Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
Title: Three Cups of Tea
Author: Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (well sort-of)
Publisher: Penguin Group
Publication Date: 2006
Source: Book club (borrowed)
Genre: Biography
Location: Pakistan

*Warning this review may contain descriptions of plotlines from the book*

I picked up Three Cups of Tea at my book (sharing) club and didn't know too much about it beyond the description my friend gave me. It covers the story of Greg Mortenson who in 1993, after a failed attempt to climb K2, promised to return to a local Pakistan village to build a school. The story takes us through the challenges he faces, the creation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) the charity organisation he now fronts, and the growth of the organisation to build schools across various locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The book is told entirely in third person, with Relin recounting the experiences that Mortenson has had. This threw me in the first chapter as the glowing praise for Mortenson sounded extremely egotistical since Mortenson 'co-wrote' it (I'm not the first one to have this problem). That is until you get into the book and it soon becomes apparent that it is Relin telling the story. In fact (refer to section further below) Relin states he wrote the entire book and was not happy that Mortenson was listed as a co-author. I think this is an important distinction to make when you read this book.

It is an incredibly interesting book for a number of reasons. Firstly it provides a vivid account of rural life in Pakistan along with an array of interesting information about the India and Pakistan conflicts and the multitude of cultures and ancient tribes that live in the region. Secondly it showcases the amazing things that can be achieved if someone puts their mind to it. The thing that really struck me with this book is that it doesn't simply gloss over the issues or the hardships about trying to do charity work in a country like Pakistan. It took over two years to build the first school with a number of issues along the way. There were monetary problems simply getting the project off the ground, issues in Pakistan with people trying to hijack the project to other areas, environmental issues with working in such a remote location, and religious complications from individuals wanting to restrict the education of females and the ignorant perception that the schools were being built to convert their children to Christianity and tout anti-Muslim propaganda. And not only did it describe the difficulties but it described the mistakes that Mortenson himself made since we are inevitably all human. Mistakes such as trying to build his second project in a completely different region without any contacts or extensive knowledge of the area.

Finally the story evolves as you progress through the book as it takes us into the after effects of the 9/11 attack and how that changes what is happening in Pakistan. Also it provides a catalyst for Mortenson's own opinion on the war effort as the lack of aid and support in Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes increasingly obvious. Mortenson moves from simply creating buildings in remote villages to showcasing how education can be one of our most effective weapons on the war against terror. Providing more schools and education opportunities to children in these countries provides an alternative to the radicalised madrassa schooling that helped bring birth to the extremist Taliban movement.

Ultimately this book provides a number of profound themes that you can't help but be affected by. It is incredible what someone can achieve if they truly put their mind to it. Lots of people may talk about doing something but very few people have the guts to actually act. There is no doubt in my mind that education really is the single biggest defence we have in the fight for peace.

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Three Cups of Tea by  Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

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The controversy

You can't review this book without coming across some of the controversy that was raised in a 60 minutes investigation. I really wondered how this would affect my final thoughts on this book and the more I looked into it the more I found myself researching and reading all sides of the story.

In case you don't want to read what will no doubt become a very lengthy post, I'll summarise my opinion first.

There are two main accusations; the first is that there were lies told in the book and the second is that CAI have been misusing funds. What I challenge anyone to do is to read the book first, then research the claims and finally form your own opinion. Because personally I don't believe this issue is as black and white as people try and make it out to be.

Ultimately whether there were falsifications or misrepresentations of events in the book or there are currently issues within the CAI organisation these should not detract from the key themes that the book is trying to convey. We should be trying to fight our wars with education and not just bombs. Not only unbiased education for the children of countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan but education within our own country on other cultures and religions. There are a lot of misrepresentations of Muslims in the minds of people today.

And for everyone out there putting Mortenson down. At least he tried.

The main issues

And now to get into a bit more detail if you are interested. Please note this section will contain detailed descriptions of story plots from the book. Also please note that unfortunately I have been unable to obtain a copy of the article written by Jon Krakauer

Lets address the first claim; that Greg Mortenson lied in the book. The two main claims in regards to this is that he didn't visit Korphe, the main village in the book and where he built his first school, until a year later than described in the book. And that he wasn't abducted by the Taliban.

In regards the first claim, Mortenson is the first to admit that there are inaccuracies in the timeline of the book as he and David Oliver Relin agreed to "simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story" <source>. He clarifies that he first visited the village after the failed K2 attempt and then returned one year later but that many of the events during these two visits were portrayed as one visit in the book for simplification <source>. He also identifies another area in the book where this has happened; "At the end of the book, I took three trips up to northern Afghanistan, over about a year and a half. Those were synthesized into one trip." <source>. From what I can tell personally the main discrepancy is that on his very first visit he was only in Korphe for a few hours not overnight like is implied in the book. However the rest adds up. When I was reading the book I certainly interpreted that there were multiple trips to and from Korphe and he states in the book that it took over 2 years to build the bridge (and subsequently the school) in Korphe.

The other issue is that he wasn't abducted by the Taliban. First I want to simply clarify that never in the book does he say that he was abducted by the Taliban. The book describes how he makes a trip to Wazirstan in the hope of building his second school in the area, however he readily admits that this was a bad idea since he has absolutely no contacts in the area.  He describes some contacts that he meets who turn out he believes to be smugglers. He also describes the madrassa located nearby which was attended by Taliban leaders indicating that Wazirstan is a Taliban supported area of Pakistan. It then goes on to describe how he is detained for five days in a room while his passport and legal documents are held. There is absolutely no description of mistreatment or 'abduction' simply that he was detained and he didn't know why. Most of the description is about his own self-doubt as he isn't sure what to do next or why he is there. After five days an English speaking Pashtun finally comes to talk with him about what he is doing in Wazirstan. Later he was released. It is unfortunate that Mortenson himself said he was abducted by the Taliban in a later interview but it is clearly not detailed as such in the book. Personally I think 60 minutes blew this one out of all proportion in order to provide more shock and awe elements in their story. That an American man who travels to a remote part of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan without any contacts finds himself detained until a translator is found who can determine what his reasoning for being in the area is seems completely plausible to me and certainly not an exaggeration of the truth.

The second major question investigates CAI and potential misuse of donated funds as it has been helping to pay for promotions of the book domestically. I completely agree that an independent review of CAI in order to identify any conflicts of interest with Mortenson should be undertaken. However I also think that CAI have an invested interest in the success of this book and that the outlay of the money they have used to help promote the book would be directly repaid in exposure and donations to the charity. CAI's charitable work is clearly outlined in the book and I can honestly say that there is no better way for a charity to get it's name out there than through a book such as this.

It is clear that all decisions made by the CAI over the history of it's existence has been made by a board of directors and they should be held accountable. Even in the book it is made quite clear that any project had to be given approval by the board first. Also realise that the CAI recognition exploded after the Parade article and subsequently the book, and anything that grows so rapidly is bound to have problems, whether they have been identified and addressed by the board is the real question.

As with anything there are two sides to every story; and I encourage you to read the CAI response to the allegations in order to help you to form your own opinions on the subject.  You can read the full response from CAI over the allegations made by 60 minutes in this formal statement.

One of the things that intrigues me the most is that I cannot find a single statement from David Oliver Relin considering he was the one who actually wrote the book. Although officially he is listed as a co-author on the book, Relin has made it clear in the past that he wrote the book in it's entirety. Take a look at the following excerpt from an interview with Relin:
"Three Cups of Tea wasn't a co-written book, but you share a byline with the main character, Greg Mortenson. How did that come about?
That’s been the only negative thing about this whole adventure for me. After I turned in the manuscript, I received a galley back from the publisher with two names on it. It was published that way over my objections."
From what I can gather Greg wrote a few chapters of a book a few years before Three Cups of Tea and took it to publishers who said he can't write and so a few years later Relin was bought in. Relin insists the book was written solely by himself and that he conducted over 200 interviews.
"I interviewed Greg at length, of course. We also pored over old photos and videotapes of his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beyond that, I conducted over 200 interviews with people who had worked with Greg, CAI staff and supporters in the U.S. and Pakistan, the children and village leaders whose lives had been changed by Greg’s work, and anyone else I could think of who could bring another facet of this story into focus."

Surely if there were inconsistencies with any story Greg told him it would have become apparent in his investigations and interviews. And yet I cannot find a single statement or interview with Relin about the allegations and the entire heat of the allegations has been taken by Mortenson. Ask yourself this, if Mortenson's name hadn't been on the front cover who would be under fire, Mortenson or Relin? If anyone can find me a statement from Relin in regards to the accusations made by 60 minutes I would love to read it.

Ultimately I believe 60 minutes has used Mortenson has an outlay for a shock and awe campaign with very little true investigative backing. From here we need to focus on the real issues; we shouldn't let this stop us from supporting the building of schools and helping provide education for thousands of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the CAI board members need to allow for an independent investigation into the use of it's funds both domestically and abroad to put this issue to rest once and for all.

My biggest disappointment in this whole saga is that not a single report that I have seen has mentioned one of the other major issues addressed in this book. That the US government let the Afghanistan people down thanks to a lack of aid, and post-war support. I think this excerpt from the book sums it up
"But the worst thing you can do is what we're doing - ignoring the victims. To call them 'collateral damage' and not even try to count the numbers of the dead. Because to ignore them is to deny they ever existed, and there is no greater insult in the Islamic world. For that, we will never be forgiven."
If you want to get clued up on both sides of the story these are your best options:

The original 60 minute video can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

Here is the formal response made by Mortenson including links off to specific responses to issues raised within the piece: http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/pdf_50d477ae-6964-11e0-91e6-001cc4c03286.html

I found the following interview with Greg incredibly insightful: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/Greg-Mortenson-Speaks.html

And read the response from CAI in regards to the accusations: http://www.ikat.org/wp-includes/documents/60minutesresponses.pdf

Finally all I can say is everyone has a right to their own opinion but how can you form yours if you haven't read the book?


  1. Great post. I think the book is still worthwhile for the issues it raises. I do wish that the money was all going to the schools, however.

  2. People just overlook the main point of the book (helping others) and get caught up in controversy. Editors always end up changing books to gain readers regardless of the truth. I think your review was excellent. I started reading his second book shortly after reading this one but never finished.