Tag Archives: pakistan

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – bitter tea

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is charmingly written, and instantly riveting. A young Pakistani meets an American in a Lahore teashop and begins to tell him the story of his life. By titling his book in the way he has, and then giving a story about a clever young man who buys into the American dream, attends Princeton, falls in love with an American girl and becomes a high-flyer at a New York valuation firm, Mohsin Hamid invites his readers to examine their own unconscious prejudice about fundamentalism as fed by the fear-mongering Western media. One of the most interesting things about this book is the perspective it gives on the life of a suspicious-looking brown, and worst of all, sometimes bearded, person living in New York in an atmosphere of post-9/11 panic. This is the America of the apple pie and stars and stripes. A retro idyll: our hero wonders whether the America of that popular imagination ever existed, and whether, if it was resurrected, it would have any kind of place for a person like him. It’s an interesting thought, and it’s interesting to see a writer explore the perspective of someone who has some sympathy for the 9/11 attacks – not for the action itself, with its fatal consequences, but for the feeling of anger against America: the aggressor, the patronising big brother, the ruthless bully. It was interesting to watch Changez, our hero, with his love for the land of opportunity, its beautiful women and its personal freedoms, think again about the fragility of his life in the corporate machine.

The book is not centred around politics, whatever the assumption might be. It’s a personal story – one man on a path to success, hard won success at that, who is forced to re-evaluate his identity. Hamid writes convincingly about the two very different worlds his character straddles and Changez himself is full of depth. I read the book in a couple of sittings, eager to find out how it ends. I was transported – to dusty Lahore, to gleaming New York – and I was gripped by Changez’s life, its highs and its lows.

A fresh and refreshing perspective on most that popular of subjects: 9/11. Mohsin Hamid’s story is both beautiful and deeply sad.

Buy this book

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Three Cups of Tea – a powerful brew

Three Cups of Tea is journalist David Oliver Relin’s account of intrepid philanthropist Greg Mortenson’s work in Northern Pakistan. It is also the first book that Lovely Mum has ever recommended to me. She’s not a big reader despite being an excellent book-chooser so I was interested to find out why she rated this book so highly.

Greg Mortenson first became interested in the isolated region of Baltistan when as a young mountain climber he found himself lost in its freezing, forbidding mountains, having become separated from his climbing party. Exhausted, starving and close to death, he stumbled into the tiny, isolated community of Korphe, where the people welcomed him with open arms, feeding him and offering him shelter, in spite of their desperate poverty. Mortenson was deeply touched by their generosity and was appalled to see the way the government of Pakistan had failed to provide them with anything resembling proper schools.

During his stay in Korphe, Mortenson noticed a devoted group of students receiving instruction out on the mountainside, in the howling wind, without so much as a set of textbooks between them. He told leader of Korphe, Haji Ali, that he would return one day and build them a school. This was the beginning of Mortenson’s quest to provide education for the poor of Pakistan – especially its girls. He built his school in Korphe with donated money totalling $12,000 and, from there, he set about building more.

Having read The Looming Tower a little while before, I was interested to see these two stories intersect. Lawrence Wright discusses at length the role played by Saudi-financed, extremist madrassas (schools) in acts of terrorism and Mortenson pretty much echoes his sentiments. Giving poor people a secular education is his own quiet ‘war on terror’, if you can call it that. (I imagine he would prefer not to call it that.)

His quest is to give young people a voice in which they can speak for themselves and I think his great success has come because he is prepared to do that within the framework of the conservative, Muslim societies where he works. He neither makes a case for democracy nor for Islam – he simply works on the assumption that ignorance and poverty are everyone’s enemies and he suggests that we must fight them at their roots and not by prancing around with guns.

Of course, the way David Oliver Relin talks about Mortenson makes him sound suspiciously like a saint. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to serving the most invisible, destitute members of a culture that is nothing like his own. He seems to have no fear for his personal safety, wandering into dangerous Waziristan and getting himself kidnapped, wading into war-torn Kabul and remaining steadfast in his courage. He is a man whose singular drive and vision have changed the lives of tens of thousands of girls who otherwise may never have had a shot at education. So I found myself wondering: is Greg Mortenson really real? Is Relin simply sensationalising?

By the end of the book, I had concluded that Relin’s Mortenson is real, he is a modern hero and his story is pretty spectacular. He’s not perfect- he is impatient, stubborn and reckless – but these are also the qualities that make him perfect for his vocation. Oh, I admit it! I could never marry a man like Mortenson – the real love of his life is his cause and he seems inept when it comes to everyday life. All the same, I’m fascinated by the woman who did decide to marry him. As is noted in the book, Tara Mortenson’s sacrifice to the altar of education is immense and utterly selfless. More so than Mortenson’s, maybe. After all, he gets the lion’s share of the glory while she simply waits lovingly, with acceptance, raising their children practically single-handedly. I wonder how many other women, despite believing that Mortenson is doing a wonderful thing, would do the same in her shoes. Not many, I think – she’s certainly braver than I am.

Three Cups of Tea is an uplifting book then, full of moments that restore your faith in humanity. It reads like fiction, partly because Relin is an elegant narrator and partly because the story of Mortenson’s work in Pakistan sounds too exciting to be real. Here is a man who really walks the walk – his story is well worth a read.

If you’re interested in Mortenson’s work and want to know how to help, you can visit the Three Cups of Tea website.

Buy this book

Leave a comment

Filed under non fiction