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UPDATED: 3/30/20 - 1:28 p.m.

"Three Cups of Tea"

ThreeCups.jpg2010 Summer Reading Assignment

WHY and HOW did the College choose Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson?
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, is the account of how one man has committed his life to improving literacy and building schools for girls in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, often under the noses of the Taliban. His memoir details his journey from failed mountaineer to friend of Afghani tribal members, and how he has learned of both the special needs and special customs of people in the region. Since he began his project, he has raised money through the Central Asia Institute to build over 80 schools, and has begun a Pennies for Peace project to fill girls' schools with needed materials. Mortenson has been nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Price.

The Common Summer Reading group comprised of students, staff, and faculty made this choice because this book will meet several goals of the First-Year Experience. First, our selection was guided by the need to introduce our students and community to this part of the world, currently one of the world's major — and perhaps most important — hot zone. Therefore our students will have the opportunity to learn about the region, the culture, and the history of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to better understand the historical and political circumstances that have given rise to the current conflict. At the same time, Mortenson's story will allow students to experience life on the other side of the world, in a place that is completely different from what we know. Mortenson shows us the faces of the people of Afghanistan, and as he does those people become less foreign and more real to us, allowing us to see how we often take for granted even the simplest of riches   of daily life, such as the opportunity to go to school.

Three Cups of Tea will also allow our students to enjoy thoughtful conversations about vocation, in keeping with Lilly Center goals. Greg Mortenson ended up in the region after a failed attempt to scale K2. At the time, he was focused on his own goals, but his life was changed and became more meaningful when he directed  his energies toward others. His story shows us how that we can triumph over personal failure, and also how one person can make a large difference, even if that person has, on the surface, few resources.

Finally, Three Cups of Tea as the summer reading provides a complement to the ongoing Afghanistan Service Project of Student Affairs. This project gathers donations of non-perishable items from the College community and sends them to US service personnel in Afghanistan. Our reading of this book will keep all those in the region  —  indigenous people as well as service personnel  —  in our minds.

Study and Reading Guide

The following is a comprehensive guide to assist you in gleaning important facts and ideas from Three Cups of Tea. Your First-Year Seminar Advisor will, in his or her letter to you this summer, explain to you how to focus your reading for the particular questions that will be the basis of your seminar's discussion and use of the book during Orientation and the fall semester.


Who is Greg Mortenson, and what is his ethos?

One statement early in the book serves as the thesis, summarizing Greg Mortenson, his mission, and the story behind this book. It is noted that  "one evening, he went to bed by a yak dung fire a mountaineer who'd lost his way, and one morning, by the time he'd shared a pot of butter tea with his hosts and laced up his boots, he'd become a humanitarian who'd found a meaningful path to follow for the rest of his life" (2).

Throughout the book, evaluate this statement as events unfold and as you learn more about Mortenson, Ikat, CAI, and the people of Pakistan. How did Mortenson change from an adventurous and well-traveled American to a person with important work and a vocation?

The author, David Oliver Relin, makes it clear in his prologue ("In Mr. Mortenson's Orbit") that he believes that Mortenson is one of the most talented and special persons he has ever met. Does Relin provide any evidence to help the reader understand the basis of his belief? Throughout the book, evaluate Relin's view of Mortenson based on Mortenson's successes and failures. Would this book be different if it were written by an author who was not so impressed by Mortenson?

Find a good map of Pakistan, including the Karakoram and Hindu Kush. What is the line of control, and what country does it border? To the Northwest is Afghanistan. What are the political, social, and cultural relationships between Pakistan and Afghanistan?


What is involved in climbing the world's largest mountains? What physical challenges beyond the actual climb must be faced and conquered? Who does it, and why? Why did Mortenson decide he had to climb K-2? Mortenson's failure to conquer K-2 was a function of another's  problem, rather than his own, yet he noted that his "...body failed...not his spirit" (16). Why is his evaluation of what happened on K-2 important?

What does Mortenson think when he comes to in the "throne room of the mountain gods?" (18)  Who is Mouzafer, and what is his relationship to Mortenson? Why is it important to note that he is Balti?

How is butter tea made?

What does Mortenson think and do initially when he arrives in Korphe? More importantly, how do the villagers of Korphe interact with him? What does Mortenson discover about the community that is Korphe?

Progress and Perfection

How do the people of Korphe continue to help Mortenson (both physically and psychologically)? Even though Mortenson enjoys their hospitality, their food, help, drink, etc., he notices that all is not idyllic in the Balti village. What problems does he find?

Given his circumstances, was Mortenson's promise to Haji Ali rash?


What was Mortenson's background as a child and an adult? How did his experiences and the circumstances of his life make him uniquely qualified to make a major life change that involved a lot of travel and a mission to help people in one of the remotest areas on earth?

What was Christa's disease?

How does Mortenson manage the transition back to America?

What path did Mortenson take after high school? What experiences were important to him, and why? Did he ever  "find" what it was he was "supposed" to do with his life? Why was Mortenson so restless?   Mortenson's father and sister both died young, and both deaths affected Mortenson. How did Mortenson's personal responses to their deaths alter the course of his life?

580 Letters, One Check

Dr. Vaughan noted that "My impression of [Greg] was that he was just treading water until he could get back to Pakistan" (49).  How did Mortenson "tread water" and occupy his time? What happened in the six months between the time Mortenson sent his letters and when he received his first donation (for $623.45)?

Why did he stay with Marina for so  many months when it was apparent he did not want to be in the States?

Who was Dr. Jean Hoerni?

Rawalpindi's Rooftops at Dusk

Mortenson's next step is Rawalpindi. What sorts of disconnects does he experience once he gets there? Who is Abdul and why does he help Mortenson so much? What did Mortenson learn from him—not only about where to buy cement but how to deal with Pakistanis in general?

What personal and religious customs did Mortenson learn?

How does the arrival of tea diffuse  the Abdul-Ali "standoff" in the Rajah bazaar?

What does Mortenson learn and feel when he partakes in washing and worshipping as a Muslim for the first time?

Hard Way Home

Why was Mortenson "serene"  (74) after leaving the crowded and baffling Rawalpindi?

What is the history of the KKH, and why is that history important to Mortenson's journey? What was his journey on the KKH like, and why did he choose to spend so much of it on top of the truck?

Beaten by the Braldu

Why does Mortenson take his time (and lots of tea) in Skardu, and why did he make the side-trip toward Masherbrum despite his desire to get the materials to Korphe? How did he respond to "the assignment"?

What happened to the materials in Kuardu? How did Mortenson cope with Chagazi's deception?

What is the symbolism of the bridge Haji Ali insisted be built before the school?

The People Have Spoken

When Mortenson returned to SF, Marina insists that "I didn't exist for you once you left" (101).  Were you surprised at his "welcome" home?

No money, no job, no Marina—yet he still focused on the bridge. Why? Contrast Mortenson's idea of time with that of Haji Ali and the Balti.

What does Mortenson seem to miss the most while in SF?

Who is Dr. Louis Reichardt, and how do his words propel Mortenson forward?

Building Bridges

Mortenson's return to Skardu brings him further revelations about Chagazi. Why do you think their conversations are included here, given they have nothing to do with the bridge?

What is Askole, and why did the boy throw Mortenson's gift (the apple) away?

Why did the Korphe men do all of the carrying? What was the trek with the bridge materials like?

How did the events of the hunt for the ibex make Mortenson think that Hussein should be a teacher?

Why was Mortenson convinced that "...the Balti still held the key to a kind of uncomplicated happiness"? (120).

Why did Mortenson let McCown in on the project? Yet, why did he make sure Haji Ali set the last board on the bridge?

Six Days

Mortenson is back in SF. Why is the short interlude with Marina included in this chapter?

Recount Mortenson's meeting with Hoerni, McCown—and Tara Bishop.

What happened at the Fairmont?

What did you think of Mortenson's marrying Bishop after knowing her only six days? Did Tara make a good choice?

Haji Ali's Lesson

Why did Mortenson get "the run-around" in Skardu? What did Parvi do to help?

"What is one winter more?"  (139).

Why did Mortenson go to the mosque? And why was it important to slaughter the ram?

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., much occurs but little is written about it. Why?

Was Mortenson comfortable with his new life?

As the building of the school is begun, what lesson did Haja Ali impart to Greg while they were on the mountain? Why did he stand up to Mehdi, and why did he give up all the rams?

A Smile Should be More than a Memory
What is Waziristan, and who are the Wazir? Why did Mortenson travel there, and what did he learn?

How were his experiences there so different from his experiences in Pakistan? Why were they different?

Who was Kahn and what message was Khan trying to get to Mortenson?

Were you surprised by the parting gifts of the Wazir?

Take a moment to look at the pictures, focusing on  "meeting" the Pakistanis who are essential to Mortenson's story.

What two important things does Mortenson learn from Haji Ali when he returns to Korphe after Amira's birth?

Mortenson performs two important tasks as a nurse—what are they, and how are they related to each other?

Mortenson in Motion
What is a fatwa? What is Shariat? Why did he go to Pakistan earlier than planned—moving toward the conflict?

How is Suleman a "fixer"?

How did Mortenson "unite and conquer" to get three more schools built?

What are acts of Zakat?

Why build a woman's center?

What "social capital" had Mortenson built, and how did it keep him safe?

Red Velvet Box
Why does Mortenson go when summoned by the council? What essential knowledge did Syed Abbas impart to him?   What is Aslam's story, and why is it important? How is Shakeela's education symbolic of Mortenson's mission?   Why did women's education become the official philosophical thrust of the CAI?

Cherry Trees in the Sand
What is the Kashmir, and how is its history (and current status) important to understanding the challenges CAI faces?

How did a meeting with the Talib refocus Mortenson's mission?

How many people in the world lack clean, available water? How many people are like Fatima and Aamina and live in active war zones?

Why are the cherry trees important?

Shrouded Figure
Mortenson's life has changed:  He's an American fundraiser concerned about his weight—he's not happy. Yet he notes "building relationships..." (227) is what it's all about. What is Mortenson's best role, at this point? (If you want to see what Mortenson does most of the time in 2010, go to the CAI website.)   Jennifer Wilson commented that "...we train a few Greg Juniors" (229). How had Mortenson's vocation and calling changed at this point? What did you think of her criticism that he run CAI "more responsibly"? (230)

What did Mortenson learn about his new role from his encounter with Vera Kurtz?

How did Mortenson do  "homework" when he wasn't actually in Pakistan?

Why did he insist on visiting Mother Teresa's body?

Who, if anyone, listened when Mortenson became alarmed over the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

A Village Called New York
What is meant by "the time of arithmetic and poetry is past"? (241)   What does Mortenson learn about Wahhabi Madrasses? How do their existence make his work even more essential?

Who is (not was) Musharraf? Massoud? What are the Northern Alliance and Mujahedeen?

What was Mortenson doing in Pakistan during the first 11 days of September, 2001? What was he doing on 9/12? How did the Pakistanis respond to McCown, Mortenson, and the other Americans after 9/11?

Mortenson's sorrow is not limited to events in the U.S. that September, but includes Korphe. Why did Mortenson remember to "listen to the wind"? (260)

Tea with the Taliban
How does the scene at the Marriott reflect how Pakistan had changed after 9-11? How was Mortenson "...inhabiting the eye of history's storm"? (265)

Mortenson kept his focus on the true source of the conflict. Why didn't the Press listen?

What did he learn when he took tea with the Taliban?

What's a "number-one visa"  (269), why did Mortenson want one? How is it that the US military didn't know who Mortenson was? Why does he educate his questioners about the religious culture of Pakistanis?

Why did Mortenson continue his work when the bombing began? Was he  "counterproductive to our military efforts" (275) as some alleged?

Rumsfeld's Shoes
How do Mortenson's mixed feelings about the US war efforts in Afghanistan reflect the mixed feelings of Americans both then (in 2001) and now (in 2010)? Who is Donald Rumsfeld, and why is he important?

What was Kabul like?

How did Mortenson respond when he learned of the destruction of CAI schools and the new fatwa?

Why did Mortenson return to Kabul, and why did he take Kim Trudell's books with him? How do those few books reflect Uzra's comment about "seeing the light"? (289)

Do you think that Mortenson's message to the members of Congress was "heard"? Why did he decide not to take the businessman/ex-military person's offer?

Contrast Mortenson's meeting with Rumsfeld and the officers to his meetings with important people in Pakistan?

The Enemy is Ignorance
What was Fedarko's original purpose in accompanying Mortenson to Korphe? Why did Jahan's actions change his purpose?

What prompted Mortenson to comment that his "...tribe had spoken"? (302)   What is the significance of the choice of the word tribe? How did the outpouring of support change Mortenson's life? Tara's? The "ground crew" in Pakistan? What other constituencies came to his aid?

Mortenson is always fairly temperate. Did his threat to Yakub surprise you?

Bashir has some harsh criticisms of U.S. foreign policy; what are they? Why did he then provide support to Mortenson, anyhow?

Why did Mortenson decide that Haja Ali's "payment" was really very small after all, despite that it represented the material wealth of an entire community?

Stones into Schools
Get a map and trace Mortenson's journey to the Wahkan. Where is it and what countries border it?

Whom did Mortenson meet on the way to Afghanistan? Why was he told to see Sadhar Khan?

What happened when Mortenson left the frying pan (the Salang Tunnel) for the fire (the mortar-strewn ruins)?

What did Mortenson learn from Mohammed as the truck was being gassed, and why was he one who rode out of the gunfight? In what state was Mortenson as he prepared to meet Khan, and why was Faizabad and the Badakshan so dangerous?

Khan's first real response to Mortenson is one of true regret—what did he regret, and why?

How did Mortenson respond to the meeting with Khan? How did his goals and life work become even more clear? Did he continue the work in the Wahkan?

Some Parting Thoughts
Where does Mortenson's work stand now? How does Mortenson spend his time, mostly? Is Mortenson a hero? Do you think he should have won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (he was a nominee)?

Can we turn stones into schools? Can the education of women make enough of a difference to prevent the rise of madrasses? Can the education of women help make humans more peaceful?