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A letter from the highest Shiite religious council arrives in a red velvet
box, and although Mortenson expects the worst, the decree read by Syed Abbas
expresses support for Mortenson. The fatwa is void. The nurmadhar
of Hushe, Mohammed Aslam Khan, also visits Mortenson to request a school
for his village. He explains that his daughter Shakeela has a special gift for
learning. The school is built, and Shakeela’s academic success not only brings great
pride to her father but changes the villagers’ attitude concerning the education of
girls. Realizing the importance of female education, Mortenson ties CAI funding for
schools to continued increases in the enrollment of girls. The CAI provides water
systems for five villages, hires teachers for Afghan students living in refugee
camps in northern Pakistan, brings an American eye surgeon to provide cataract
surgery, and sends Baltistan’s only eye doctor to Nepal for special training.
Mortenson, meanwhile, has become a heroic figure to many Pakistanis.
Chapter 17 begins with Fatima Batool describing the fighting that occurs
during the “Kargil Conflict” between India and Pakistan in 1999. Her sister is
killed, and Fatima’s family is among many displaced from their homes and forced to a
camp on the outskirts of Skardu. When the refugees receive no help from the
Pakistani government or from relief agencies, Syed Abbas approaches Mortenson to
help provide fresh water. The CAI also builds a school for the girls in the
settlement. While in Skardu, Mortenson stays as usual at the Indus Hotel, and is
invited by two men of the Taliban to join them for a conversation. One expresses his
admiration for Bill Clinton, who sent troops to Bosnia to intervene in the killing
of Muslims by Christian Serbians. The book also explains that, since the time when
the British pulled out of the Indian subcontinent and divided the region into
predominately Muslim Pakistan and predominately Hindu India, Pakistan and India have
been fighting over the territory of Kashmir. That’s because India, with its greater
military force, controls most of the area, even though Kashmir is mostly Muslim. In
1971, the two nations established a Line of Control that each side agrees not to
cross, but each continues to fight from its side of the line with artillery fire. As
the chapter ends, Fatima has reached the fifth grade, and the cherry trees she
remembered from her home are now also growing in Skardu.
Mortenson tries to raise funds for the CAI by giving presentations, and at
first he has trouble attracting audiences. At one appearance, he sets up 200 chairs
but only a few people show, though one leaves a check for $20,000. Eventually he
gets some media coverage, and his talks become packed. When not traveling, Mortenson
retreats to his Montana home. Members of the CAI board are concerned about his
health, and also frustrated by his disorganization. Finally, he agrees to hire an
assistant, begin working with a therapist, and learn more about management.
Mortenson, meanwhile, keeps looking for a rich patron and repeatedly runs into odd
people promising him checks but who obviously have no intention of giving him money.
To learn more about developing poor areas, Mortenson visits the Bangladesh Rural
Reconstruction Association, where he recognizes the importance of educating girls in
a community and gains new energy for his mission. He stops briefly in Calcutta just
after the death of Mother Teresa, whom he has admired since childhood, and sits with
her body. Although he is temporarily revitalized, when he returns home he is
frustrated by the public’s indifference to the plight of ten thousand Afghans who
are starving to death after fleeing the Taliban. Tara gives birth to their second
child, son Khyber Bishop, in a tub of water, and Mortenson later takes the baby to
“show and tell” at Amira’s preschool.
Each chapter in the section includes a rush of events and delivers to the
reader a great deal of new information. For example, Chapter 17 includes a
substantial history lesson, an accidental meeting with members of the Taliban, an
account of the refugee problem, the construction of Pakistan’s first uplift water
system (which Mortenson and Syed Abbas built to get fresh water to Skardu), and the
building of another school. Chapter 18 describes a series of fund-raising events,
trips to Southeast Asia, personal problems for Mortenson, and the birth of his
second child. By packing so much into these chapters, Relin gives the reader a sense
of growing urgency and of the frenzy overwhelming Mortenson’s life. Like previous
chapters, these chapters contain a mixture of accomplishments and setbacks,
combining Mortenson’s personal life with his mission in Pakistan.
Chapter 17 opens with a story by Fatima Batool, whose family was driven from
their home in the Gultori Valley by war when she was ten, that personalizes the
refugee problem and adds a new dimension to our understanding of the difficulties in
this region. Fatima and her family now live in a refugee camp near Skardu, and at
fifteen, Fatima tries not to remember the fear she felt when hostilities broke out
near her home. However, the details she offers about the death of her sister and her
uncle show the reader how much pain she has experienced. Although she and the other
girls in the refugee camp now attend a CAI school, she is only in fifth grade
because she received no education before coming to the camp. Fatima’s story presents
a different face of the hardships Mortenson is trying to combat. In previous
chapters we have seen the problems created by poverty and isolation. Now we see the
human toll of military conflicts.
Throughout the book, Relin has used chapter titles to either create visual
images reflecting the chapter’s content, as in “Rawalpindi’s Rooftops at Dusk,” or
to call attention to a main idea, as in “Haji Ali’s Lesson.” The title of Chapter
17, “Cherry Trees in the Sand,” literally refers to the vegetation that Fatima
misses when she must leave her fertile valley for the rocky outskirts of Skardu.
These trees also represent the beauty that becomes possible in the refugee camp,
thanks to the work of the CAI. By bringing water to the camp, and also by watering
the girls’ thirst for knowledge, Mortenson changes the lives and futures of the
refugees. “Shrouded Figure,” the title of Chapter 18, literally refers to the body
of Mother Teresa, but it also symbolizes Mortenson’s state of mind. During the
period described in Chapter 18, Mortenson frequently hides from other people,
shrouding himself in his basement office or in the library. At the end of the
chapter, however, Mortenson’s trip to Amira’s school with his newborn baby, Khyber,
marks an end to his self-imposed isolation.