Skip to content

Tea and the “narrative of Terror”

Even as [Three Cups of Tea] appears to provide a self-critical and humane perspective on terrorism, [this] article argues that it constructs a misleading narrative of terror in which the realities of Northern Pakistan and Muslim lifeworlds are distorted through simplistic tropes of ignorance, backwardness and extremism, while histories of US geopolitics and violence are erased. The text has further facilitated the emergence of a participatory militarism, whereby humanitarian work helps to reinvent the military as a culturally sensitive and caring institution in order to justify and service the project of empire.

From a 2010 article by Nosheen Ali{{1}}{{2}}, cited by Jon Krakauer in “Three Cups of Deceit.”

I have to admit I cringed when I read Mortenson’s description of the Waziri men who he claimed kidnapped and held him for 8 days: “Six Waziri men with bandoliers criss-crossed on their chests slumped on packing crates smoking hashish from a multinecked hookah.” The gang’s leader is a nearly comic parody of the sinister swarthy villain, wearing “rose-colored aviator glasses” and a “thick black mustache that perched, batlike, on his upper lip.”

The men come across as barely human savages as they “attack” their meal of roast lamb “with their long daggers, stripping tender meat from the bone and cramming it into their mouths with the blades of their knives.”

One of his barbaric abductors was “a wild man with a matted beard and grey turban…shouting in a language [Mortenson] didn’t understand.”

What fully completes this disturbing picture is evidence that the kidnapping was fabricated out of an uneventful visit, with Mortenson the honored guest of his alleged abductors, one of whom is in fact a researcher at a Pakistani think tank.

The stereotyped, dehumanizing account of these alleged kidnappers is not an isolated occurrence, either. Ali argues that the whole book  recreates the “redemptive narrative of terrorism” advanced by the U.S. Military…while generating a simplistic portrait of Pakistanis that undermines their actual connection with Westerners. (To be fair, the book was mostly written not by Mortenson but rather by the journalist David Relin; “Mortenson” here refers to the dramatized character in Three Cups of Tea.)

Compare this version of the “other” to that present in another aid story, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World. Both books are, as Ali points out, “stories of American humanitarian heroes engaged in international development” only Mountains beyond Mountains, well, isn’t so demeaning:

Mountains beyond Mountains embodies a politicised and historicised humanitarianism. It links Haitian poverty and disease directly with structural processes, and details the various ways in which the US military–corporate complex has led to the repression and impoverishment of Haitians. Focusing on the ‘interconnectedness of the rich and the poor’, and on ‘transformation, not education’, Mountains beyond Mountains emphasises the relationality of the American self and Haitian other.

In Three Cups of Tea the relationality of the American self and Pakistani other disappears in a discourse of poverty and ignorance that is largely closed, self-evident and self- affirming—and thus orientalising.

[[1]] Unfortunately a gated link; NYU has a subscription.[[1]]
[[2]] UPDATE: Here’s the ungated version.[[2]]

This entry was posted in Books and book reviews, Stereotypes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. HV wrote:
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  2. Vivek Nemana wrote:


    Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:19 am | Permalink
  3. Andy wrote:

    More than a year ago (Dec, 2009), I read this scathing review on another insightful blog:

    Please take a look, and be sure to read the comments to see how it played out when Ghulam Parvi (one of Greg’s original partners) entered with his charges. That blog post possibly started the ball rolling that brought this story out into daylight. Of course, it may have been inevitable.

    Here is a recent follow up on the same blog worth pointing out. This may be a case where a small voice calling out for accountability was heard.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  4. Chike wrote:

    Let me add my perspective as some one from the so called “developing world”.

    Mortenson and his ilk will always get the better of gullible donors because the Western World has a rigid narrative of life outside the West. In addition, I fear the West (especially the United States) lacks the humility and most importantly, the intellectual curiosity to engage constructively with the rest of the World.

    Western stereotypes about “the rest” are so strong that even the best educated Westerners find it difficult to “think outside the box”.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  5. “Mortenson and his ilk will always get the better of gullible donors because the Western World has a rigid narrative of life outside the West. In addition, I fear the West (especially the United States) lacks the humility and most importantly, the intellectual curiosity to engage constructively with the rest of the World.” I think it also appeals to something akin to a Hollywood romance. I wonder that sometimes, Americans are in love with the idea that the world is in need of saving, and they are the ones to do it. Perhaps they eat these stories up because it just confirms the ‘hero’ narrative.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  6. Vivek Nemana wrote:

    @Stephanie, @Chike,

    Thanks for the comments. I think you’re both absolutely right. This is something I’ve thought a lot about…why do Americans love this hero/good guy-bad guy narrative so much? I suspect it’s an escapist thing. I think most people are aware of how uncertain and morally ambiguous the world is — not to mention their own lives in this context. So it’s incredibly heartening to hear the “true story” of a “real hero.” I’m probably restating the obvious, but I feel like escapism has a lot to do with the general aid mentality, or at least with this.

    The power of this kind of escapist, hero-worshiping drive probably correlates with your own level of uncertainty. Bollywood movies, for instance, are tremendously popular and especially ridiculous.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Yngvar wrote:

    The US didn’t enter Afghanistan for fun and profit. They, and the West, were responding to actions from people with insane ideas about how the world works. There never was any US imperialism. The West never was engaged in any ‘crusade’ against islam.

    The first Norwegian killed in Afghanistan was a surgeon from Médicines Sans Frontièrs. Gunned down by the Taliban, nowhere near the fighting, for being ‘the other’. No one have a monopoly on stupidity and ignorance.

    Posted April 23, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  8. It’s hard to be heroic in a complex world…

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink
  9. Carol wrote:

    A little help– I thought he was supposedly kidnapped in Waziristan, not Baltistan? I don’t have a copy of the book. Can someone clarify?

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Carol wrote:

    Confirmed with friend with a copy of the book that claimed kidnapping was in Waziristan– kind of an important detail. Maybe they took him to Baltistan at some point? Still seems odd. Maybe this can be clarified and amended?

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Vivek Nemana wrote:

    Hey Carol,

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I don’t have the book on me but I looked through Jon Krakaeur’s article and this Daily Beast story, and it seems though you’re right, it was in Waziristan. It’s a pretty important detail.

    However, I’m going to hold back on updating the post until Laura comes back (she will tonight), and I can discuss it with her. We should have it fixed by tomorrow.

    Thanks again for pointing this out!

    Posted April 26, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] Tea and the “narrative of Terror” – Aid Watch – Compares the narrative in Three Cups of Tea with Mountains Beyond […]

  2. […] determination, diligence, and love — and though it’s not as riveting or adventurous as being “kidnapped” by “terrorists,” at least it’s […]

  3. […] friend had a chance to read some of the stories about what was wrong with the book, many including excerpts such as those quoted by Aid Watch, he told me he was “shocked” by the portrayal of Waziri […]

  4. […] Link to the original site Posted in Aid SHARE THIS Twitter Facebook Delicious StumbleUpon E-mail « SME DEVELOPMENT WORKSHOP REPORT: Achievements, Challenges and Suggested Next Steps » The Dirty Truth About Disaster Fund Raising No Comments Yet […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives