picture of ground realities and needs. I wish Mortenson had continued the approach he advocates in principle, because that would have allowed us to see the variety of social factors and solutions that may be available. Next, and this might sound contradictory to the previous observation, but it could be argued that common people may not always know what may be best for them; more specifically, what may be the consequence of a certain educational development approach. To simply rely on their wishes may be too naive, and at times, irresponsible. I distinguish common people from the experienced community workers and that should resolve that apparent contradiction.

    At times, especially in the second half of Mortenson’s book, I also felt that we see characters (not always professionals or experienced community workers) that speak exactly what he wanted to hear, expressing ideas and aspirations in a flat, almost romantic fashion for the Western readers about what needs to be done. This is probably due to the single-handed, decontextualized, anti-terror rhetoric and approach in the later half of the book, and perhaps also due to the construction of narrative by the two authors under the influence of the cultural discourse and in view of increasing the appeal of their narrative,


    “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”

    “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency.” By Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood

    “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code”

    Tariq Ali on Neo-Taliban:


    Rabia Reply:

    Mr Ali
    can i ask if you have ever been anywhere beyond Gilgit?! there is a world of difference between people living in gilgit and those living higher up.


  12. Ali A. #


    Thanks for the comment. In my response, if I may suggest, your first point about audience’s demand sounds quite apologetic and it is a very weak defense for the kind of violences done in the book against people’s images, cultures, and histories. Just because Americans don’t like to listen to the truth doesn’t justify that we feed them with a narrative that is full of distortions and that is part of a cultural discourse currently being used for imperial exploitation of other people. Such narrative would just reinforce that attitude. And, perhaps that is what this book did and that is what the wide-scale popularity of this book reflects. My review was motivated by a concern for scrutinizing that cultural discourse because the discourse has direct consequences for Washington’s imperial conduct in the rest of the world. And reviewing the book from a critical lens provided an insightful opportunity to engage and reflect with that discourse. I point to some of the problems in the review and in my response to another commentator (Ms. Momena) on this blog. (In that comment, I also engage with your other point about Mortenson’s approach of ‘helping people get what they want’. Certainly, he is not the first one to advocate that as a principle. The problem actually lies in the implementation where he fails to give us a nuanced application of this approach.)

    Next, demanding this critical self-reflection is quite different from “[d]ictating to people what they should do”. And, if were to “dictate” one thing, I would suggest to concerned Americans to start combating ignorance from America first before they go out to change the world. And, simply opening more schools won’t do it. Because celebrating “Columbus Day” as “discovery of America” but not as colonial exploitation of civilizations which already existed in the Americas, and observing “Thanksgiving” as the national holiday but without contemplating on the historic injustice done to Native Americans, and slaves and indentured servants for that matter, will continue to reinforce that blissful ignorance and false self-righteousness in Americans. “Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving” are just two among many instances of distorted elements in the established (dominant) curriculum and teaching practices. These elements are part of that cultural discourse which continues to promote and justify American neo-colonial exploitations. What Americans need is a substantial transformation of the established curriculum taught in the schools – and in the content of other popular sources, like TV, movies, novels, magazines, from which people learn history and construct their imaginations and identities. Furthermore, not philanthropy or false national pride, but a deep concern for social justice for everyone and a self-reflective and sincere understanding of other cultures (as opposed to only that which we would like to hear from them) should be the guiding principles for developing that curriculum.


  13. Momena #

    Mr. Ali, with your assertion that, “…the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The point is not to question those values. It is to scrutinize the ideas (and solution) of ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in this book…” you are precisely undermining its message. I will also add that since this book is a novel, and not some study on the Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, it should not be criticized with the criteria that you use. Nevertheless, I will try to show that even with your pre-established criteria for judging the book, the book is still a great read.
    Humanitarian Intervention and Messy Politics:
    You accurately depict the US as an “imperial power” that does not have a stellar record when it comes to humanitarianism. Then you ask: “What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violation – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ and ‘humanitarian interventions’?”
    My answer:
    The US does not have the right at all, but it has a duty to act in this unique case. Why? The US is ultimately responsible for the “mess” that continues to grow in that region. We all know it was the US that funded the “extremists” to fight the Soviets from 1979, and of course afterwards it was largely US funds through the “Islamic” country of Pakistan that supported the Taliban and their “Islamic” schools in the 90’s, of course with a lot of help from the “Islamic” country of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, since the US was one of the main actors in creating the problem, it is obliged to “fix” it too!

    You claim that there is “…silence on the role of external ‘factors’….” in the book. This is false, because the book explicitly mentions the various external factors that I stated above. Specifically, Mortenson says it was the CIA which made “…Stinger missiles and the training to fire them effectively available to mujahedeen leaders battling America’s Cold War enemy here, leaders like Osama Bin Laden.”

    False Sense of Self-Righteousness
    You are mistaken when you say, “…the book pampers the blissful ignorance of Americans of the imperial and exploitative policies of their government…” No, to the contrary, the book demonstrates how America must not exploit others through military might. The book, in fact, combats “blissful ignorance” because it reveals the complexity of the situation and how there isn’t a simple the “Good vs. Bad” war that we’re waging. At one point, Mortenson wishes that fellow Westerners, “… 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.”

    Normative Assumptions
    The authors never forcefully impose their assumptions, but of course they are bound to exist because we all have worldviews which we cannot escape. Once again, though, you are being too extreme, and I will prove that there isn’t a superiority of “modernity” or “progress” over “conservatism.” The story of Uzra from Afghanistan who continues to wear her burkha even after collapse of Taliban actually challenges such views of “modernity” and “progress.”
    “ ‘Still, the emancipated women from the United States would want to know whether you feel oppressed having to look out through that little slit,’…. ‘We women of Afghanistan see the light through education,’ Uzra replied. ‘Not through this or that hole in a piece of cloth.’”

    School Building, Yes, But What Curriculum?
    The main solution that the book proposes to dealing with the “mess” is school building. As far as the curriculum is concerned, that is the responsibility of the locales themselves to develop. What’s wrong with Jahan’s character? She matures into a bright, young woman who wants to develop her community. Jahan says, “…I think the greatest service I can perform is to go back and insure that this happens for all of them [kids in her village].”

    Gross Misrepresentation
    You are basically asserting your suspicions about the book, which is largely based on speculation. Moreover, even if they were true, that is irrelevant because the book presents an accurate portrayal of the situation there and there must have been intimacy between Mortenson and various characters to have had such a rounded depiction of the people in the NWFP region.

    Finally, this “Critical Review” should rather be labeled “Gross Misrepresentation” for that is essentially what it boils down to. The author’s worldview of America as a hegemonic and imperialistic power has, unfortunately, distorted his vision to such an extent that he criticizes a book which precisely challenges the common course of action taken by America: military intervention. The book proposes education and books as the solution, not wars and weapons.

    (With all due respect, I think you should be ashamed of yourself for depicting Mr. Mortenson in such a negative way for there are few people in the world who dedicate their entire lives in helping other human beings and bridging gaps between cultures. These are the people of action, not words.)


  14. Nabeela #

    You are probably going to get nailed on the wall for this one, Mr. Mortenson being everyone’s new best friend, but good job in trying to ‘stir the pot’.
    You underestimate the problem of marketing books. The kind of book you want (American introspection, etc) would not sell to a broad audience. You can find plenty of those books in the Revolutionary Bookstore at your local liberal arts school, and that is where those books sit, on the shelf, unread by the mom’s in the line at grocery stores. “3 Cups of Tea” is aimed at the grocery store moms, and it reaches that audience quite well. Once the grocery store moms read it, they start fundraising campaigns at the local school (this happened in my home town, the mom who started it was NOT a Muslim).
    An extremely important take-home lesson from Mortenson’s book is “Ask the PEOPLE what they want, and help them do what THEY want”. Also, Mortenson is training the aboriginal people to leadership positions. THis is in sharp contrast to the Albert Schweitzer model: A.S. would only have European nurses at his leprosy clinics, he NEVER trained Africans to be nurses and doctors. As a result, the A.S. clinics have failed, wheras native run clinics and hospitals thrive.
    At the core of the book is engaging with people, one on one, in meaningful dialog. Appreciating them as human beings and understanding them, their hopes, their dreams. Dictating to people what they should do, whether you are a government or a guest blogger, doesn’t really work in the long run.


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