From the Editors
Facts aren’t the only thing that should be checked in Three Cups of Tea
The recent uproar over Greg Mortenson’s immensely popular nonfiction book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace... One School at a Time has centered around the question of whether the account is factual, and whether Mortenson is siphoning money from his $20 million-a-year charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
Three Cups of Tea is the ostensibly nonfiction narrative of Mortenson’s efforts to build secular schools in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson believes that in providing the region with secular education that competes with “extremist” terrorist-breeding madrasas, he is building peace between the West and the East, ensuring that a new generation of Western-educated and like-minded rural Afghans will emerge. As the official site for the book proclaims, “By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson…promote[s] peace with books, not bombs…”
Jon Krakauer, in his just-published 71-page booklet, Three Cups of Deceit, takes Mortenson to task for fudging dates and places as well as for using donations for his own benefit, but he also points out that the main thrust of the project—building CAI schools in areas where Islamist Taliban madrasas are ubiquitous—is based in lies. “The majority of schools CAI has established are in areas where the Taliban has little influence or is simply nonexistent,” he writes.
While issues of fact and fiction are certainly important in the realm of American publishing and its recent proliferation of fraudulent memoirs—think James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—a deeper question regarding Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea has not been addressed in the mainstream press: What does it mean that works such as Three Cups, which feature the West in a redemptive, civilizing role vis-à-vis the Eastern “other,” have become such a salient form of American literature?
In the bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, for instance, Western literature saves the day, allowing a group of oppressed Iranian women who read it to “create [their] own little pockets of freedom.” And in the well-loved The Kite Runner, a westernized Afghan rescues a boy from the Taliban. Such novels and nonfiction narratives inevitably elide America’s role in the violence, such as how the origins of the Taliban can be traced to the CIA’s funding, training, and arming of the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s.
Mortenson, while creating a mythology of himself, time, and place in Three Cups, also strategically draws on the popular myth of the poor and ignorant savage in need of benevolent Western intervention to save him/herself from the tentacles of terrorism. He even made up the Taliban’s presence to do so. He also demonized madrasas across the board, though many are not “extremist.” And he neglected to mention that only 3.8% of Pakistani children are schooled in madrasas anyway.
This American fascination with bringing Pakistanis, Afghans, and others to our “enlightened” ways via culture and development can also be found in recent U.S. military strategies of “armed social work.” As Nosheen Ali wrote in 2010, “Development in the post 9-11 context has become part-and-parcel of the project of U.S. military occupation and hegemony, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq."1 Indeed, Three Cups of Tea is required reading for U.S. senior military commanders, U.S. Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan, and Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training.
Ali notes that though techniques of “soft power”—such as Mortenson’s schools—may be “better than bombs,” we must “assess the nobility of a humanitarian intervention within the larger politics that it represents and perpetuates.” Mortenson’s story (and those like it, such as The Kite Runner) reinforces a narrative of terrorism that does not take into account larger historical and structural issues at play, exalts American and Western culture and aid, and often ignores the complexity and agency of the people it purports to help.
Books like Three Cups of Tea are suspect, not only in their facts, but also in the way they frame the world in terms of an ageless struggle between civilization and savagery, humanitarianism and terrorism—whose borders, never examined, happen to coincide with those established by a long legacy of Western colonialism and neocolonialism. Readers do not need to wait for the next Mortenson-like scandal to question whether the Muslim world will only be brought into the twenty-first century by accepting equal doses of Western culture and bombs. This scandal, larger than the book itself, goes straight into the darkness that lies at the heart of military-led humanitarian and development schemes the world round—and shows the fiction in which these enterprises are based.
If the Three Cups of Tea scandal generates a more honest discussion about humanitarian work in areas of U.S.-implicated devastation, then we will be the better for it. Such a discussion, according to Ali, will have to “acknowledge historical and contemporary aggression, be accountable for war crimes and pay reparations, work towards undoing the damage, and take steps at home and abroad so that ruthless foreign policies are not repeated.” The conversation will not be as uplifting as the kinds of stories told by fabulists like Mortenson, but if we seek to live and act in the realm of nonfiction, we have no choice but to begin it now.
1. Ali, Nosheen. “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan,” Third World Quarterly Vol. 31, no. 4 (June 2010), pp. 541-559.
2 comments for "Memoir and Mythology"
If you prefer, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hot on Facebook
What I thought it meant to be Aleppan turned out to be nothing but a cracked veneer. What we were had nothing to do with where we were from, but everything to do with recognizing the strength of our will to live.click | email | tweet
Jad NavigationView Full Map, Topics, and Countries »
From Jadaliyya Reports
Jadalicious / جدلشس
Latest EntriesView All Entries »
- Reports Roundup (May 18)
- Injuries, Arrests and House Raids: The Case of a Bahraini Family
- الليبرالية الفلسطينية أمام القضاء الإسرائيلي
- ما هي النكبة؟
- Academic Freedom and the Middle East: A Handbook for Teaching and Research
- Syria's Inglorious Basterd
- Maghreb Media Roundup (May 17)
- Buckling to Bigotry: The Newseum Dishonors Murdered Palestinian Journalists
- كتب: أطفال الندى
- Statement of the Arab and Middle East Journalists Association in Reference to Newseum Scandal
- New Texts Out Now: Maya Mikdashi, What is Settler Colonialism? and Sherene Seikaly, Return to the Present
- On the Margins Roundup (May)
- On the American Association of University Professors' Opposition to Academic Boycotts
- The Palestinian Museum: An Agent Of Empowerment And Integration For Palestinians
- An Ongoing Displacement: The Forced Exile of the Palestinians
- Syria Media Roundup (May 16)
- The Ongoing Nakba: The Forcible Displacement of the Palestinian People
- Nakba 2013: The Palestinian Youth Movement Commemorates 65 Years of Al Nakba (Introduction)
- النكبة، هنا، الآن
- حول استبعاد النكبة الفلسطينية من دراسات الصدمة