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Three Cups of Tea – A Critical Review

Different readers must have read Three Cups of Tea with varied perceptions and with different take-away lessons. Their impression and understanding is probably informed by their educational, professional, geographic, ethnic, and national backgrounds, as well as their knowledge of the geographies and cultures of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, further, through awareness of past and current American involvement in these regions and its motives. However, not all readings of this book are equal and not all facts and lessons taken from the book are of value.

There is no doubt that the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The purpose of this review is not to question those values nor is it deny the personal struggles of the main character, Greg Mortenson, as depicted in the book. Rather, it is to scrutinize the cultural discourse and solutions through ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in it. As New York Times‘ bestseller, Three Cups of Tea has become quite the canon for policy makers, social workers and school teachers in many institutions. It has been published in two condensed versions for kids aged 4-8 and 8-13 in the year 2009, and has been a required reading not for only school kids and students majoring in social work studies, but also for senior commanding officers in the US military (according to the official website of the book). The availability of this book and its condensed editions in both original and pirated formats being sold in numerous bookstores throughout South Asian cities further indicates its increasing popularity. That makes it even more critical to carefully analyze the message of the book.

A particularly insightful approach to engage with this book is to examine its underlying normative assumptions and politics against the backdrop of the cultural discourse that is being utilized to justify ongoing American hegemonic expansionism. Such critical engagement is very relevant to how our humanitarian activists, policy makers, and general concerned audience understand these regions and its people. It is also relevant to the kind of measures we adopt in seeking to ‘solve’ the regions’ problems by deciding what precisely is the right thing to do, who should do it, and how.

Colonial Humanitarianism

Firstly, the book never questions the idea of “humanitarian” intervention by an imperial power like the US; it merely debates the method of such an intervention – that any military intervention should be accompanied by humanitarian reconstruction efforts, which would supposedly be a good thing for the local people and for the interest of American security. There is no reflection on Washington’s past record of military interventions and its outcomes in this argument, nor any appraisal of US motives and geo-strategic interests in the region. Yet before any other question is put forth, the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions should be interrogated: What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violations – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ via so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’?

Moreover, in explaining the cause of extremism and “terror”, the book conveniently disregards the messy political history of the regions – perhaps because this would point to the pivotal role that CIA, ISI, and Saudis played in creating the menace of terrorism and extremism, complicating the overly simplistic analysis of terrorism presented in the book. However, for any analysis of terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan, what should not be forgotten is that the Cold War was not fought in America nor Europe, but rather in regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan which are still paying the price of that war. In their efforts to combat Soviets, the US and its allies heavily funded and nurtured the highest number of extremists from militants in the region, because as Mahmood Mamdani points out in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, they believed fanatics fight harder. The US wanted to give Soviets their own Vietnam. The policy of using right wing religious organizations to combat socialist-nationalist impulses and movements was already a long-established US strategy at play in the Middle East, before it was applied to the Afghan case.

Quoting a scholar from Pakistan, Mamdani also describes how a radical school curriculum was developed in an American university that was then taught to the children in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, particularly in the NWFP (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and the FATA regions. The same children then would be recruited for fighting against the Soviets. The Taliban are the second generation of these extremist militants that the CIA, ISI, and Saudis nurtured together, spending over six billion dollars and providing them with sophisticated weapons and training. Without understanding this history and the influence of external powers, one cannot understand the causes of terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, it should be made clear that American intervention in these (and other) regions of the world are themselves a kind of terrorism, which then breeds more terror and violence in retaliation.

Three Cups of Tea simply ignores this long history and continuing interests of regional and global powers. Instead, in its highly a-historical and a-political narrative, the roots of the problem are smoothly traced back to ‘internal’ causes within Muslim societies: the problem with competing interpretations of Islam and local socio-economic and cultural conditions, with a particular focus on illiteracy. The silence on the role of ‘external’ political factors allows the narrative of this book to present ‘our’ involvement as only humanitarian and benevolent: ‘We have nothing to do with their mess; we only want to help them fix their mess. We are able to do it, therefore, we should do it in good faith.’

As the book pampers the blissful ignorance of Americans – the primary target audience of the book – of the imperial and exploitative policies of their government, it also appeals to, and reinforces, a false sense of self-righteous philanthropy in them. Yet it is not philanthropy, but social justice that should be the idiom of American interaction with the rest of the world. The difference the latter approach makes is huge, inducing an attitude of humility and guilt whilst stimulating a critical political awareness.

What Americans need to understand is that their affluence, luxury, extravagant way of living and apathy toward politics are all directly linked to wars and exploitation of people and resources by their government in other parts of the world (and in their own country too). Each American – particularly those directly benefiting from the imperial exploitations – is morally responsible for the actions of its government. The place to start any humanitarian effort is to put a stop on their own government’s military adventurism as well as economic and cultural exploitations in other parts of the world. What needs to be understood is that anti-Americanism in most parts of the world stems not from ignorance, but from directly experiencing the consequences of American exploitation. Without considering and addressing the political causes, trying to change culture through educating Muslim societies will not prove to be very effective. On the contrary, such culture-centered resolutions have at times contributed to the propaganda and justification of Washington’s hegemonic expansionism. (See Lila Abu-Lughod’s and Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind’s articles cited below.)

Saving Muslims from Themselves

Building on that last point, before Americans seek to help other people they should seriously reflect on their own biases and normative assumptions. The narrative in Three Cups of Tea never seriously reflects on how colonialistic and arrogant it is to attempt to change the cultures of other people through military means or “soft” humanitarian efforts, to what “WE” consider is “right” for them. To save those people, civilize them and help them progress, is this not old colonial discourse of ‘white man’s burden’ in a new guise? Three Cups of Tea mentions another book, Ancient Futures, but never really connects the moral of that book to its own overriding message, especially the one presented in its second half. From the brief mention of this book, Ancient Futures appears to suggest that there can be multiple ways to be modern, and indigenous people and cultures do not necessarily need to follow the Western-European and American routes in order to become “modern”. In fact, their definition of “progressive” and “modern” may be very different from “ours”. This moral lesson was shared in Three Cups of Tea, but it never had any significant impact on its grand narrative or message, which remained couched in the idioms of “backward vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive” and “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”. At various points in the book, one gets the impression that the further one gets from his/her traditions and becomes more like “us” in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one is deemed to be. Such measures of progress and achievement are especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan, Aslam, and Tahira (See pages 195, 204, 299-303, 312).

The contention here is not about building schools or providing other welfare services to people, but about who is building them and with which assumptions and purpose. Furthermore, what kind of education is being offered in these schools? Which impressions about indigenous culture and life are being imparted, and at what cost?

With regards to impressions about indigenous culture and life, Three Cups of Tea misleadingly characterizes those residing in rural areas as wild, poor and ignorant, and therefore inclined towards extremism and terror. Quite the contrary, rural areas in Pakistan – especially those with sustainable living patterns and rich traditions – cannot always be considered to be poor. If progress is measured through happiness, peace, and trust, and not through complicated life arrangements and material luxuries of urban areas, some of these rural areas may be far richer than their urban neighbors. One should also bear in mind that the rural areas in most of Pakistan have been historically known for their pluralistic cultural environment, with emphasis on devotion and diffused religious culture and practices. This is especially true for the Northern Areas with very rich and diverse cultural histories.

To automatically associate rural areas with backwardness and ignorance is presumptuous and misleading. Although the intention in Three Cups of Tea was probably to develop a more sympathetic understanding of the focused regions and bring the West and East closer on humanitarian grounds, the narrative bears strong resemblance with the colonial-style Orientalist discourse about “other” cultures. That discourse was built on differences between “us” and “them”. The “us” in this discourse constructed its self-image in relation to “them” and viewed itself to be enlightened, civilized, and superior. The other, unfamiliar cultures were seen as barbarian and dangerous, therefore ought to be controlled and civilized. (See Edward Said’s insightful works cited below.)

Given such misleading impressions about rural areas, which are widespread not only among foreigners but also social workers and policy makers from urban areas of Pakistan, one wonders about the curriculum and teachings that are being imparted in those schools. What image of their own lands, their people, culture, and religion will the students develop through studying such a curriculum? And what impact it would have on their self-identity and sense of purpose when the Western-European and American historic experiences are taught to them as “universal” and the only route to modernization (or the most successful and natural route to modernization)? Such normative assumptions are abundant in the established, supposedly modern school curriculums found in both America and Pakistan. One therefore wonders, as the students are taught about Western advancements, are they also informed about colonialism and slavery not as exceptions but as part of the very logic of their “progress” and “civilization”, evident through the writings of John Locke and John Stuart Mill who rationalized and justified colonialism as a “progressive force” which would civilize the indigenous people in colonized territories? And, similarly, when the students are enchanted with dreams of Western modernity, are they also allowed to competently and critically reflect on possessive individualism, excessive consumerism, exploitation of environment and people, and secular transformation of religions and traditions, which are all part and parcel of Western “enlightenment” and capitalist advancements, and to decide if taking the western route to becoming “modern” is really that desirable?

Having spent some time in the Gilgit-Baltistan region recently and seen the outcome of some welfare projects run under similar organizations, including Aga Khan’s, I am very concerned about the notions of “development” which detach children from their roots and land, strip them of their identity and self-worth. Just as concerning are the notions of “progress”, defined primarily in materialistic terms, that is, material well-being of individuals and collectivities, with complete disregard for spiritual and cultural progress and values. It is one thing to adopt different norms and customs, but quite another to start considering your own traditional dress as dirty and backward. The character of Jahan in the book illustrates this problem quite well.

Pakistan certainly need more schools and quality education, yet simply constructing schools is not enough. The key is to look into the curriculum and teachers’ training. What kind of identity is being constructed in the process of schooling, which role models are being presented, what outlooks of the world and sense of purpose in life are being imparted, and what are the aims and values that are being constructed?

We need to ask similar questions about other development projects in the region: What are the costs and consequences with regards to the people, culture, identities, values, and environment?

Gross Misrepresentations

Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, “Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 (pp 233-235) because she died in Autumn 1997” (Nosheen Ali, 2010).

I also have serious doubts about Mortenson’s kidnap episode in Waziristan. Those familiar with the geography of the region know very well that the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) are miles apart from Peshawar and the FATA areas (where Waziristan is), and it makes little practical sense to expand the project to such a far-away region when Mortenson had not completed even his first school in Korphe, Baltistan (and the book itself admits that the people in Korphe’s neighboring areas desperately wanted schools in their localities). On the same note, consider also the November 1979 issue of TIME Magazine, which covered the Iran hostage crisis that Mortenson finds in his cell and through which he and co-author, David Relin, construct an emotion-filled, deeply touching narrative of fear and hope in the same episode. The story was probably quite inspiring to many American readers, but it is very unlikely for that English-language, 15 year old issue with a “garish painting of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini” on the cover to be found in a cell located somewhere in the remote area of Waziristan. Likewise, the whole episode is filled with holes that were never satisfactorily addressed, leaving too many doubts. The episode, curiously enough, is also devoid of traceable details about Waziristan. One can similarly question his excursions, their nature and purpose, into Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime.

The Waziristan episode was critical to fuse together starkly different geographies, cultures, and political histories in order to frame Mortenson’s message in terms of combating terrorism. This became possible only by suppressing the rich history and variations among Northern Areas, Peshawar, FATA and Afghanistan. Northern Areas such as Gilgit-Baltistan have a 60-75 percent Shia population, whereas the demographic makeup in the FATA areas is quite the inverse. Northern Areas, furthermore, are ethnically and linguistically much more diverse than the FATA areas. The connection with terror of the Sunni-radical-Taliban kind could not have been made by merely discussing the Northern Areas, where Mortenson actually did the majority of his educational and welfare work. How then were these regions connected in Three Cups of Tea? Not through showing any parallels between their cultures, political histories, or geographies, but rather through Mortenson’s travel, through which the readers were made to believe that these starkly different regions can all be seen as one geographic and cultural entity – untamed, dangerous, in desperate need of education and enlightenment.

Perhaps the authors and publishers sought to cast these regions as one to make their story more marketable, considering the hype that surrounds terrorism and its ability to make money in America, as suggested by Nosheen Ali in her analysis (Nosheen Ali, 2010). Perhaps they also wanted to make their narrative more relevant and engage with the current war-on-terror discourse seriously and sincerely (yet lacking critical self-reflection) through their own liberal-humanist diagnosis of the problem – that is, “ignorance and backwardness are the root cause of terror in the Muslim world”.

The overly simplistic and generalized depiction of inhabitants of rural areas as wild, poor and ignorant in Pakistan and therefore inclined towards extremism was also instrumental for the authors to put forward their kind of solution: Build schools before madrassas get them. The implication of this solution is that secular education would turn students into “Good Muslims” (defined as modern, progressive, tolerant and pro-West) and remove their misunderstandings and apparent ignorance about America – which is characteristic of “Bad Muslims” (defined in the dominant cultural discourse as backward, fundamentalist, violent and anti-West).

Ignorance no doubt has created a lot of injustice in the world and no region is spared from its evils. For concerned Americans, perhaps the most optimal place to begin in combating ignorance is America itself. But simply creating more schools in America is not the solution. Celebrating Columbus Day as the day America was discovered rather than remembering it as the colonial exploitation of civilizations which already existed, and observing Thanksgiving as a national holiday rather than contemplating on the historic injustice done to Native Americans and slaves, will continue to reinforce that blissful ignorance and false self-righteousness in most Americans. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are just two among many distorted elements in today’s established and dominant curriculum and teaching practices. What we need is a substantial transformation of the current curriculum taught in schools, and overcoming misleading content derived from other popular sources like television, movies, novels and magazines from which people learn history and construct their imaginations and identities. It is not philanthropy or false national pride, but a deep concern for social justice for all and a self-reflective and sincere understanding of other cultures that should constitute the guiding principles for developing that curriculum.

Further Readings:

Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? By Lila Abu-Lughod

Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency, by Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code By Ali A.

Nosheen Ali’s analysis of Three Cups of Tea: Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan. 2010, Third World Quarterly, 31: 4, 541-559

Edward Said’s works, particularly Orientialism, Culture and Imperialism, and Covering Islam all deal directly with some of themes discussed in this review.

Ali A. is doctoral student in Social Sciences. He can be reached at alismails786@gmail.com.

About Ali A

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  • also known as .

    Isn’t this the third time that Three Cups of Tea is being reviewed by Islamic Insights? 🙁

  • Magic_Hijabi

    ^ And? What’s the problem? Each critique appears to be valid and hold many merits. Nothing wrong with critical thinking

  • anon

    Astaghfirullah! In Ramadan?!?!

  • also known as .

    Correct, there’s nothing wrong with critical thinking, which is what I’m doing in asking why the same book is being reviewed again. If I didn’t believe in critical thinking I would have gone along with the flow. 🙂

    Publications doing reviews keep up with what’s new, but Three Cups of Tea has been around for so many years and already reviewed twice before. Staying up to date is important.

    There are many more important books that Islamic Insights could review, which are lesser known to the community, written by people inside and outside the Shia community. For example, Shelina JanMohammed (sp?), a member of the Shia community, has written Love in a Headscarf. Rebecca Masterton, another Shia, has also written a collection of short stories. If it doesn’t matter if the books are older, like Three Cups of Tea, why not review these other titles? We should highlight such works.

    Outside the community there are so many books and articles that need a good response also. While I appreciate Ali A’s criticisms of Three Cups, this was a missed opportunity to do something new. Unfortunately, I think we too often fall back on the same Edward Said/Frantz Fannon/Malcolm X/revolutionary/Leftist arguments, rather than really bring something out that’s fresh and adds to the discourse.

    Islamic Insights is doing a great job and I hope it keeps doing book reviews, but please keep the titles new.

    • change

      [quote name=”muhamad follower”]heh heeh muhamad d funny stuff yes hate on me my peasants srry felt like saying that[/quote]
      srry bout that didn’wowt know what happened yes good critizms

  • Ken

    These critical analyses (even if of now older books) are still relevant. Three Cups of Tea is still being used as a teaching tool. Without continued and updated critiques, it’s easy to see how the book’s overly simplistic message can become overzealous.

  • Ali A.

    Salaam AKA,

    To my knowledge this is the second time this book has been reviewed on Islamic Insights. Contrast the appraisal of the first review with this one – see yourself why an-other one was warranted.

    On a different note, just because a few of us have become critically aware of Orientalism does not mean that it has disappeared or a discussion on it is less relevant today.

    • also known as .

      It definitely is the third time. You need to read the one you missed out on also.

      Regarding the relevance of Orientalism, it’s not that it isn’t relevant, just that it has been done so often and is such a tired approach especially when it relies so heavily on older sources. When I come to this site, I look for fresh perspectives. That was what I was trying to say. 🙂

      • Ali A.

        Kindly share the link to that one. I can’t find it.

        I don’t know what to make of your other statement. Care to elaborate on what do you mean by “tired approach” and relying on “older sources”?

        You also used “fresh” multiple times in your comments, what is that? A matter of individual taste? If so, how fair is it to criticize an approach on that basis, especially when that approach is still relevant for understanding culture/politics of today.

        You might also want to check out more recent scholarship to see important developments and departures building upon that earlier critical scholarship (plural) and their relevance to today. See, for example, Saba Mahmood’s “Politics of Piety”, Joan Scott’s “The Politics of Veil”, and Iris Young’s “Justice and the Politics of Difference”.

        • also known as .

          I know that this is the third review because I commented on both of them. For some reason the second review is not up now though. Strange! 🙂

          I hope you take the following as just a brother’s ideas. Please don’t take it personally, I have neither the time nor interest to fight with a fellow Muslim. I don’t have time to read through your article again carefully and give a point by point explanation, so I will just focus on one aspect that I remember. (cont)

        • also known as .

          As a PhD student, you should know what I mean by fresh. There’s no need to split hairs … it just means to bring something new to the discourse, not rely on the same approach. For example, Edward Said has been quoted ad nauseum, not only by Middle Eastern studies experts, but by academics in other communities also. The book has been around 30+ years I believe. Obviously, such a book does not fall under the category of “fresh”.

          I will tell you what my “opinion” is: that Said’s book is overrated in that it relies excessively on post-modern criticism to make its points, which is not really so innovative, Furthermore, he falls into the classic post-modern trap of criticizing labels and concepts, but then doesn’t define them clearly himself. He is so eager to attack misconceived notions of Islam and the Middle East, that he doesn’t explain enough how they SHOULD be defined. And I say this having read and studied several of his books and appreciating him for the guts it took to stand up against the typical Zionist inspired approach to the field.

          Anyway, at this point, it’s enough just to touch on him and then bring newer, more relevant material, not rely so heavily on him for direction. The same goes for your articles in support of Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini. If you want to build up a stronger academic case — not sure if this is something you wanted to do, but still — then you need to incorporate newer material, and I don’t mean simply listing sources but actually using their material and building off of it in a unique way. Any PhD program worth it’s salt will emphasize the same thing I’m telling you when it comes time for you to present your thesis.

          All the best!

        • also known as .

          PS: I do want to mention that I liked very much how you emphasized the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and feel that if you had just stuck to that, it would have been made for a stronger article. Resist the power of Said, my son! 😛

          • Ali A.

            [quote name=”also known as .”]I know that this is the third review because I commented on both of them. For some reason the second review is not up now though. Strange! 🙂 [/quote]


            Too bad… perhaps the webmaster took it off just to prove you wrong… Even Google Cache seems to have turned against you…

            What I find ironical is that the person who doesn’t mind giving advice to PhD students – even when no one asked for it – failed to substantiate their bold assertion with a supporting reference … checking your sources and proper referencing is something they teach you in the most elementary of undergraduate classes.

            Further, be it the second or third review, as other commentators also argued, why should it matter that much? The Islamic Insights’ space is open to all good contributions. I did the review on a book that I thought was important and relevant to analyze and that my evaluation was substantially different from the previous review’s appraisal; you are welcome to contribute yours. (The space for reviews on II is not congested either – you don’t see new reviews every week.)

            The long exchange with Ms. **** that I quote below further substantiates the need for this kind of analysis.

            Today I re-checked the only other review of this book on Islamic Insights. I don’t see your comment there, unless you also go by the name “sandra amen-bryan”, or did you mean to say that you are the author of that review? I doubt that you are “Mushtaq J” who wrote after my comments there and agreed with my critical assessment. But may be I am wrong?

            Link to that previous review: http://www.islamicinsights.com/entertainment/books/three-cups-of-tea.html


          • Ali A.

            [quote name=”also known as .”]”Anyway, at this point, it’s enough just to touch on him and then bring newer, more relevant material, not rely so heavily on him [Edward Said] for direction.” [/quote]


            If I may humbly suggest, please read more and digest well before you speak about things that you evidently don’t understand that fully.

            In your earlier post, when you lumped together varying and sometimes contradictory perspectives in one array – “Edward Said/Frantz Fannon/Malcolm X/revolutionary/Leftist” – I thought you just meant to refer to them altogether. But after the present comment, it seems that you really don’t understand the depth of these perspectives, or the critical differences among them, or the important developments and departures in the field of critical scholarship (again, “plural” – Edward Said is just one among many who contributed to this field.).

            This lack of understanding is evident in your evaluation of the above review. To you, it seems, any critical argument raised there was a postmodern or Edward Said-ian critique. Perhaps you could learn a bit or two from the postmodern scholarship – the tradition you are so eager to criticize – on avoiding labels in evaluating arguments. Even with those labels you did not do justice to either Edward Said or the postmodern scholarship (which is also a plural field with multiple trends in it).


          • also known as .

            Thanks for the suggestion brother. I actually have a few masters degrees and have written several acclaimed papers on the subject matter.

            I know very well about the authors you are saying I need to learn more about. My point is that you like to rely on a narrow, combative, anti-colonialist perspective to reinforce your points, and you consistently use the same, old sources. This is the thread that brings them all together, not post-modernism. I never made that claim, it is your assertion. Rather, I said I wished to focus on one part of your paper. Is that so difficult to understand?

            I don’t really have time for this, and I sense you are taking this all far too personally.

            This conversation has been very illuminating. Good luck.

          • Ali A.

            (cont…) It might help if I elucidate my arguments from the review for you this one time (since you don’t “have time to read through [that] article again carefully”, yet… have enough time to write long, unsubstantiated assertions and evaluations).

            The first major point of the review raises the question of humanitarian interventions vs. sovereignty of states. The questions I raise are: 1. Under what circumstances the sovereignty of a state may be violated to protect the ‘universal’ human rights of the citizens/subjects of that state? 2. And, in the present context, what gives the United States the right to make such interventions, especially given its imperial politics and history.

            I don’t know if Edward Said ever raised the first question in his work. What I do know is that among so many other scholars, the British philosopher, John Gray (formerly at LSE), raises a similar question in his recent book, Black Mass. His intellectual transitions from an advocate of the New Right in the 1980s to supporting the New Labour in the 1990s and now sifting between nihilistic and value-pluralistic lines are enough to repulse a simplistic classification of his orientation.

            But the way you appraised the above review it seems that he is also a postmodernist… because he asks such a critical question?!

            Think about this question: Can only postmodernists and Edward Said raise such critical questions?


          • Ali A.

            (cont…) Next, I made the point about critically interrogating the West-European experience of enlightenment and modernity. Two considerations: 1. that historical experience should not be imposed as a teleology for the rest of the world against which their ‘progress’ is measured. 2. rather than as universals, the ideas of enlightenment need to be provincialized in their specific historical context-s, from where it will turn out that these ideas are basically ideologies or philosophies, and not absolute, universals.

            Edward Said is not the only one to have made this kind of argument. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Murtaza Mutahhari, Ali Shariati, among others, made similar points in several of their works, even before Said did.

            Now, are they all postmodern too?

            What you may want to realize is that such critical questions or approach could be anchored in different intellectual traditions. French postmodernism is one such, the Islamic is another, the subaltern/postcolonial criticism is yet another (for the last one, may want to see Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Provincializing Europe”).

            In the review, I also stress that what makes a school different from other is its curriculum (and teachers quality/training), and the contention is not on ‘progress’ per se, but the kind of ‘progress’ that is taught through education in our institutions. The implication also is that we need to develop our own curriculum-s based on our critical Islamic perspective-s and values and in a critical engagement with the available (Western) paradigms. Now, questioning the western curriculum, isn’t that done by a number of Muslims scholars (and, more generally, by those favoring value-based curriculum from various spiritual/humanitarian orientations)?

            Are they all postmodernist? Are they all deriving their critique from Edward Said?


          • Ali A.


            On the point about the depiction of the “rural” areas in Pakistan is where I engage most directly with Edward Said’s thesis. But even there, it seems that, you failed to appreciate a critical distinction. Said’s thesis in the book, “Orientalism”, is anchored in a cultural condition/process of “othering”, whereas there is an emphasis on commonality (of shared humanitarian grounds) in the narrative of TCT. It’s a different kind of orientalism that the TCT narrative constructs and reinforces. I only hint at that in the review, but it’s disappointing that this critical distinction was not noticed by a person who claims to have “read and studied several” of Said’s books.


          • also known as .

            Actually, I was just trying to encourage you because I felt your feelings would get hurt. The only thing I said is that I liked how you “emphasized the facts on the ground”. There is nothing theoretical about this and actually it has NOTHING to do with Said. It’s just news reporting.

          • Ali A.

            (cont…) Lastly, Did it ever occur to you that perhaps the reason why Said is referred to so extensively, both in favor and criticism, is because he is still relevant to the contemporary scholarship?. An indication of his relevance could be found in the continuous appearance of works that have been inspired by Said’s and other’s works in the critical tradition (plural). However, again, that does not mean that these recent works merely repeat what was said earlier (anyone familiar with how good scholarship develops in an engagement with the previous works would know that well). I named a few works in a previous post (and could name several others if you are interested in reading). Read them all first before condescendingly advising others against Said’s relevance.

            Or, perhaps you have read them already and did not find them “fresh” or “newer” enough for your taste. And, perhaps, Saba Mahmood and Joan Scott, the two authors mentioned earlier who are widely recognized in the academia and who currently teach at Berkeley and Princeton respectively, need to take a course in “innovative” scholarship from you, and also their advisors, Talal Asad and (late) Charles Tilly, both intellectual giants in their respective areas of scholarship, for their sin of training students in such a “tired approach” (which you seem to treat as singular and stagnant, but which surely is not; a simple contrast between Tilly and Asad should make that evident.)

            My humble suggestion to you once again: please read more and digest well what you read before making any sweeping assertions or evaluations next time.


          • also known as .

            Wa Salaam,

            Brother, you really have no clue who I am. But thanks for your comments anyway. Best of luck.

          • muhamad follower

            heh heeh muhamad d funny stuff yes hate on me my peasants srry felt like saying that

  • Ali A.

    Salaam Everyone:

    I received a few responses to this review. One of the exchanges I had in a public forum was especially interesting. Thought, I should share that for those interested in analyzing these issues deeper.

    [Aug 2010]

    ****, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Let me try to address them one by one:

    **** Wrote: “Mr. Ali, with your assertion that, “…the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The point is not to question those values. It is to scrutinize the ideas (and solution) of ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in this book…” you are precisely undermining its message. I will also add that since this book is a novel, and not some study on the Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, it should not be criticized with the criteria that you use. Nevertheless, I will try to show that even with your pre-established criteria for judging the book, the book is still a great read.”

    1. In case you missed it, the book is written in the style of a realistic biography and partly as ethnography. Read the Harry Potter series instead if it is just courage and compassion that you are looking for and if that is your only criteria for judging the worth of this book. This book deals with some serious issues and the representation of the regions and solutions that it offers has some severe implications. And for that reason its narrative should be seriously engaged. “Three Cups of Tea” has sort of become a canon for policy makers, social workers, and school teachers in many institutions.

  • Ali A.

    **** Wrote: “You accurately depict the US as an “imperial power” that does not have a stellar record when it comes to humanitarianism. Then you ask: “What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violation – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ and ‘humanitarian interventions’?”

    My answer:

    The US does not have the right at all, but it has a duty to act in this unique case. Why? The US is ultimately responsible for the “mess” that continues to grow in that region. … Therefore, since the US was one of the main actors in creating the problem, it is obliged to “fix” it too!”

    2. No doubt, the US has created a mess in the Afghan-Pak regions. Good that we are on the same page on this point. What you also need to realize is that the current US presence in those regions is not out of altruism and benevolence. Furthermore, the continuing presence is actually exacerbating the political conditions there. For example, in Pakistan, we did not have any suicide bombers before 9/11, now we export them! Thanks to Bush and Musharraf’s anti-terrorism policies! In the case of Afghanistan, you may want to read on the phenomenon of “neo-Taliban” in Afghanistan, who were not trained in the traditional madaaris of the 1980s but are from common Afghan people who have joined resurgent militant elements only after the American invasion, in reaction to continuous American bombardment and other misadventures in their country. What you also need to realize is that American intervention in these regions are themselves a kind of terrorism, which continues to breed more terror and violence in reaction.

  • Ali A.

    **** wrote, “You claim that there is “…silence on the role of external ‘factors’….” in the book. This is false, because the book explicitly mentions the various external factors that I stated above. Specifically, Mortenson says it was the CIA which made “…Stinger missiles and the training to fire them effectively available to mujahedeen leaders battling America’s Cold War enemy here, leaders like Osama Bin Laden.””

    3. Of course, a few external factors have been ‘mentioned’ in the book, but never considered in the diagnosis of the main problem. The stinger missiles that you name were mentioned only in the passing and in inconsequential terms (see pgs. 213 and 217). And, if you look at the narrative carefully, even after ‘mentioning’ the external factors, the logic or cause of terrorism is basically traced back to the INTERNAL factors in the book: Conflict in interpretation of religion; the “good” and “bad” Muslims in that region; and, above all, illiteracy (as illustrated in the title of one of its chapters: “the enemy is ignorance”).

    Once again, contrary to the book’s message, anti-Americanism in most parts of the world is not a result of “ignorance” but of direct experience with the consequences of American exploitation.

  • Ali A.

    4. On the issue of false sense of self-righteousness, my basic contention is about the idiom of American engagement: philanthropy vs. social justice. The book does complicate the narrative of American engagement to some extent, but, as I argue in the review, the basic idiom remains the same. The courage and compassion that you find very inspiring in this book also feed into this idiom. I have made this point already in the review – so, won’t repeat that here. For further elaboration, you may want to read Lila Abu-Lughod’s and Saba Mahmood’s articles on this issue. You may also want to look at the politics of “Good vs. Bad Muslims”, which is part of that cultural idiom and discourse. (http://www.islamicinsights.com/news/opinion/good-muslim-bad-muslim-cracking-the-media-code.html).

    5. Again, the subtext of Mortenson’s solution is that secular education would turn students into ‘modern’ Muslims (read: “Good Muslims”, defined as modern, progressive, tolerant, pro-West) and remove their misunderstandings and ignorance about America (because to have those “misunderstandings” is wrong and characteristics of “Bad Muslims”, defined in the dominant cultural discourse as backward, fundamentalists, violent, and anti-West.). This subtext contradicts your claim that Mortenson’s solution is just about building schools and the curriculum choice is on the locals. For without the modern, secular curriculum that is by default the established curriculum in Pakistan, with all its faults, how is a school any different from a madressa. It’s the curriculum that makes all the difference and that is the key factor in Mortenson’s solution, even if he does not speak about that in open terms.

  • Ali A.

    *** wrote, “The book proposes education and books as the solution, not wars and weapons. (With all due respect, I think you should be ashamed of yourself for depicting Mr. Mortenson in such a negative way for there are few people in the world who dedicate their entire lives in helping other human beings and bridging gaps between cultures. These are the people of action, not words.)”

    6. At some points in the book, I agree with you, one does get the impression that the character Mortenson (as depicted in the book) opposes the American war-s and proposes books in place of wars. However, on pg. 294, Mortenson explicitly states that he supported “the war in Afghanistan” . He further says on the same page, “I believed in it because I believed we were serious when we said we planned to rebuild Afghanistan. I’m here [in Afghanistan] because I know that military victory is only the first phase of winning the war on terror and I’m afraid we’re not willing to take the next steps.” So, Ms. ****, if you look at his message closely, he is basically asking for a well-rounded strategy for war on terror, in which books should follow bombs in any post-war reconstruction efforts. In other words, ‘development’ should be part of US war strategy.

  • Ali A.

    7. On the point about imposing normative assumption, as I suggest earlier, despite mention of some self-reflective works (like “Ancient Futures”), the grand narrative of the book remains couched in the tropes of “backward vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive”, “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”, in a new-Orientalist kind of narrative. As I suggest earlier, at various point in the book one gets the impression that the farther one gets from one’s tradition and ‘conservativeness’ and becomes ‘like us’, in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one seems to become. Such MEASURES of ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ are especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan and Tahira by the author-s. Read closely the pages 195, 299-303, and 312.

    For example, when Jahan says, “I couldn’t take my eyes off all the foreign ladies…They seemed so dignified. Whenever I’d seen people from downside before, I’d run away, ashamed of my dirty clothes.” (p. 195)

    Or, when the book describes Tahira’s aspirations with these words: “Tahira, wearing a spotless white headscarf and sandals that wouldn’t have been practical in the mountains, told Mortenson that once she graduate, she planned to return to Korphe and teach alongside her father, Master Hussein. “I’ve had this chance,” she said. “Now when we go upside, all the people look at us, at our clothes, and think we are fashionable ladies. I think every girl of the Braldu deserves the chance to come downside at least once. Then their life will change. I think the greatest service I can perform is to go back and insure that this happens for all of them.” (p.312)

    ***, you may be seeing Jahan or Tahira as mere individuals who are asserting their personal aspirations. I am seeing their views as part of a pattern. It would take too much space to get in the debate of what’s wrong or right with this pattern and based on what perspective. (cont…)

  • Ali A.

    (cont…) Now, I am not saying all of these problems can be traced back to the curriculum being taught in those schools. The argument I presented is not just about what’s in the content but also what’s not in it and therefore what becomes the default presumption and bias. In that regard, in the review I hinted at some observations from my experience in the region and talk with people there. See the point about Western Enlightenment.

    Furthermore, when I talked to people, I find that their aspirations and experiences of educational development and consequences are much more nuanced and multi-faceted than what was flatly and romantically presented in “Three Cups of Tea”. [cont…]

  • Ali A.

    (cont…) To give you just one example from a workshop that I conducted a couple of weeks ago in an area close to Gilgit, in which I emphasized on taking a comprehensive and cultural-sensitive approach to educational development, one community worker shared a concern that a single-minded emphasis on female education has created a disbalance in some places where you now have about 90% female literacy rate but very low male literacy rate. Now there aren’t good marriage proposals for these girls, many of whom end up in relationships that are less than satisfying to them. He connected that to the increasing number of suicide cases among educated females in a particular community. The observation, no doubt, requires further research into the causes and here I only present that as just a question to problematize the single-minded emphasis on female education advocated in “Three Cups of Tea”.

    The observation also raises a number of other related questions here. The approach shared in the book is ‘ask people what they want and help them to get that’. You see that careful, contextual approach in the first few cases in the book, but then building-schools becomes the one-solution-for-all-problems for the rest of the places, especially in the second half of the book, with a focused emphasis on female education. We see no dialogue or critical exchange that should be the key ingredient of his advocated approach. Instead, the book relies on a very simplistic, if not misleading, diagnosis of local cultures and their problems (as I argue in my review) and advocates its single-minded solution to a problem (Wahhabi-Taliban style terrorism) that does not exist in the Northern Areas. That contradicts the approach that the book advocated at the beginning. (cont…)

  • Ali A.

    (cont…) Community workers from the area shared a variety of experiences and approaches in their comments in my workshop, which were not always in agreement with each other, but they presented a quite complex picture of ground realities and needs. I wish Mortenson had continued the approach he advocates in principle, because that would have allowed us to see the variety of social factors and solutions that may be available. Next, and this might sound contradictory to the previous observation, but it could be argued that common people may not always know what may be best for them; more specifically, what may be the consequence of a certain educational development approach. To simply rely on their wishes may be too naive, and at times, irresponsible. I distinguish common people from the experienced community workers and that should resolve that apparent contradiction.

    At times, especially in the second half of Mortenson’s book, I also felt that we see characters (not always professionals or experienced community workers) that speak exactly what he wanted to hear, expressing ideas and aspirations in a flat, almost romantic fashion for the Western readers about what needs to be done. This is probably due to the single-handed, decontextualized, anti-terror rhetoric and approach in the later half of the book, and perhaps also due to the construction of narrative by the two authors under the influence of the cultural discourse and in view of increasing the appeal of their narrative.

  • Lama

    Thank you! I’m glad to finally see the kinds of things I’ve been thinking since I read this book written down somewhere! 🙂

    I don’t think that Greg was lying in any part of the book; I do agree with you for the most part and we really need to question the intentions and true benefits of the white coming to save us all!

    • Shady Shebak

      I do agree with you for the most part and we really need to question the intentions and true benefits of the white coming to save us all![/quote]

      “The white coming to save us all?” That is not a very nice way of referring to a group of people, who have just as many problems as any other group of people… Anyways, just my 2 cents.

  • S Muhummad

    this is what Ghulam Parvi has to say about the story (copied and pasted from another book review)

    G M Parvi | August 23, 2010 at 2:15 am | Reply
    “Well written. For a simple reader, the book is very interesting. But it is unfortunate that most of the beautiful stories in the book [are] false and self-made. Mr. David has proved himself to be the best story teller, while [being] a dishonest story hunter. Look, Korphe school was started by a Japanese lady, Ms. Koyoko Endo, chief of Himalayan Green Club, Japan, assisted by Ghulam Parvi and Muhammad Ali Changezi. Greg came to Korphe two years later. Secondly, it is also false that Haji Mehdi of Askole was against education. Well, Haji got [a] donation for a school from the Dutch (perhaps) climbers, donated free land by himself, constructed [a] two-room school building many years before Greg [came] to Askole. Haji Mehdi again added [a] two-room school through [a donation from [a] Japanese lady. Haji Mehdi was the first person who started education for children in all Braldo Valley. This world over, climbers and trekkers know. Then what [do] you say? So many stories are false, so you can say David and Greg both are dishonest people”


  • Asr Ali

    ‘Three Cups of Tea’: Inspirational memoir inaccurate, says ’60 Minutes’


  • KomaGawa

    Mr. Ali,
    I read about 40% of your rather lengthy comment on the book. I hadn’t heard of it until I noticed a small news blurb on my local web-news paper that an Illinois teacher is suing the authors…As I am a teacher (here in Japan) I am interested in these bits of news. Then I was interested in Googling a criticism of the book and found your essay.

    Well, as a writing teacher, I think it could be shortened without losing any effect and probably gaining power. I feel a certain agreement with your opinion as a result of my religious affiliation .I also felt an echo or tremor of the writing style that I used in my university days during the years of the Vietnam protest, fueled by my International Studies major. For the first part of your essay that I read, I thought it was fairly restrained. I trust your accuracy, thus I have no interest in reading the book, even if I had the time. And it is dispiriting to know that it is so popular…I will return to the web site that hosts your essay and read more.
    Regards from Japan

  • Steinerparents

    If the author is not lying about the book and its fundraising, why wouldn’t he talk to 60 minutes about the lies – made up stories. He was not kidnapped!!! He paid those people to “protect him” They did a 7 month investigation and showed he spends more money on book expenses than school building. Also he personally keeps all book income…huh! Shame Shame on you!