Three Cups of Tea Book Review & 3 words activity – Journal #10

We were assigned to review a book related to education. Three Cups of Tea was the one I chose. Before I include my book review here, I want to reflect on the activity Dr. José asked us to in class this week.

I absolutely loved this because it emphasized the emotional connection I had with the book. I gave the following three words to Three Cups of Tea:

Empowering, Eye-opening and Controversial. (My review below might explain why)

This activity emphasized that we should give the book three words to describe how it made us feel not three words that would mirror the main topics discussed in the book. I feel like this relates to the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” because when you read the cover of the book it talks about the main topics covered in the book and says a short blurb on what the story is about. So if more than one person were asked to say the main themes in a book you will get similar answers (which is what happens when you read the blurb), but if you ask more than one person how the book made them feel, you will get different answers almost every time. And this in a sense is the whole point of a book review; it’s to relate the book to your own life, to your reality, your own condition, your feelings and how they get affected by the the plot twists and the writing style of the book. That is why I loved this question; how would you describe the book in three words?

Here’s my book review:


Three Cups of Tea tells the story of how Greg Mortenson transformed from being a mountain climber to a humanitarian. He builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education for girls in countries where the Taliban condemn all but extremist Wahhabi schooling systems for boys. His journey began with a failed attempt to summit K2, the second highest mountain peak after Everest, located in the Karakoram region in Pakistan, to honor the memory of his late sister Christa. After a short yet immensely hospitable stay in a small village at the base of K2 called Korphe, Mortenson wanted to give back and help its people, who made him feel nothing less than family, especially Haji Ali, Korphe’s chief. Mortenson however possessed a modest amount of money from his job, as a nurse in California, therefore was not able to financially provide for this village. It wasn’t until he saw the children’s determination and “the fierceness in their desire to learn”, which he had never seen or imagined ever seeing in America, that he decided to raise money and build a school for the village of Korphe and realized that this was a more meaningful way to honor his sister’s memory (p.32).

The book proceeds to outline Mortenson’s efforts to achieve this goal, which later transforms into a life-long journey and career, as he becomes a co-founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). Some of the prominent and recurring themes in the book are; education as an honorable possession and as a solution to war-torn communities and how that could be seen as relatively impossible in light of the book’s cultural context; and the importance of understanding and respecting the culture in which one’s future lies.

Every struggle rooted in noble and honorable intentions is accompanied by blessings and success. This was demonstrated in a pivotal point in Mortenson’s journey when a fatwa, religious ruling, was issued against him building schools to educate girls. This came about as the Taliban were gaining political power at the time in Pakistan and their ideology opposed all educational systems that were not in line with the Madrassa, an Islamic religious school propagating Wahhabism and militant jihad. When Mortenson’s supporters in Pakistan expressed formal requests for the investigation of this fatwa from the Supreme Council, he received an unexpected, yet tremendously supportive response. The Supreme Council wrote back; “Dear Compassionate of the Poor, our Holy Koran tells us all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters. Your noble work follows the highest principles of Islam… You have our permission, blessings, and prayers” (p.199). Further perpetuating this idea of education as honor is another incident that also relates to the famous saying, “knowledge is power.” In a specific instance in the book I was reminded by this saying, but not merely in that education or knowledge brings a person power, it also gives a person honor and in communities where honor comes only from being rich, education was portrayed as an honorable possession. Aslam, a boy from another modest village in the Karakoram region called Hushe, was sent by his father to go to school in the more cosmopolitan city Khaplu and upon arrival received not only moral encouragement, such as when a man told him “one day, you’ll be honored by everyone when you return”, but also financial support such as his teachers buying him a proper school uniform. Upon returning to the Hushe Valley to visit his family he said, “Everyone was gazing at me and saying I had changed. Everyone honored me. I realized I must live up to this honor” (p.204).

The book title is derived from the most important lesson Mortenson learned from Haji Ali, which heavily relates to the overarching theme of immersing yourself in and respecting the culture of the people you live and work with, in this case it was the Balti people of the Baltistan region in Pakistan. Haji Ali said,

“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” (p.150).

This touches a deep and special place in my persona because respecting and learning different cultures, gestures, even languages of people I heavily interact with is an essential part of my life and travels, one that I constantly strive for. Therefore, I not only agreed with Haji Ali’s quote, I also deeply appreciated and related to it.

When I think of the struggle Mortenson faced to build schools in Pakistan, I can’t help but weigh the benefits or value in this quest. His educational philosophy was to provide the Pakistani children a balanced, nonextremist education; neither a Western American education nor the fundamentalist Islamic literacy taught in a madrassa. This meant that the curriculum should include humanities, arts and sciences as he believed this would lead to the advancement and development of the country. If we ponder on this task slightly, with our understanding of how extremist religious ideology is, we will come to the realization that realistically and practically this seems quite impossible. What the authors show us however, is that it’s not entirely so. It is without a doubt challenging and metaphorically speaking, “much more difficult than climbing K2” (p.106) but to Mortenson it was much more worthwhile and satisfactory “than a footprint on a mountain” (p.130). Mortenson’s educational philosophy relates to realism in that the goal was to help Pakistan’s people reach a point where they solve the problems afflicting and oppressing them.

An ironic yet very powerful message that encourages and resonates with the sense of a mutually beneficial and educational community we frequently discuss as well as try to establish in our class was shown through Mortenson’s conversation with Syed, a Pakistani he met in California. Mortenson only knew how to use a typewriter but not a computer so Syed, who worked in a computer shop, took Mortenson on as his student. Mortenson then said, “It was pretty interesting… Someone from Pakistan helping me become computer literate so I can help Pakistani kids get literate” (p.50).

Overall, this book invites in me feelings of empowerment from the fact that one man was able to build as many as fifty-five schools especially for girls, as a result essentially spreading peace in an unstable region. It was also eye opening and educational in that it taught me aspects of physical as well as human geography, cultural anthropology of Baltistan and Pakistani peoples and development theory in relation to Vygotsky’s notion that “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).

As a whole the book is informative as it tells Mortenson’s story at great length and detail, which could be beneficial for readers looking to learn strategies and processes of educational development in countries in South Asia. However, for readers looking for the appropriate balance between education and entertainment, this might not be the most optimum read. This is due to the authors going in ample detail about situations, conversations and events of minimal importance to the story yet not including enough literary detail of the setting or the scenery. This consequently hinders one’s ability to visualize or imagine the place properly and leads to, on a certain level, loss of focus. There is also a controversial angle to this book. After reading the humanitarian, peace-spreading and empowering journey outlined in the pages of this book, I was curious to know how the story goes on and what level of impact resulted from the CAI’s efforts. It appears that there were some allegations and lawsuits raised against the authors, arguing that some of the most inspiring events told in the book were in fact fabricated (Dolak & Schabner, 2011). The biggest shock to me however was that co-author David Oliver Relin committed suicide shortly after the lawsuit as it lead to an exceedingly negative impact on his credibility and career (Bernard, 2012). The lack of transparency is surprising but the lack of experience is not because neither one of the authors had background in the humanitarian nor development fields; Greg Mortenson was a nurse and mountain climber while David Oliver Relin was a journalist with some teaching and writing expertise. One must then realize that as much as humanitarian work is important, noble and respect-worthy, it needs to be conduced in an organized and increasingly expert manner, which is attained through a specialized and development-oriented education.


Bernard, J. (2012, December 3). David Oliver Relim dead: ‘Three cups of tea’ co-author takes his own life. Huffington Post. Retrieved Novemver 29, 2015, from

Dolak, K., & Schabner, D. (2011, April 17). ‘Three cups of tea’ author denies ’60 Minutes’ claims. ABC News. Retrieved Novemver 29, 2015, from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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