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.
“You have to understand, in these villages, a ram is like a firstborn child, a prize cow, and family pet all rolled into one,” Mortenson explains. “The most sacred duty of each family’s oldest boy was to care for their rams, and they were devastated.”
Haji Ali kept his back turned to the visitors until twelve boys approached, dragging the thick-horned, heavy-hooved beasts. He accepted the bridles from them and tied the rams together. All the boys wept as they handed over their most cherished possessions to their nurmadhar. Haji Ali led the line of rams, lowing mournfully, to Haji Mehdi, and threw the lead to him without a word. Then he turned on his heel and herded his people toward the site of the school.
“It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever seen,” Mortenson says. “Haji Ali had just handed over half the wealth of the village to that crook, but he was smiling like he’d just won a lottery”
Haji Ali paused before the building everyone in the village had worked so hard to raise. It held its ground firmly before Korphe K2, with snuggly built stone walls, plastered and painted yellow, and thick wooden doors to beat back the weather. Never again would Korphe’s children kneel over their lessons on frozen ground. “Don’t be sad,” he told the shattered crowd. “Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today. Now our children have education forever.”
After dark, by the light of the fire that smoldered in his balti, Haji Ali beckoned Mortenson to sit beside him. He picked up his dog-eared, grease-spotted Koran and held it before the flames. “Do you see how beautiful this Koran is?” Haji Ali asked.
“I can’t read it,” he said “I can’t read anything. This is the greatest sadness in my life. I’ll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I’ll pay any price so they have the education they deserve.”