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ISBN ### Wage Peace

ISBN 0-15-603156-6 &
ISBN 978-0-14-303825-2


This post is a double feature. I've just finished two incredible books and I couldn't help but compare them to each other. I've discovered lately an endless fascination with the Middle East, its people, cultures and customs, and complex religions and politics. I'm intentionally seeking an alternative viewpoint to the stories we're being told. I wish every book group in every living room in America would read these books in tandem.

My recent reads are "The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart and "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin. Both are non-fiction and both take place in the Middle East. Stewart's in Afghanistan and Mortenson's primarily in Pakistan, but a bit in Afghanistan as well.

Rory Stewart is a Scottish writer/journalist who walked across central Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, in early 2002. His walk began in January 2002 just after the fall of the Taliban. "The Places in Between" chronicles Rory's journey like a travel diary and along the way shows both a beautiful, intimate face of Islam and Afghan people who will never make our sensation-addicted news.

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber making impressive progress up the slope of K2 when he was forced to stop his climb (long story) and make is way back to civilization. In a profound metaphor that is traced throughout the book, Greg wandered off the intended path without realizing it. He eventually ended up in the village of Korphe in the Braldu Valley of the Karakoram mountain range. "Three Cups of Tea" tells the story of one school house being built in Korphe, 55+ subsequent schools being built throughout the remote villages of northeastern Pakistan, and all the adventures in between.

A superficial reading of the two texts could make the distinction that while "The Places in Between" is educational and an interesting travelogue, "Three Cups of Tea" will change the world as we know it. Admittedly, I felt that way about half way through "Three Cups of Tea," which I read after "The Places in Between."

However, having finished both books and allowed them to simmer a bit, I now realize that Stewart's book is deceptively simple and in fact, deeply profound. He does not write didactically and therein lies the subtlety. For example, he shares his experience of being sheltered in each successive village as he also shares the custom of Islam that requires the faithful to offer shelter to any and all travelers. He says no more and lets you think what you will about that fact. This purely journalistic style threads throughout the book, allowing the power of its lessons to remain between the lines, to remain there for you to discover on your own.

One of the gems of this book is that Stewart tells his story in an evenly measured tone and pace, much as his walking is evenly measured and paced. The tone of the book is the tone of a long walk personified and while purely prose, it becomes very fluid and poetic. The plot gracefully moves along as his feet move along through the desert, mountains, and villages of remote central Afghanistan. My reading took on the feeling of meditative walking, I was lulled into the story, and finished the book within just a few days.

Stewart's book also gave me what I was seeking in terms of cultural literacy. I realized at the time I was reading "The Places in Between" how much I was learning, but not until I read "Three Cups of Tea" and realized I could slide through Arabic words, remarks on village culture, and basic tenets of the various sects of Islam did I realize just. how. much. I had learned. Stewart's book is a quiet teacher.

Don't misunderstand, however, and assume that I'm creating a monolith of village culture, or the basic tenets and sects of Islam, or claiming that after these two texts I'm some kind of expert. It is true, however, that after reading these books I'm not only able to acknowledge that vast intricacies exist in the Middle East, but my knowledge of the history, impact, and function of those vast intricacies has increased ten fold. I could not have chosen a more perfect pair of books.

I mentioned that "Three Cups of Tea" leaves you with the overwhelming sense that this book could change the world. I honestly believe that if people would read it (and similar texts) and take to heart its message, we would have a far more peaceful existence on this fragile planet. It's a story of unnerving power and the potential that a single person has to make a huge impact. One brick at a time, one conversation and negotiation at a time, one village at at time, Mortenson has built schools to educate Pakistan's children and counter the rise of militant madrassas. With the endorsement of village mullahs and elders, the schools openly welcome and encourage girls to receive the same education as their male counterparts.

He makes a brilliant point and one understood by many community organizers and activists: "Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and search for work in the cities. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."

There are many profound moments in this book, but I'll share one of my absolute favorites. Mortenson was on one of his many trips to Korphe and in an official meeting of the village elders when a teenage girl named Jahan walked boldly into the room, into the cirle of 30+ men, and sat directly in front of Greg Mortenson. She spoke in Balti and told Mortenson that when he instructed all the school children, years ago, to plan for a bright future and live their dreams, that she had done just that. She said, "I'm ready to begin my medical training and I need twenty thousand rupees." She handed him a petition, written in English, outlining her course schedule, the books and supplies she would need to buy, and where she would live in while attending university in Skardu. Jahan was a graduate of Korphe school's first class and she had clearly learned her greatest lesson.

Kevin Fedarko, a journalist traveling with Mortenson at the time, said, "It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life. Here comes this teenage girl, in the center of a conservative Islamic village, waltzing into a circle of men, breaking through about sixteen layers of traditions at once: She had graduated from school and was the first educated woman in the valley of three thousand people. She didn't defer to anyone, sat right down in front of Greg, and handed him the product of the revolutionary skills she's acquired."

Rather than fighting wars, Mortenson advocates for a relatively simple systemic change that holds the power to eliminate many of the contributing factors of war. He advocates for education. Can you imagine if our billion+ dollar military budget was invested in our public schools and in public schools around the world?! Mortenson urges, "If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer then we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.

Assalaam Alaikum (Peace be with you).

The fine print: The photos in this post come from threecupsoftea.com and rorystewartbooks.com.

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