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 trouble.
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 Yeats.
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 ideologies.
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 difficult.
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.