Ugly side of the human ego

  • Books
  • Friday, 05 Aug 2011

Questions about the authenticity of the bestselling non-fiction novel Three Cups Of Tea have been swirling since April. This book looks into the issues and saddens our reviewer with its convincing arguments that a man hailed as a humanitarian hero has feet of clay.

THREE Cups Of Deceit is an expose of Greg Mortenson, a humanitarian crusader whose work in building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan has brought him international recognition, including praise (and donations) from US President Barack Obama and three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The organisation that fronts this work is CAI, the Central Asia Institute, a body that has handled many millions of dollars donated by devotees of Mortenson’s bestselling, swashbuckling accounts of how he found his mission in life, Three Cups Of Tea and Stones Into Schools.

His profile, and funding, have been further raised by his charismatic personal appearances to huge crowds of donating fans.

According to Mortenson, this money has been used to build schools in remote areas of Taliban territory in Afghanistan where the alternative to his schools is fundamentalist indoctrination. He sits, he argues, on the frontline of anti-terrorism.

But according to Jon Krakauer, Mortenson’s books are a disturbing mix of fact and fiction and much of the money donated to CAI has funded Mortenson’s lavish lifestyle and directly or indirectly lined his pockets (Cups Of Trouble, Reads, April 24).

Even Krakauer concedes that Mortenson has done some good work and it is worth quoting this before the caveats begin.

“In all fairness, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education.

“He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands of children, a significant percentage of them girls.”

Given that this is an accomplishment far greater than most people could ever dream of and considerably more than many charitable organisations manage to achieve, it seems fair to ask what all the fuss is about.

Who cares about the inaccuracies in his stories or if he hires too many private jets, the man gets things done!

That’s a beguiling response but it is, of course, deeply flawed.

The problem is, CAI has been built on the image of Mortenson, and if that image is seen to be less than squeaky clean then the work of CAI is inevitably going to be called into question.

Krakauer provides compelling evidence that for CAI’s mission to continue it will need to part company from the man who initiated it.

The charges against Mortenson are threefold.

Firstly, his account of how he came to be involved in Pakistan is suspect. He claims that he became separated from his porter on his descent from an unsuccessful attempt on the summit of K2 and stumbled into the village of Korphe. There he met Haji Ali, the village chieftain, who cared for him until he recovered his strength. In return, Mortenson promised him a school. All of this is told in Three Cups Of Tea, a third person narrative in which Mortenson is presented as a Himalayan version of Indiana Jones.

It appears that almost none of this is accurate and a number of other events are also in dispute, including his account of being captured by the Taliban and held prisoner at gunpoint. Three Cups Of Tea is a ripping yarn and like most ripping yarns it is economical with the truth.

Does that matter? Well, it does if you then repeat this inaccurate version of events in all of your public presentations and raise millions of dollars on the back of it.

Krakauer’s second and third main charges are arguably two sides of the same coin. In essence, they are that Mortenson sees himself as accountable to no-one and runs CAI as his personal empire. The lack of clear and detailed information about CAI’s activities and its finances extends to questioning how many schools have actually been built, where, and to what extent they are operating as schools with proper teachers and pupils. Arguably, these are far more serious charges than the fictionalising and romanticising of his own life story.

Krakauer provides convincing evidence of financial irregularities that have since led to lawsuits from American legislators and possible investigations into Mortenson’s tax affairs. Specifically, CAI funds have been used to promote his books and pay his excessive travel expenses, both of which amounted to in excess of a million dollars in 2009. Shockingly, there appear to be no records that CAI received any royalty payments from the heavily advertised books or any fees from the speaking engagements.

Ultimately, this is a sad book. It is impossible to finish it without believing that something is seriously amiss at CAI and that Mortenson is at the heart of its troubles, just as he was at the heart of its success. Krakauer was a donor to CAI because he believed in its cause.

Most readers of Three Cups Of Deceit will also be believers and will share his intense disappointment that work that should have been purely noble and uplifting has once again been besmirched by the ugly side of the human ego.

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