Saturday, 12 March 2011
Inspiration Abounds at Emirates Festival of Literature
Well, this is the weekend of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature and I spent the day there yesterday with my friend, and fellow blogger, Katie Foster. We were enthralled. Both of us bought several books (just couldn’t help ourselves) and waited with great anticipation to meet author, Greg Mortenson face-to-face (of Three Cups of Tea fame) for his talk, “Moving Mountains.” As we were standing in line waiting to enter the conference room where he would be speaking, we kept seeing people go to the front of the line with “Festival Friend” badges on.
“I’m a Festival Friend,” Katie piped up. Hmmm…how did we get one of those elusive bits of plastic?
“I’ll hold our place in line, you go check it out!” I offered magnanimously.
Five minutes later Katie came back, grinning from ear to ear, holding our “back stage passes.” We headed to the front of the line, were ushered in like VIPs and grabbed our front row seats.
The very humble, unassuming Greg Mortenson walked in to a jam-packed, standing room only meeting hall, smiling sheepishly, hand on heart, to thunderous applause. He opened the session with a very powerful statement that silenced the room: “There are 120 million children on our planet who are deprived of the right to an education.”
If you haven’t read Three Cups of Tea – One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, I highly recommend it. It’s Greg’s story…the story of a mountaineer who was hiking in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan. After his unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, he stumbled into a small village in the mountains, was nursed back to health and be-friended the village chief and made a promise – he would come back and build a school. As you can imagine, I’m skipping big chunks of the story (you’ll have to read the book) but after he had seen the lack of resources and the burning desire the children had to learn, he knew what he had to do.
When asking the parents what they wanted they told him, “We don’t want our babies to die and we want our children to go to school.” The message that resonated with him was very simple: “The ink of a scholar is more powerful than the blood of a martyr.”
That was in 1993. In 1996, the Korphe School (named for the village chief) was built in partnership with the community and Greg found his life’s purpose. He co-founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and has since built 178 schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea covers the initial phase of setting up CAI and the hair-raising path he followed over the next 10 years surviving a kidnapping, gunfights, fatwas and more.
Three of CAI’s staff joined Greg for his talk. For Waqil Shakir Karimi, program director for Central, Southern and East Afghanistan, it was his first time outside of his country. He was the inspiration behind the title of Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools - Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Greg recalled sitting with Waqil pondering the new school for Lalander. Waqil pointed to the hills of the Hindu Kush mountains and said that each rock represented a soldier who had been killed by the Taliban. He believed that each of the stones should be used to build the school in honor of their sacrifice.
Greg is an inspiration for me on several levels. My passion is reading and writing both for pure enjoyment and as my profession. I can’t imagine not being able to do both each and every day. That’s why I’m a big supporter of literacy programs and also believe, as Greg does, that “the pen is more powerful than the bullet.” I'm headed back to the Festival today for some more inspiration!
POSTSCRIPT . . . . Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea
I'm sure many of you may have seen the recent news reports which question the truth behind Greg Mortenson’s story of how he began his charity work in Afghanistan and Pakistan and concerns about how the Central Asian Institute (CIA) is managing its budget. I am not taking down this blog post because this is a very complex issue and I'm just taking a step back to hear all sides before forming an opinion. We all need to evaluate this for ourselves.