1. What factors enable Mortenson to develop trust, first with the Korphe villagers and later with other Pakistanis?
When Mortenson arrives in Korphe, he is weak and disoriented, so the villagers view him sympathetically rather than as a threat. Since they have a tradition of helping strangers, they take care of him, and Mortenson responds with gratitude. Also, because of his background—especially his boyhood experience of growing up in a different culture—Mortenson does not judge them and is very open to understanding their ways. He is eager to repay their hospitality, and his medical skills enable him to contribute to the community. Having recently lost his beloved sister, Mortenson is attracted to the close relationships among the villagers, as well to the fatherly kindness of Haji Ali, so he begins to feel that Korphe is like a second home. His desire to help the villagers is so strong that they believe his promise to return, even though no other Westerners have tried to help them.
Mortenson’s ability to build trust is helped by his talent for languages, which enables him to show respect by speaking with people directly rather than through a translator. He also wants to understand the ideas and beliefs of the Pakistanis, not in a theoretical way, but concretely, by living as they do. To better understand Islam, Mortenson begins learning the activity of prayer rather than just reading about the religion. Whenever he is in Pakistan, he lives in the same way as the people he is with, eating the same food and following the same customs. He even insists on wearing drab clothing so he will not stand out. Above all, Mortenson always keeps his word, and therefore he maintains a good reputation with the locals.
2. How do political conditions change during the course of the book, and how do they relate to Mortenson’s mission of building schools?
In 1993, when the book begins, most Americans know very little about the politics of Central Asia, and Mortenson is no exception. Even at that time, however, the conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on for many years, and the needs of many Pakistanis go unnoticed because the government is focused on fighting. Nearby Afghanistan is already dominated by ultra-conservative religious forces, and parts of Pakistan bordering on Afghanistan are known to be dangerous areas. However, Baltistan, where Korphe is located, is relatively far from the most politically problematic parts of the country, and the extremely difficult mountain terrain keeps Baltistan relatively isolated. So Mortenson comes to a part of Pakistan that is more traditional and less politically entangled than other parts of the country. The conflicts he sees during his early experiences in Pakistan are local disagreements between villages, or between villagers and the government troops.
As the story unfolds, several things change. Mortenson goes into other parts of Pakistan, such as Waziristan, that are ruled by tribal leaders and are already infiltrated by the Taliban. Relationships between the two sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia) become more tense. Osama bin Laden takes up residence in Afghanistan, which brings an increase in the influence of Wahhabi, an extremist form of Islam. Extremism spreads with the increasing number of madrassas, or religious schools, which are often the only source of education available to the poor. Mortenson realizes that the best way to combat the rise of extremism is by providing an alternative source of education. The political climate changes even more after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, leading some in America to criticize Mortenson for helping the people of Central Asia. However, the CAI’s programs are seen by many as the best model for promoting peace in the region.
3. How does the sport of mountain climbing relate to Mortenson’s project of building schools in Baltistan?
Mountain climbing, both literal and figurative, is a key theme throughout the book. On the literal level, it is mountain climbing that brings Mortenson to Pakistan in the first place, and subsequently it is the climbing community that provides much of the financial and moral support for his project. Mortenson, a nurse, is befriended by physicians Tom Vaughan and Marina Villard due to their common interests in climbing. Vaughan writes the article in a mountaineering journal that leads Mortenson to Jean Hoerni, a successful physicist who is also a mountain climber. Marina Villard becomes Mortenson’s girlfriend, and although their relationship breaks off, Mortenson meets the love of his life, Tara Bishop, at a mountaineering event. As Mortenson continues his fund-raising efforts later in the book, he uses a presentation about K2 to attract climbers so he can inform them about the CAI.
On a figurative level, mountains symbolize the various challenges Mortenson and others face throughout the book. Climbing them becomes a symbol of meeting those challenges. Mortenson’s attraction to climbing stems from his desire for freedom and his love of pushing himself to his limit. He shares these traits with other members of the climbing community, which helps to sustain him and his supporters in the daunting project of building schools in remote areas of Pakistan. In addition, Mortenson’s love for high places helps him to bond with the Korphe villagers and to appreciate the dramatic beauty of Pakistan’s mountainous regions. He also learns that, for the people who live in these remote areas, the challenge is not about going to the summit for an adventure, but about surviving with dignity in a hard land. As the book unfolds, CAI schools are built with views of the mountains, reminding the students of the challenges they will encounter and inspiring the students to overcome them.
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