October 2003 – Bozeman, Montana. It’s the coldest autumn I’ve ever seen. I’m part of a five-member team that has been sent by Rotary Pakistan on an exchange trip to Montana, USA. Our instructions are simple: Thou Shalt Improve Cultural Ties by Educating the American People about Thy Country. The mission itself is not quite that simple. We travel to small towns and prosperous but conservative communities in the heartland of rural America, in a frontier State where the Pioneer spirit is alive and well and Lewis and Clark are still everyone’s biggest heroes.
We hop from city to town to city, sometimes staying for a day, sometimes three days, and if we’re lucky, a week. We make bleary-eyed Power Point presentations at 7-am meetings in hotels – about small industry in Pakistan, about art, culture and advertising, about banking and debt relief, about poverty and schools for girls. We are asked if there are cars in our country or if people still travel on camels.
We meet hundreds of friendly, hospitable, open-hearted people, none of whom know what to expect from a Group Study Exchange team from Pakistan. They’re all visibly relieved to meet us; then they’re worried for us. They ask us if it’s safe in our part of the world, what with the war in Iraq and all. They tell us about the people who haven’t turned up to make our acquaintance: the woman across the street who’s frantic at the thought of her neighbor hosting a potential terrorist; the man two houses down whose brother was murdered in Karachi.
We cook bad Pakistani food with no fear of being found out. We make friends for life. We learn how to fry an egg by making it dance. We hear an early-morning broadcast on the radio about how schools in Pakistan teach students to hate America. We sing Elvis songs in a train. We realize that our Rotary meeting audiences are intrigued by us but they’d rather hear the new football coach speak about this season’s prospects for the State team, the Grizzlies.
We go to barn dances and we sit in silent awe on backyard piers that overlook idyllic, unspoilt lakes nestled between snow-capped mountains. We give talks about our country at schools where the globe being used in Geography class still shows East Pakistan.
And then, in Bozeman, I’m told by a Rotarian, “We have a special surprise for you! Have you heard of Greg Mortenson?”
I haven’t. And just like that, we’re whisked to the modest offices of the Central Asian Institute – an organization that funds and runs girls’ schools in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. After what we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, the CAI and its work is not just astonishing – it’s practically a culture shock. The programme officer is young and enthusiastic. She tries to speak a few words of Urdu. She can’t wait to visit Pakistan.
Mr. Mortenson is not there in person for the meeting… ironically, he’s in Pakistan, working on a project. I tell the CAI staff about the work I’m doing in an NGO for girls’ education in remote Pakistani villages. We make a $100 donation to the Institute before leaving. Somewhere not so far back in our minds there is the thought that it’s all going to come back to our part of the world anyway.
But now it turns out that only $41 probably made it back to ‘us’. In fact, a bigger portion of that donation ($47) would have gone towards funding Mr. Mortenson’s busy speaking programme, which takes him across the length and breadth of the United States all year round – much of that programme focused on promoting (and selling) his books.
No, this is not going where ’60 Minutes’ went with it. When news of the documentary broke, I had several conflicting thoughts and emotions. Like many others, I felt betrayed. Then I berated myself for expecting any different. Who could believe in goodness in today’s world? I met my cousin over breakfast and told her that Greg Mortenson was probably CIA anyway. Secretly, I felt terrible that his life’s work, which depended almost entirely on his reputation for its sustainability, was probably going to go down the drain. I was angry at ’60 Minutes’ for taking the sensational high road when the human impact was so evidently devastating. I was relieved that we never wound up scheduling the DWL floods fundraiser this year and requesting Mr. Mortenson to come as chief guest! I was torn about what this would mean for him as a writer. When did the story start taking precedence over the truth? Was it worth the risk of being found out?
And that last point was what eventually decided the matter for me. When Alex Haley was prosecuted for plagiarism and exposed for more or less making up the entire plot, premise and characters of Roots (1976) it could’ve signaled the end of the novel and his writing career. I imagine many hundreds of thousands of his readers, particularly African Americans, felt betrayed as well. And yet, more than forty years later, Roots remains THE definitive mainstream text on black history in America. The issues it raised and the awareness it created took black activism beyond American streets and living rooms onto the global stage of popular culture. Indeed, while Haley will always be remembered as the writer who lied, his book somehow survived the scandal. Why?
Because the book, even if fictional, was essentially true. Slavery was no tall tale.
Because that novel was just a dang good read.
The story related in Three Cups of Tea (of Greg Mortenson’s botched K2 attempt and subsequent visit to a remote mountain village) has been crucial to the success of his fundraising and awareness campaign. Now, although he still claims categorically that he did go to Korphe village in Baltistan after failing to summit K2, his porters apparently say he didn’t. Oops. Similarly, it turns out that his ‘kidnappers’ in Balochistan (related in Stones into Schools) were actually a bunch of people (including the chief of a think tank in Islamabad) who were just trying to show him around. The kidnapping, it would seem, was taking place in Greg’s head while he was being covertly transported around the tribal area with a group of acquaintances who’d confiscated his passport for safekeeping and had thrown a bag over his face for anonymity.
To my mind, the biggest contribution that Greg Mortenson has made to peace in this region is not in the schools he has set up; it is in the tireless activism that he has done in his home country and the way his books have drawn the world’s attention to a different, richer view of what Pakistan and Afghanistan are and what the priorities of a foreign policy to address this region should be. Mortenson has reached out to the American public the way no one has managed to do on our behalf ever before.
So it’s not the schools I’m so worried about. Education outside the State system is an ongoing, evolving endeavour in Pakistan. Programmes start, schools get set up, some schools close, others mushroom, projects run out of funding, lapsed schools are resurrected, one organization moves out, another moves in. Even if CAI starts raking in fewer funds and has to withdraw support for some schools, it is quite likely that the latter will be able to pull in funding from another organisation.
But who’s going to fund those advocacy trips around the US? Who’s going to buy the tickets for the thousands of hours that Greg Mortenson puts into talking about a part of the world that the American population actually knows very little of? Who’s going to plug the gap when those speaking engagements dwindle? Who’s going to publish and promote the next book that urges the world to see the humanity in our people and to invest in them?
Make no mistake, this is the real cost of that documentary and its fallout, which must necessarily come. It isn’t often that a do-gooder comes along with that killer combination of commitment and the power to hold you, to make you listen – to win your trust – as Greg Mortenson has. A very important voice is in danger of being silenced.
But in the middle of this mess, I have hope. It’s the books, you see. Whether or not Mr. Mortenson went to Korphe in 1993 does not eclipse the overall truth of what his books are shouting out to the world: Remember these are people, just like you; if you help them, you forge peace. And they’re good books. People will continue to read them and many people will continue to believe and to act because of them. I think sometimes we forget how powerful that can be.
You never know, the pen may still win the day.