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Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 21–23

Key Facts

1. “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.” Haji Ali

Haji Ali explains to Mortenson the meaning of sharing tea for the Balti people in Chapter 12, as the two drink tea together. Haji has just asked Mortenson to stop supervising the construction of the school because Mortenson is making everyone crazy by being in such a hurry. Haji goes on to offer this advice: “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways . . . Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated, but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here a long time.” Haji’s advice gives the book its title, Three Cups of Tea, because Mortenson says it was the most important lesson he had ever been taught. Mortenson, however, has to relearn the lesson several times in the course of the book, when his impatient temperament leads him to push ahead rather than create connections. As a result, the importance of building relationships becomes a constant theme throughout the work.

Although Haji’s speech is simply stated, there are several important points to note. He does not mean, for example, that just drinking three cups of tea with someone will make you like a member of the family. Mortenson drinks many cups of tea with other characters in the book and does not develop a close, trusting relationship. Haji means that it takes time for people to get to know one another, and that the Balti have established rituals to help this process. The offering of tea is important among people with few resources because it is a small sacrifice, made to show hospitality to strangers and honor to friends. By repeating this ritual over time builds trust. In a community that lives in hard conditions, cooperation is necessary for survival and trust is extremely important. Haji explains that the wisdom his people have developed through experience can be just as valuable as the engineering knowledge needed to build a school or a bridge, and that Mortenson will need both if he expects to accomplish his goals.

2. “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than 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.” Greg Mortenson

Mortenson’s statement appears in Chapter 22, in the article Kevin Fedarko writes for Parade Magazine that garners Mortenson widespread public attention. Mortenson’s words refer to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, just as the issue of Parade hits the newsstands, the U.S. army prepares for a major assault on Baghdad intended to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Mortenson believes that, if the U.S. truly wants to eliminate terrorism and bring peace and stability to the Middle East, the way to do so is through schooling, not more violence. By educating girls, for instance, schools create more people contributing to a society’s economy, thereby reducing poverty, which can make people desperate and more likely to turn to violence. Mortenson also thinks providing free secular education for boys can counter the growing influence of extremist madrassas. Ultimately, education shows children that they have a variety of careers available to them, and schooling provides the skills that the children need to pursue those careers.

Mortenson had actually been making a case for the importance of education in overcoming violence since the events of 9/11, but with little success. As Mortenson developed his understanding of the Baltistan region, he saw that many young men turned to radical Islam because they were poor and being a jihadist was the only meaningful occupation they could find. He realized that the best way to give people any hope of escaping poverty and finding meaning in their lives was through education. Nobody, however, paid much attention to Mortenson’s thoughts on the link between education and reducing terrorism. One anonymous government official visited him to ask if Mortenson thought he could fight the rise in madrassas with more CAI schools, but that was all. Fedarko’s piece brought Mortenson’s thoughts about education reducing terrorism to a much wider audience than Mortenson had ever reached before. Shortly after the article ran, Mortenson began receiving letters and donations from numerous readers who agreed with his way of thinking and urged him to continue his work.

3. “I request America to look into our hearts and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.” Syed Abbas

Syed Abbas, who had earlier been instrumental in removing a fatwa against Mortenson, gives this speech at the dedication of the Kuardu primary school in Chapter 19. At the event, which takes place in the days just after 9/11, Abbas publicly expresses the feelings of the vast number of moderate Muslims who do not hold the extremist beliefs that many Westerners think are typical of the Middle East. Rather, he shows his faith in education and his gratitude toward Mortenson and the others at the CAI involved in building schools for the children of Pakistan. He even calls upon his audience to protect the Americans and aid them in their work. Because Abbas carries the title of Supreme Shia leader in Pakistan, his words carry a great deal of weight, not only in convincing the audience to follow his directives, but also in convincing Americans that he and other peaceful Muslims are quite a large group rather than a small minority.

The speech, in fact, is not the first time Syed Abbas has acted as a spokesperson for moderate Islam in the book. Earlier, when Abbas is working on the project to provide fresh water to Skardu in Chapter 17, Mortenson describes him as the personification of Islam’s true teachings, which foster belief in peace and justice, not in terror. Mortenson wishes Americans could see this side of Muslim faith, and he compares the Koran, Islam’s holy scripture, with the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Torah, saying that all three teach concern for those in distress. In the later chapters of the book, Mortenson finds that his work must include educating Americans about the Pakistani people and the realities of their lives and religious beliefs. He wants people in the U.S. to realize that most Muslims share the peaceful beliefs of Syed Abbas, and like Abbas, want little more than better lives for themselves and their children.

4. “I looked out the patio door a moment later and saw Greg, standing barefoot in the snow, scooping up the fish with a shovel, and flipping it, like that was the most normal thing in the world. And I guess, to him, it was. That’s when I realized that he’s just not one of us. He’s his own species.” Lila Bishop

Mortenson’s mother-in-law makes this observation in Chapter 18. The family is grilling salmon in the winter time, and she has asked Mortenson to turn the fish. The event takes place during a time when Mortenson is undergoing a great deal of stress as he adjusts to his role as a public figure, and he has found a peaceful haven at Lila’s home, very near where he and Tara live. Mortenson spends time in the basement of the Bishop home, poring over the mountaineering library of Barry Bishop, Tara’s father, who died before Mortenson could meet him. As she comes to know Mortenson better, Lila grows to share her daughter’s admiration for him, agreeing that “there was something to this ‘Mr. Wonderful’ stuff.” Yet, like many others in the book, she realizes that Mortenson is so different from the average person that it is often hard to understand him.

Lila Bishop’s comment is important because it summarizes many of the feelings about Mortenson shared in this chapter, while also putting those feelings into perspective. We know that, during this period, long-time supporters Jennifer Wilson and Tom Vaughan distanced themselves from the CAI board because Mortenson would not agree to delegate responsibilities or account for his time. As Vaughan observes, it was no good trying to exert control over Mortenson because “Greg just does whatever he wants.” Tara expresses concern over Mortenson’s lack of regard for his health, which is apparent in his barefoot trip to flip fish in the snow. She is also unhappy about his lengthy absences from home. Although Mortenson himself recognizes some of these problems and tries to change his behavior, we know that he continues to live in his own reality to a great extent. Lila Bishop, in calling Mortenson a “different species,” recognizes just how unusual Mortenson is and why he finds it so difficult to conform.

5. “Look here, look at these hills. There has been far too much dying in these hills. Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahadeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile. We must turn these stones into schools.” Sadhar Khan

Sadhar Khan makes this statement toward the end of the book, in Chapter 23, as he looks at the boulder fields near Baharak. As a leader of the resistance that fought against the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan and battled the religious extremism of the Taliban, Sadhar Khan has a different perspective on Mortenson’s work than most people. The majority of men with whom Mortenson started projects in Pakistan were leaders of their villages, anxious to create better lives for their people. Although he has received assistance from some members of the military, and even met with some Taliban leaders, Mortenson has focused on peace and largely avoided becoming involved with political and military issues in the region. Sadhar Khan, however, is not only a veteran of armed conflict, but still engaged in a struggle for the safety of his country. His words, with their grief over lost lives and support for Mortenson’s vision, are unexpected.

The quotation captures the painful and often violent history of Afghanistan. It ends on a hopeful statement, however, as Sadhar Khan suggests the possibility that education can change the future. Mortenson is so affected by Sadhar Khan’s words that he sees his own part in that future become suddenly clear. The commitment he feels toward this man’s hopes reminds him of his first meeting with Haji Ali. Although Sadhar Khan differs in many ways from Haji Ali, both men are leaders prepared to sacrifice for their people. Coming at the very end of the book, the scene offers a reminder of the journey we have taken with Mortenson and announces the new direction he will take. It shows once again the potential good of Mortenson’s work, and Mortenson looks ahead with excitement to the enormous and invaluable project of building schools for the children of Afghanistan.

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