Where ignorance fears to tread.
23 November 2014 06:29 (South Africa)
Opinionista Khadija Patel

Spinning lies for 'Three Cups of Tea'

  • Khadija Patel
Acclaimed author, adventurer and expert on things Afghan seems to have emerged from a “60 Minutes” expose as somewhat fast-and-loose with his facts. In the process, the profound underlying issues suffer.

Greg Mortenson may well be a latter-day Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe survived a shipwreck, Mortenson a failed bid to scale K2. Crusoe was captured by Moors before being castaway on an island where he established a civilisation, Mortenson was abducted by Taliban forces before he went on to establish the Central Asia Institute. And while Crusoe was on his way to acquire slaves to work on the plantations in America, Mortenson had no such fancy motivations. He was just an adventure traveller, but, like Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe, Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” is at its core an imperial narrative. These are stories of pale males playing saviours, asserting their dominance over the native with much aplomb. While Defoe’s tale was initially presented as fact, its fiction has long been established. But until two weeks ago, Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” has conversely been hailed as something like the Holy Grail.

In an explosive episode of the CBS investigative programme “60 Minutes” on 17 April, Mortenson’s grand tale was studiously unravelled. The programme highlighted serious financial malpractice in Mortenson’s charity, The Central Asia Institute. It turns out only 40% of the funds collected actually go towards building schools, the rest is lost in a haze of mismanagement and private jet charters.  The report also alleges numerous schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute is said to have established, either don’t exist or were built by others. Yet according to the CAI’s website, the institute has “successfully established over 170 schools” and helped educate more than 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls’ education. The investigation by “60 Minutes”  correspondent Steve Kroft quotes “Into Thin Air” author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer as saying he learned from one of Mortenson’s companions that the tale of how Mortenson started was “a beautiful story”, but “a lie.” And now for a measly $2.99, you can access the full scale of the results of Krakauer’s own investigation into Mortenson’s account of events in “Three Cups of Tea”. The book tells the story of how Mortenson became lost on a 1993 climb of K2, the world’s second highest peak, and then stumbled exhausted into the remote village of Korphe and was cared for by villagers promising to return later to build a school.

Krakauer and  “60 Minutes” beg to differ. Drawing on observations from porters who joined Mortenson on his mountain trip in Pakistan, they dispute he was ever lost. They claim he only visited Korphe a year later. And while all travel literature, employ a complex economy between fact and fiction, this book has become much larger than itself. Beyond the accusations of financial irregularities this investigation has brought against Mortenson, the influence this book has wielded on American military policy, for example, means the real scandal lies away from the coffers. It is the influence the book has wielded on the basis of what is now alleged to be gross fabrications that should warrant acute scrutiny.

“Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time”, was written between Mortenson and journalist David Oliver Relin, but it’s essentially written by Relin as a tribute to Mortenson’s educational efforts in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book was number one on The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks, and honoured as Time’s Asian Book of The Year for 2006. It has been popular in American schools for discussing development as well as the war on terror, and Mortenson has himself “developed a rubric for the National Education Association to teach the book”. So influential has Mortenson’s work been that it’s prescribed reading for military officers serving in Afghanistan. From the book’s website it’s gleaned  that, “’Three Cups of Tea’ is required reading for US senior military commanders, for officers in the Norwegian War College, Forsvarsnett, for US Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan, Pentagon officers in counterinsurgency training, and Canadian Defence Ministry members. The book has been read by General David Petraeus Centcom Commander, Admiral Mike Mullen—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and . . . several other US military commanders who advocate building relationships as a part of an overall strategic plan for peace. Mortenson has addressed the National Defence Senior Leadership Conference at the Pentagon, visited over two dozen military bases, Norad, and been to the Air Force, Naval and West Point Academies.” It’s clear this book, is as one writer puts it, “the quintessential text through which Americans are seeing one of the longest wars in US history”.

On what has this influence has been built?

In “Three Cups of Tea”, Mortenson says he was captured by the Taliban and held for several days before being released. In the sequel, "Stones into Schools", he even provides a photo of his kidnappers, 13 fierce-looking tribesmen, many clutching guns. Among them is Mansur Khan Mahsud, who directs a Pakistani think tank specialising in research in Pakistan's remote tribal regions. Mahsud vehemently denies kidnapping Mortenson. He says Mortenson's account of his trip to the tribal region of Waziristan, along the Afghan border, "is a pack of lies and not a single word of it is true". And. acccording to Mahsud, Mortenson went to South Waziristan in 1996 with one of Mahsud's relatives and stayed in the family village, Kot Langer Khel, for more than a week. Far from being kidnapped, Mahsud says, Mortenson was treated by his family as "an honoured guest”. Mahsud has also curiously provided another photo of Mortenson with his supposed kidnappers - a picture that does not appear in his books - in which the author is seen holding what appears to be an automatic weapon. Mashsud says of this new photo, "From his face[sic] expression you can clearly judge that this man has not been kidnapped."

"Mortenson has defamed me, my family and my tribe," Mahsud went on to tell journalists and he made it clear he planned to sue Mortenson, a man he once considered "a friend”.

It’s not the first time aggrieved Afghans have threatened bestselling authors with legal action. In 2004, Shah Mohammed Rais, the bookseller in question in Asne Seirstad’s “The Bookseller of Kabul” was left bristling after reading an English translation of Seirstad’s book. In a fit of rage, Rais flew to Seirstad’s native Oslo and declared, “It is slander, it is salacious. I hate her”. In response, Seirstad said in an interview, “It would have been a lot easier if he had never read the book”. While she does admit he was quite within his rights to read the book, she shoves the blame of the fallout on the “modern world”.

“From the days of Stanley and Livingstone,” she says, “travellers like me have written about the natives of Third World countries and it never came back to us. Suddenly, here is this man from the Third World taking centre stage and saying, ‘I don’t like how I have been depicted’.” It is telling that Seirstad likens her work to Livingstone and Stanley because it demonstrates a perspective in these books that is founded on achieving the dominance of the Western over the Third World.

These books are not about education or the lives of women any more than they are about Afghanistan itself. These books “exotify” the natives of the Third Word for the glory of the more superior visitor from the Western one. Seirstad’s book, although centred around the life of the bookseller, was memorable for the accounts of Afghan women in the upper-classes of Kabul. Mortenson’s books and his foundation appeal to the need to empower women in the region. And while women’s rights and the abuse of women remain a very real issue in Afghanistan, as it is in Pakistan,  there is a  remarkable fetish-making of the native women inherent to the narratives about Afghanistan. Last year Time’s graphic cover of Aisha  with the foreboding caption, “What will happen if we leave Afghanistan”,  appealed to the world to bear with an American occupation of Afghanistan for just a little while longer - for the sake of the women. The acquiescence of occupation of foreign lands in the heyday of colonialism was achieved through a discourse of enlightenment, a discourse that the likes of Stanley and Livingstone promulgated. It is the same discourse that the likes of Time, Seirstad and Mortenson now facilitate. The likes of Mortenson prey on this need to be a saviour, the need to be heroes, to save the day, the world and the girl. And while the world, the day and the girl (and boy) may merit saving at some time, attempts at saving them that are fundamentally founded in cultural chauvinism achieve nothing except to assuage the ego of a few.

Mortenson’s response to the “60 Minutes” investigation and Jon Krakauer is exemplary of cultural chauvinism. He blames the confusion on when exactly he visited the village of Korphe on the Belti language. “Even the Balti language — an archaic dialect of Tibetan — has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, ‘now’ can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern”, was Mortenson’s defence.  It was a ploy devised to waive away the contradiction to Mortenson’s claim that he stumbled into the village of Korphe immediately after his failed attempt at scaling the mountain. He appears to be saying that  Balti, being archaic and a mere dialect, without adequate concepts of time could not allow for the villagers to reliably contradict him. “60 Minutes” then asked Mortenson  directly in writing: “Did you really stumble into Korphe after failing to summit K2?” His response: “Yes, I first visited Korphe village, Braldu valley, Baltistan, Pakistan after failing to summit K2 in 1993”. It is a strange response and entrenches the newly-found scepticism of Mortenson and everything for which he has previously stood.

And yet it does appear rather surreal for Mortenson to have escaped with what appear to be such elaborate lies for this long. But while his foundation burst at the seams in its rapid growth, Mortenson has long had detractors. Pakistani scholars claim they knew there was something wrong with “Three Cups of Tea” because the descriptions of Pakistan were so glaringly inaccurate. Throughout the book, it is said, the authors get religious divides, tribal affiliations and political alliances wrong. But Mosharraf Zaidi writing in Foreign Policy cautions that “Mortenson's phenomenally successful weaving together of fact and fiction has already faced more scrutiny than most pop philanthropy ever receives in its entire shelf life”. But importantly, if Mortenson’s books really do contain the "factual inaccuracies" alleged by Krakauer and “60 Minutes”, then that is more insidious than any of the alleged financial irregularities. Did  Mortenson really sit back and think, "Oh, these Afghans will never read this book, so it doesn't matter if we call them terrorists and accuse them of kidnapping"? Did he really? DM

  • Khadija Patel
khadija patel BW

Khadija peddles words on street corners, in polite company she's known as a journalist. Words are her only defence against impending doom, old age and iniquity - spurring her interest in what language tells us about where we are from, what we are doing and where we are headed. Don't mind the headscarf, she don't need no liberation. 

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