Excerpted with permission from "Three Cups of Tea," published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Predictably, the jeeps carrying the wood up to Korphe were halted by another landslide that cut the track, eighteen miles shy of their destination. “The next morning, while Parvi and I were discussing what to do, we saw this great big dust cloud coming down the valley,” Mortenson says. “Haji Ali [the leader of the village of Korphe] somehow heard about our problem, and the men of Korphe had walked all night. They arrived clapping and singing and in incredible spirits for people who hadn’t slept. And then the most amazing thing of all happened. Sher Takhi had come with them and he insisted on carrying the first load.
“The holy men of the villages aren’t supposed to degrade themselves with physical labor. But he wouldn’t back down, and he led our column of thirty-five men carrying roof beams all the way, all eighteen miles to Korphe. Sher Takhi had polio as a child, and he walked with a limp, so it must have been agony for him. But he led us up the Braldu Valley, grinning under his load. It was this conservative mullah’s way of showing his support for education for all the children of Korphe, even the girls.”
Not all of the people of Braldu shared Sher Takhi’s view. A week later, Mortenson stood with his arm over Twaha’s [Haji Ali’s son] shoulder, admiring the skillful way Makhmal and his crew were fitting the roof beams into place, when a cry went up from the boys scattered across Korphe’s rooftops. A band of strangers was crossing the bridge, they warned, and on their way up to the village.
Mortenson followed Haji Ali to his lookout on the bluff high over the bridge. He saw five men approaching. One, who appeared to be the leader, walked at the head of the procession. The four burly men walking behind carried clubs made of poplar branches that they smacked against their palms in time with their steps. The leader was a thin, unhealthy looking older man who leaned on his cane as he climbed to Korphe. He stopped, rudely, fifty yards from Haji Ali, and made Korphe’s nurmadhar [village leader] walk out to greet him.
Twaha leaned toward Mortenson. “This man is Haji Mehdi. No good,” he whispered.
Mortenson was already acquainted with Haji Mehdi, the nurmadhar of Askole. “He made a show of being a devout Muslim,” Mortenson says. “But he ran the economy of the whole Braldu Valley like a mafia boss. He took a percentage of every sheep, goat, or chicken the Balti sold, and he ripped off the climbers, setting outrageous prices for supplies. If someone sold so much as an egg to an expedition without playing him his cut, Haji Mehdi sent his henchmen to beat them with clubs.”
After Haji Ali embraced Mehdi, Askole’s nurmadhar declined his invitation to tea. “I will speak out in the open, so you all can hear me,” he said to the crowd assembled along the bluff. “I have heard that an infidel has come to poison Muslim children, boys as well as girls, with his teachings,” Haji Mehdi barked. “Allah forbids the education of girls. And I forbid the construction of this school.”
“We will finish our school,” Haji Ali said evenly. “Whether you forbid it or not.”
Mortenson stepped forward, hoping to defuse the violence gathering in the air. “Why don’t we have tea and talk about this.”
“I know who you are kafir,” Mehdi said, using the ugliest term for an infidel. “And I have nothing to say to you.”
“And you, are you not a Muslim?” Mehdi said turning menacingly toward Haji Ali. “There is only one God. Do you worship Allah? Or this kafir?”
Haji Mehdi’s men fingered their clubs uneasily. He raised a hand to steady them. “If you insist on keeping your kafir school, you must pay a price,” Mehdi said, the lids of his eyes lowering. “I demand twelve of your largest rams.”
“As you wish,” Haji Ali said, turning his back on Mehdi, to emphasize how he had degraded himself by demanding a bribe. “Bring the chogo rabak!” he ordered.