It’s a foregone conclusion; contrasts attract attention. It’s also a possibility, though not necessarily so, that they engender new ways of looking at things.
My recent beach visit is an example. While north Georgia was experiencing rains and even threatening storms, every day at Cape San Blas was full of sunshine and blue skies - and several nights of beautiful full moons.
Some of the rain was, of course, very welcome; when I arrived at home, I could hardly believe the water line creeping up into our little cove. Some rain would also have been welcome along our part of the Gulf coast; newly planted sea oats and “beach sunflowers” needed that moisture. (For those of you who have kept up with my beach narratives, the plantings are part of the St. Joseph Peninsula beach renourishment/erosion control project.)
My newly gained insight came, however, not from the contrasting weather, but from the two entirely different books that I read.
“Three Cups of Tea” is the true story of Greg Mortenson, as written by/with David Oliver Relin. Its subtitle reveals the thesis: “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time.”
It is set in Pakistan and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the region that gave birth to (and still harbors) the Taliban, an area about which I have little knowledge or understanding, although I am certainly aware of its importance.
And I am not alone. Those realizations reflect the enlightenment, which is the basis of this column. I had heard of Greg Mortenson on various television programs as he attempted to raise money to establish schools for girls in Afghan and Pakistani villages, where females are not allowed to be educated and where boys attend madrasses, many of which are schools specifically designed to teach the “fundamentals of Islamacism” of the Taliban. (How he came to adopt this project as his life work is a big part of the story, but I won’t go into that.)
In this book, I learned the almost miraculous effect of the schools, which have already been built — not just on those attending, but also on the attitude of inhabitants of the surrounding areas. Instead of seeing Americans only as a military presence, they can view them as partners in opening new worlds.
But that is a very limited attitude because the number of villages with such schools is so limited. Unfortunately, much of the Afghan attitude is one of mistrust: after helping them defeat the Soviets and promising to help build up and modernize their country, America seemed to forget the promises and concentrate only on military encounters.
A high-ranking Pakistan general stated a sad truth concerning the possibility of American “victory” in that part of the world: “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise, the fight will go on forever.”
“Three Cups of Tea” is not an easy book to read and it is long (over 600 pages), not my normal “beach reading material.”
And because it depicts the Taliban strengthening as it resists military pressure, reading it does not leave one optimistic. But, I hope that many will read it and perhaps gain more understanding.
The title is intriguing and its explanation is simple, yet symbolic of the Martenson approach, but I won’t explain that now.
In contrast, Mary Alice Monroe’s “The Beach House,” was a more normal vacation read (and I enjoyed the shift).
Set on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms (where I had once visited), it was a typical low-country romance, made even more interesting for me because it included much information about loggerhead turtles, and our beach area is a traditional nesting spot. So I was enlightened even by the phase of my “contrast.”
Needless to say, contrasts in lifestyles within these two books are dramatic.
We cannot imagine the village life of that isolated part of the Mideast, but we Southerners can relate to their emphasis on hospitality. Every conversation is necessarily preceded by or accompanied with shared cups of paiyu cha (apparently their common tea), even if there is nothing else to share. It was reminiscent of my grandmother, who always insisted that her guests partake of some kind of refreshments.
“The Beach House” came to a comfortable conclusion. I wish I could have the same hopes for Greg Mortenson’s mission.
Helen Taylor’s column appears periodically in the Dawson Community News.