Chicago, Shahidul and ‘Three Cups of Tea’

Three Cups of Tea_Mech.indd

Published in Hardnews, New Delhi,April 2, 2009


Beena Sarwar

I love how connections sometimes just ‘happen’, criss-crossing the world, spanning generations, borders and continents. This particular stream traverses Pakistan’s early progressive struggle to Chicago, an inspiring book by an American who recently received Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, and a Bangladeshi photographer who came to Pakistan to document that moment.

In Chicago for a seminar in May 2007, I stayed with Danial Noorani. He is active with Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter for immigrant, primarily South Asian women. His late parents Malik and Mumtaz Noorani were close friends of my parents, active in the Communist Party and city goings-on. Tall jovial Malik Uncle ran a publishing house. ‘Jan-e-Man Phuphi’ (as we called the bright-eyed Mumtaz Noorani because of the endearment she used for us children) was active with Anjuman Jamhooriat Pasand Khawateen (Democratic Women’s Association, headed by Tahira Mazhar Ali, still going strong in Lahore).

There is some symbolism about meeting their son in Chicago. I remembered hearing of Dr Eqbal Ahmad’s disappointment when he found a monument to a policeman rather than the Chicago workers demonstrating for the eight hour day were killed by police fire in 1886. Ironically, the US does not observe May 1 as Labour Day.

Before I left, Danial gave me a paperback titled ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by someone I had vaguely heard of, Greg Mortenson. I couldn’t put it down. It is mandatory reading for anyone interested in education, Pakistan and the ‘war on terror’.

Mortenson builds schools in Pakistan’s remotest areas. The book, co-authored by David Oliver Relin, is sub-titled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time’– a mission as endangered by the ‘taliban’ as by the militaristic policies of the US and Pakistani governments operating without a political roadmap.

It started in 1993, when Mortenson was recuperating in atiny, unmapped village, Korphe, after being injured while climbing the world’s second highest mountain K2 in the Karakorams. Shocked that the village ‘school’ was a patch of land where children sat in the open scratching their lessons with sticks on the ground, he vowed to build them a school.

Back in the US, he saved rent by sleeping in his car and not taking his girlfriend out to dinner. Not surprisingly, they broke up. Mortenson kept trying to raise funds, manually typing letters to seek help. Two years later he was back at Korphe with a truck-load of building materials.

But he was in for a shock. The villagers told him that they first needed a bridge across the ravine that isolated them. Mortenson nearly went off in a huff. Then he thought about it and realised they were right. An important lesson for aid organizations: ask people what they want and need instead of giving them what you think they should have.

Besides making Korphe more accessible to the world, the bridge enabled the village women to make short trips to visit family on the other side rather than investing days as they used to. And yes, the school was also built. Mortenson has since helped to build some 78 schools in Pakistan (and Afghanistan), providing education to over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls.

The second part of the book tells a grimmer story: the impact of the mushrooming Wahabi madrassahs and the ‘war on terror’ following ‘9-11’. Mortenson recalls an invitation to the Pentagon to talk about his work, only to realise that they’re not really interested. If they listened to him, perhaps the world would be in less of a mess.

Last August, the Pakistan government announced that Pakistan’s highest civil award, Sitara-e-Pakistan (“Star of Pakistan”) would go to Mortenson for his courage and humanitarian effort to promote education, and literacy in rural areas. The Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam mentioned it when we met last month in Kathmandu. He flew in from Bangladesh especially to record the moment. On March 23rd, 2009, he was in Islamabad with friends of Mortenson watching the awards ceremony live on television.

These are, as Salma Hasan Ali wrote on Shahidul’s blog, “kernels of hope that remind us that all will not be lost to violence and a distorted mindset.”


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