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In early September, 2001, Mortenson is on his way to Skardu. He sees that more
madrassas, or conservative religious schools, are being built
in Pakistan by followers of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.
Because the madrassas are free, many parents send their young boys
there, and while some provide a good education, many of the schools focus on
training their students for militant jihad (armed struggle). Much
has changed in Pakistan during the previous year. General Pervez Musharraf has
become leader of the country, which is now under martial law. Musharraf’s government
is cracking down on corruption, and one of his associates, Brigadier General Bashir
Baz, has begun to provide occasional flights for Mortenson. On September 9,
Mortenson sets out for the village of Zuudkhan to inaugurate three CAI-funded
projects. While traveling he learns from Bashir that Ahmed Shah Massoud, a
charismatic leader of the resistance against the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been
killed by Al Qaeda assassins. Mortenson recognizes this as a prelude to more
Zuudkhan, the home village of his bodyguard, Faisal Baig, provides Mortenson
with an enthusiastic welcome. The date is September 11, 2001, though Mortenson has
not yet heard of the attacks in New York. A chief from the nomadic Kirghiz tribe who
rode for six days to ask for Mortenson’s help building schools for his people also
visits him. Mortenson promises he will come to talk with the chief when he is able.
That night, Faisal Baig tells Mortenson about the destruction of the World Trade
Center. Mortenson’s Pakistani supporters increase the security around him, and
Bashir flies Mortenson’s party out of Zuudkhan as arranged. On September 14,
Mortenson travels to a school dedication in Kuardu, and the conservative cleric Syed
Abbas gives a speech expressing sympathy for the tragic events in America. He hopes
that Americans will realize most Pakistanis are not terrorists. The next day
Mortenson goes to Korphe, where he learns that Haji Ali has died. Mortenson reflects
sadly on his last meeting with Haji and vows to continue his efforts for the
children of Pakistan.
Suleman, a taxi driver who has become Mortenson’s aide in Islamabad, suggests
they go to the Marriot Hotel to see the media “circus” now camped there in the wake
of 9/11. In the Marriot restaurant, Mortenson encounters Kathy Gannon, the respected
Associated Press bureau chief stationed in Pakistan, and they exchange information
and opinions. Gannon notes that most of the reporters sending back stories from the
Marriot know little about the region. During the next few days, several reporters
try to gain insights or make connections through Mortenson. He uses the opportunity
to give more accurate views of Pakistan, but that information rarely gets into the
stories. Mortenson notices that several Taliban leaders are spending time in the
Marriot restaurant, and on one occasion he talks with them over cups of tea. They
tell him that it might have been better for Afghanistan to turn Osama bin Laden over
to the Americans, but the powerful cleric Mullah Omar has forbidden it.
Mortenson wants to see whether he can cross into Afghanistan. When he tries,
the border guard tears out part of his passport, making it invalid. The American
Embassy in Islamabad will not issue a new one and Mortenson travels to Nepal to
visit the consulate there. Some men, presumably from the CIA, who are suspicious of
his activities interview him, but he eventually gets a temporary passport. Despite
the escalating dangers in the region, he returns to Islamabad to complete the work
he had planned for the trip. At the beginning of November he stops briefly at home
in Montana, where he finds stacks of “hate mail” from Americans who consider him a
traitor. However, he also receives letters of support, and as the chapter ends, he
is welcomed warmly at a CAI fundraiser in Seattle. Best-selling author Jon Krakauer
introduces Mortenson and reads the poem “The Second Coming,” by William Butler
These chapters highlight Mortenson’s gradual development into a responsible,
professional leader (though he still takes unnecessary risks at times) as opposed to
the impulsive and sometimes reckless person he had been. The fact that he carries a
satellite phone and wears a photographer’s vest in Chapter 19 signals that he is
trying to behave more professionally. The phone allows people to contact him, and
the vest provides pockets where he can organize and store receipts, paperwork, and
the many notes handed to him by people requesting help. But we see in the next
chapter—when he decides to test the Afghan border guards—that he is still inclined
to act rashly. His attempts to get a new visa also remind us that once Mortenson has
established a goal, he will not give up. His recklessness could easily have brought
about more serious consequences.
Once the events of 9/11 are known to Mortenson and the Pakistanis, three
different kinds of reaction show three different aspects of the complex situation.
Mortenson’s guards and supporters are concerned for security because they understand
how precarious political conditions have become in the region. They fear other
militants may be inspired to attack Americans. Syed Abbas is concerned that
Americans will assume all Muslims are terrorists. He displays in his speech what
Mortenson describes as the “true core tenets of Islam”: justice, tolerance, and
charity. The women of Kuardu are concerned for the women of New York because they
can imagine their pain, so they express their sense of shared humanity by sending
the precious gift of eggs. Taken all together, these responses reflect the fact that
Pakistani culture, like our own, is made up of people with different experiences and
different points of view. By following Mortenson on his journeys, we have come to
understand the difficult political and social circumstances of the region, and like
Mortenson, we can now see the situation in terms of real people rather than distant
Although the prevailing events in these chapters are political, an important
personal turning point for Mortenson occurs when he learns of Haji Ali’s death. Haji
was a part of the original inspiration for Mortenson’s mission, and over the years
he had frequently provided Mortenson with valuable advice and insights. Mortenson is
unaware that Haji will not be meeting him as usual when he returns to Korphe. When
he realizes that his mentor is not standing in the usual place, he feels a deep
shock. Yet the loss unexpectedly confirms Mortenson’s sense of purpose. The two men
had once talked about how Mortenson should deal with Haji’s death when it came, and
Mortenson now follows Haji’s instruction to “listen to the wind.” The sound he hears
is children’s laughter, reminding him to focus on their welfare and never give up.
Viewing Haji’s death together with the critical turning point that occurred on 9/11,
we see that this chapter marks an end of Mortenson’s personal mission in the region.
He now begins a role that will be more public, and perhaps more
Jon Krakauer’s speech, described at the end of Chapter 20, offers a new
perspective on Mortenson. Until now, the book has presented Mortenson as a man who
wants to help people, depicting his mission as an effort to bring education, fresh
water, and medical care to remote regions of Pakistan. All that is still true, but
Krakauer’s choice of the poem “Second Coming” leads us to see Mortenson in the
context of larger forces. Yeats’s poem talks about the best people not following
their convictions, while the worst people are passionate about their causes. The
“worst” could describe the Taliban and militant Islamists, who pursue their goals
with indiscriminate violence, while the “best” are those who see problems but do
nothing about them. Krakauer’s use of the poem underscores how rare and valuable
Mortenson’s work is.