Of Many Things

Word of mouth makes for the best advertising. How often have you learned of the most enjoyable books or movies from the reports of friends? They are all the more enjoyable for being pleasures shared among friends rather than highly promoted, mass-market commodities. So it was recently for me.

Barb and Lou Kuttner are two of the best-read people I know. Their ranch house in Arizona’s Sonoran desert is brimming with books. Years ago when I took vacation time with the Kuttner family on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, they took as much time planning the books they would bring and share as in packing for the trip.

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A few weeks ago I took my annual retreat at a casita on the Kuttners’ “ranchette” in the mesquite landscape of the San Pedro drainage in southern Arizona. The evening before I began the retreat, both Barb and Lou recommended I read Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

It was not the first time I had heard praise for the book, but I confess I had been turned off by its marketing as “chick lit.” If Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time (Penguin) is chick lit, then I have to reconsider my views of the category. For this book is a rip-roaring adventure story of 21st-century humanitarianism.

Greg Mortenson, a trauma nurse and a mountaineer, stumbled on the village of Korphe in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range after a failed attempt to climb the notorious K-2. Twice on his descent he fell behind his porter, lost the trail and wandered into Korphe. While recuperating there, he discovered the villagers had set aside land for a school, but the government of Pakistan never made good on its promises to build it, so the children did their lessons drawing in the sand. Mortenson, won over by the villagers’ hospitality, promised to return the next year to build a school.

Mortenson attempted to scrape together the $12,000 he needed to build the school by writing more than five hundred individual letters to potential celebrity donors, but he received little help. He lived ascetically, crashing in a student apartment, storing his possessions in a rental locker, setting aside his savings for the project and selling his mountaineering equipment to meet his goal. Even when, at the last moment, he found financial backing, married and became a father, Mortenson lived on a shoestring. He practiced a kind of apostolic asceticism. He lived poorly for the sake of his mission—building schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The religious dimension of his story is understated. His parents ran Lutheran mission schools in East Africa, where he spent his boyhood. When Mother Teresa died, he happened to be in Calcutta, and we learn that the saint of Calcutta was his “hero”; he talked his way into her convent to pray alongside her body. Otherwise, his spirituality is an austere humanitarianism, not so foreign to the children of other American Protestant missioners.

The book is replete with stories of Mortenson’s kidnapping in Waziristan, of fatwas against him and his schools, of warlords who are won over and others who meet him deep in the desert to seek his help and of progressive Muslims who volunteer to be his fixers. Everywhere he is known for his good work and fidelity to his word.

Eight years into a deteriorating war in Afghanistan, it is good to know that Gen. David Petraeus has sought his advice. Only last week there was a report that militants in Pakistan’s Swat Valley had destroyed 200 schools for girls.

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