Random DJB Thoughts
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Three Cups of Tea

Those who receive emails from my father know that I could fill up a blog by just passing along the great material he sends my way. As I watched the political convention tonight, I thought that a recent book recommendation from my father was worth passing along.

So, this posting is from Tom Brown:

Last week I read Three Cups of Tea, One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penquin).  I had the good fortune to hear the author, Greg Mortenson, this past Saturday night at the local Friends of the Linebaugh Libray meeting.  In addition, Brian Lamb interviewed him recently on C-Span.

What Greg has done is build schools, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The hard cover edition had in the title “. . . one man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations one school at a time.”  He objected to the “fighting terrorism” but the published thought it needed that to sell.  It didn’t. So he got his way in the paper back edition.

The title comes from what he learned from Haji Ali, Korphe Villiage Chief, in northern Pakistan.  I will paste that conversation here:

Three Cups of Tea

All through June, the school walls rose steadily, but with half the construction crew missing on any given day as they left to tend their crops and animals, it progressed too slowly for Mortenson’s liking.  “I tried to be a tough but fair taskmaster,” Mortenson says.  “I spent all day at the construction site, from sunrise to sunset, using my level to make sure the walls were even and my plumb line to check that they were standing straight. I always had my notebook in my hand, and kept my eyes on everyone, anxious to account for every rupee.  I didn’t want to disappoint Jean Hoerni, so I drove people hard.”

One clear afternoon at the beginning of August, Haji Ali tapped Mortenson on the shoulder at the construction site and asked him to take a walk.  The old man led the former climber uphill for an hour, on legs still strong enough to humble the much younger man.  Mortenson felt precious time slipping away, and by the time Haji Ali halted on a narrow ledge high above the village, Mortenson was panting, as much from the thought of all the tasks he was failing to supervise as from his exertion.

Haji Ali waited until Mortenson caught his breath, then instructed him to look at the view.  The air had the fresh-scrubbed clarity that only comes with altitude.  Beyond Korphe K2, the ice peaks of the inner Karakoram knifed relentlessly into a defenseless blue sky.  A thousand feet below, Korphe, green with ripening barley fields, looked all small and vulnerable, a life raft adrift on a sea of stone.

Haji Ali reached up and laid his hand on Mortenson’s shoulder.  “These mountains have been here a long time,” he said.  “And so have we.”  He reached for his rich brown lambswool topi, the only symbol of authority Korphe’s nurmadhar ever wore, and centered it on his silver hair. “You can’t tell the mountains what to do,” he said, with an air of gravity that transfixed Mortenson as much as the view.  “You must learn to listen to them.  So now I am asking you to listen to me.  By the mercy of Almighty Allah, you have done much for my people, and we appreciate it. But now you must do one more thing for me.”

“Anything,” Mortenson said.

“Sit down. And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali said.  “You’re making everyone crazy.”

“Then he reached out and took my plumb line, and my level and my account book, and he walked back down to Korphe,” Mortenson says.  “I followed him all the way to his house, worrying about what he was doing. He took the key he always kept around his neck on a leather thong, opened a cabinet decorated with faded Buddhist wood carvings, and locked my things in there, alongside a shank of curing ibex, his prayer beads, and his old British musket gun. Then he asked Sakina to bring us tea.”

Mortenson waited nervously for half an hour while Sakina brewed the paiyu cha.  Haji Ali ran his fingers along the text of the Koran — he cherished above all his belongings, turning pages randomly mouthing almost silent Arabic prayer as he stared out into inward space.

When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke.  “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,” Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl.  “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,” he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own.  “Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea.  We may be uneducated.  But we are not stupid.  We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

“That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Mortenson says.  “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills.  Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started.  Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.  He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

Three weeks later, with Mortenson demoted from foreman to spectator, the walls of the school had risen higher than the American’s head and all that remained was putting on the roof.

From Three Cups of Tea, p.149-150.

This is a story that America needs to hear.  Mortenson said on C-Span that the Pentagon had bought 500 copies to distribute to their people.  (The Apostle) Paul had it right:  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Romans 12:17, 21.

Grace and Peace.

This entry was posted in: Random DJB Thoughts


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. john says

    David: when I spent the morning with Sallye Jude and Jim in Miami before coming up for NTC, she gave me Three Cups of Tea to read. I just finished my current read (Rising Tide) so am going to try and get this read before conference so I can get it back to her. I am looking forward to it.

    John H.
    Go Rays

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