“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.”
“Sitting there beside him,” Mortenson says, “I realized that everything, all the difficulties I’d gone through, from the time I’d promised to build the school, through the long struggle to complete it, was nothing compared to the sacrifices he was prepared to make for his people. Here was this illiterate man, who’d hardly ever left his little village in the Karakoram,” Mortenson says. “Yet he was the wisest man I’ve ever met”