Three Cups of Tea captured readers with its story of perseverance and self-sacrifice overcoming great odds in building schools in rugged mountain territory that most Americans would strain to locate on a map. The man at the center of the story, Greg Mortenson, also engaged in a more dubious battle against the book’s author and publisher regarding the appropriate subtitle, which the latter wanted to be “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One School at a Time.” Fortunately, Mortenson won the argument and got the more pacific subtitle he envisioned approved, but the veracity of other aspects of the project remain in doubt. Ghulam Parvi, the kindly and articulate accountant who becomes Mortenson’s indispensible advocate and fixer in Baltistan, Pakistan, has raised serious questions about many key details that hold the story together. Three Cups of Tea has also garnered the attention of prominent U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan, some of whom have sought meetings with Mortenson. Perhaps their interest in Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute shows a more nuanced approach to advancing policy in the region, but these liaisons have also complicated his relations with some villages. Open Borders requested an interview with Parvi in order to get his side of the story.
Please describe your association with Greg Mortenson and your role in shaping the story that became Three Cups of Tea.
My name is Ghulam Parvi. I was the main contact person for Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute (CAI) in Baltistan. While reading the book, you will read many praises to me. I was the translator to Mr. David Oliver Relin, the coauthor of the book. You know, I requested Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin not to include false stories in the book, but in spite of my repeated request, they did not adhere to it. We appreciate Greg’s efforts very much, but there is a difference between falsehood and truth. The false stories are a big slap in the faces of all those innocent Americans who honestly donate money to Greg, mainly due to his book and based on stories that are mostly false. You know, it is not fair. But the innocent readers of Three Cups of Tea do not know the facts.
You’ve noted some significant inaccuracies in Three Cups of Tea. What in your view is the most important information missing or mistaken in the book?
For a simple reader, the book is very interesting. But it is unfortunate that most of the beautiful stories in the book are false and fabricated. David Oliver Relin has proved himself to be a fine storyteller, but he is a dishonest story hunter. The fact is that Korphe School was started by a Japanese woman, Koyoko Endo, chief of the Himalayan Green Club, Japan, assisted by myself and Muhammad Ali Changezi. Greg Mortenson came to Korphe two years later. Secondly, it is also false that Haji Mehdi of Askole was against education. In fact, Haji received a donation for a school from some Dutch (perhaps) climbers, provided free land himself, constructed a two-room school building many years before Greg came to Askole. Later, Haji Mehdi again added a two-room school through a donation from another Japanese woman. Haji Mehdi was the first person who started education for children in all Braldo Valley. In early 2005, I submitted my objections on the printing of these issues in the book, and offered instead my suggestions. In his reply, Greg admitted that there are mistakes and falsehoods in the book, and he wanted to remove them, but David and his publisher did not agree.
How have these distortions affected Mortenson’s reputation in the region?
The existing situation is that within the local education community, people have asked Greg to apologize for these false things. If he does not, they will not continue working with Greg. In response to the demand of these communities, Greg decided to come to Skardu and talk to the people, but he did not come in the end. The most difficult position for Greg now is his recent association with the American Army in Afghanistan. Greg’s behavior is the talk of the town these days, and it is feared that soon people will stop supporting his projects. In case the situation becomes worse, then maybe some schools will suffer, due to unexpected dislocation of funds.
What was your specific role in Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and why did you decide to resign from the position?
I was the Program Manager for Greg’s projects in Baltistan. I managed to establish Greg in Pakistan. He commits himself at different places of the book. Now, as of June 30 of last year, I have resigned from CAI on the demand of the school committees. Let us hope for a better situation.
You’ve mentioned Mortenson’s association with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. How has this association harmed his reputation in general and in Baltistan in particular?
About his association with the American Army, you can consult the New York Times blogs of 15 August, 2010, where it is clearly mentioned that Greg is helping the U.S. Defense Department and national security department with the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. He has also said that war is not the solution, but education, especially for girls, would be the ultimate solution to keep America safe. This linkage of his so called humanitarian work with the objectives of the American army and Pentagon is suspicious indeed.