Saturday, February 21, 2009

Author brings humanitarian message to Marin Center

Greg Mortenson is seen with Khanday schoolchildren in Pakistan. Mortenson, who talked to a sold-out audience at Marin Center on Thursday, wrote 'Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations One School at a Time.' (Provided by the Central Asia Institute)A sold-out crowd of 2,000 people, crackling with excitement and anticipation, packed into the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium for an old-fashioned slide show.
In our high-tech, short-attention-span popular culture, this old-school presentation Thursday night was the hottest ticket of the Marin Center season because it was delivered in person by Greg Mortenson, a former "dirt bag" mountain climber who is the co-author and subject of "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations One School at a Time."

A New York Times No. 1 best-seller, the phenomenal success of the book has turned the shy, unassuming humanitarian from Bozeman, Mont., into a reluctant celebrity and genuine American hero - a nominee for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

When Mortenson asked his audience how many of them had read "Three Cups of Tea," a gripping account of his death-defying efforts to build schools in war-torn Pakistan and Afghanistan that has been on the best-seller list for 105 straight weeks, nearly every hand in the hall shot up.

Tall and lumbering, the boyish 51-year-old had on khaki slacks, a brown sportcoat a little too snug for his bulky body and a bright red Jerry Garcia necktie adorned with hearts that his wife, Tara, gave him for Valentine's Day.

"She said I had to wear this in Marin," he said to a warm laugh from the audience. "It's called 'Exploding Heart.' It took a lot of courage to put it on."

It took an extraordinary amount of courage for Mortenson to do what he and his Central Asia Institute have been able to do since 1996, successfully building 78 schools in the wildest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and operating four dozen others, educating thousands of children, particularly girls, who are often denied an education by the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists.

"The more I do this, the more I'm convinced that there's only one thing that can make a difference and that's education," he said. "Unless the girls are educated, the society won't change.

"From my perspective, I see girls learning how to read and write, and they teach their mothers to read and write, and educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban."

Pacing the stage as he talked, his story illustrated by slides of the schools and the faces of the grateful children they serve flashing on a large screen behind him, Mortenson told the crowd that he had bad news and good news for them.

He began with the bad news. "Since 2007," he said, "the Taliban have bombed or destroyed or shut down 500 schools in Afghanistan and another 180 schools in Pakistan."

"What is interesting, though, is that nearly all the schools are girls' schools," he explained. "Their greatest fear is that if a girl gets an education, grows up and becomes a mother, the value of education will go on in their community, causing the Taliban to lose their ideological power to control the society."

Shifting gears, he went on: "Here's the good news. How many of you know that in Afghanistan in 2000, at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 mostly boys in school? Today, there are 7.2 million children going to school in Afghanistan and 2 million of them are female. Has anybody here heard that?"

The audience buzzed at the question. Two hands tentatively went up.

"In the last year I've talked to over 350,000 people and in the whole time that I've asked that question, only about 50 hands have come up," he said.

Then, pausing for emphasis, he elaborated: "That is the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history, and nobody in America is aware of it. Don't you think that's good news?"

With that, Mortenson smiled as a huge ovation washed over him.

The "Three Cups of Tea" saga began in 1992, when Mortenson attempted to scale Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest mountain, as a tribute to his younger sister, who had died at 23 of an epileptic seizure.

As fate would have it, he had to turn back before reaching the summit. Emaciated and injured, disoriented and half starved to death, he stumbled into the tiny, impoverished mountain village of Korphe (pronounced Core-fay), where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering, he noticed that the village's 84 children were sitting outdoors in the cold, scratching their school lessons in the dirt with sticks. They were so poor that they couldn't afford the $1-a-day to pay a teacher, sharing one with a neighboring community.

When he was strong enough to leave, Mortenson vowed that he would return and build a school, making good on that promise.

"I found a better mountain to climb," is the way he put it.

Since then, he has fearlessly carried out his mission, tirelessly raising money for the institute, leaving his wife and two young children for months at a time, surviving a kidnapping by militant tribesmen, two fatwas against him, a firefight by rival opium dealers and any number of physical hardships in the rugged land that is like a second home to him.

The title of his book comes from a Pakistani saying that after one cup of tea you're a stranger, after two a friend and after three you're family. In other words, it's all about winning hearts and minds by building relationships, which Mortenson has done.

When his book came out in paperback, he had the subtitle changed from "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism" to "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace."

"Fighting terrorism is based in fear," he explained. "Promoting peace is based in hope. The real enemy is ignorance. The real key and hope for peace is through our children."

With President Obama's election, the elephant in the room Thursday night was what Mortenson thinks of the new administration's Afghanistan/Pakistan policy.

"I'm concerned about what's happening now in Pakistan," said Cornelia Busse, who attended a pre-talk reception for Mortenson that was a benefit for the Marin County Library. "We're sending Predator drones in and that concerns me. We're killing civilians and I'm worried."

During his talk, Mortenson reminded his audience of what Obama, Gen. David Petraeus and other military leaders have told him.

"They all say the same thing: There is no military solution in Afghanistan," he said. "They say the answer lies in education."

Despite that knowledge, a U.S. troop buildup looks inevitable.

"President Obama now is rapidly deploying three brigades to Afghanistan," he said. "We are going to increase our troops there by up to 60 percent, about 25,000 troops there by the summer.

"My concern is that there is no strategy, there is no military plan. If you talk to any Afghan leader, they all say the same thing: We do not need more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What we need is training and supplies for our army and our police. And most of all we need education."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at

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