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Of Tea and Snow Leopards


OK, maybe just one cup of tea and not three, and just three schools not eleven. Whatever the truth about numbers, Greg Mortenson did a commendable job of building some schools in the peaceful and never-Talibanised Baltistan, and some in restless and Talibanised Afghanistan and Waziristan. But Mortenson’s story is not really about Greg or the numbers. Rather it is about something else.

The persistent scrutiny of his personal behavior or financial malpractices obfuscates that something else. Even in the failure of Mortenson the person, Mortenson the ‘state project’ continues to succeed. To differentiate between the person and the ‘state project’ his deceit and failures are not significant; what’s important is how he could be successful in the first place, and what his success has to do with the state.

How could Mortenson’s charity get away with the deceit for so long without being noticed? Did it have something to do with intimate usage of Mortenson and his book by the US military as part of its counter-insurgency strategy? The Pentagon made Three Cups of Tea required reading, buying copies in bulk. Mortenson went along with them, playing the game and getting dizzy on the fame, attention, and power that came from this connection. He dined with celebrities and diplomats and flew on a black hawk helicopter with US Generals. Current and former presidents donated money to his charity and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Mortenson became a non-governmental ‘state project.’ He was the soft face of American power, used to win hearts and minds overseas and used to quell domestic anxieties about the fairness of the war.

Greg Mortenson and village children in Baltistan.

Mortenson’s story is certainly about human fallibility and the corrupting influence of adulation from above. But it is also about informal state projects; informal because these projects are not planned, initiated and explicitly funded by the state. Strategic imperatives makes a person’s career anopportunity for the state. Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian and a social development worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan became of strategic importance to the US state in the midst of the Afghan war in which it was losing both the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people, and the patience and support of the American people.

But before there was Greg Mortenson, there was Leo the snow leopard. They are two ‘state projects’ that bear comparison.

In 2005 an orphaned snow leopard, later to be named Leo, was found by a villager in northern Pakistan, incidentally the same region where Mortenson works. The local wildlife department took charge of the leopard. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) which runs the Bronx Zoo in New York City found out about the cub and became interested in bringing the cub over to the zoo forbreeding purposes. The zoo sent a request to the local authorities through the US embassy in Islamabad and within a matter of months, the US State Department was involved. Soon afterwards Leo was officially handed over to the Americans in a ceremony in Islamabad in the summer of 2006 in which the US Ambassador to Pakistan was the chief guest. Leo got his visas and came to New York. A second ceremony took place here. The US Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs was a central guest.

In the eyes of the US State, Leo’s story was about the use of international diplomacy to save biodiversity and the environment. In thesame way as Penguin and the Pentagon packaged Mortenson’s story (with a children’s book version of Three Cups), so too did the Bronx Zoo publish Leo the Snow Leopard (2010) to allow children to cultivate their view of the USState as magnanimous and environmentalist. Leo the Snow Leopard was packaged for a domestic audience, with parents soothing their children to sleep with comforting stories of the good, kind US State saving baby snow leopards from dangerous places.

Mortenson’s book is a story of the US bringing social development to the poor and oppressed, rescuing them from dangerous people in dangerous places; Leo’s book is a story of the US saving wildlife from those dangerous places and dangerous people. In both stories, an American hero lies at the heart of the tale. Leo’s story is not as popular as Mortenson’s, but it is along the same grain:

When the Wildlife Conservation Society learned of the Leo’s plight, they knew they had to do something. There was a special place that could save Leo: the world-famous Bronx zoo in New York… After a rescue that involved treacherous, winding treks in the Himalayas, an extra-ordinary partnership between Pakistan and United States, and the help of dozens of dedicated people, Leo is making the Bronx Zoo his new home.

SHAFQAT HUSSAIN and villagers in the same location.

Thankfully the analogy between Leo and Mortenson stops here as there are no financial scams and fudging of numbers involved in Leo’s story; the Bronx Zoo and WCS are respectable and credible institutions. Both Leo’s and Mortensen’s stories, however, present the US State work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the domestic audience and to some in Pakistan, as being not about war, bombs and imperialism, but rather about heart-warming things such as wildlife, schools, and people doing good. Both saving snow leopards and building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan are noble and worthy causes, but these are not the things that the US and its citizens should be focusing their attention on.

Apart from a few books (Ann Jones’ Winter in Kabul), there are not many popular accounts of the other side of the US State project in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are no children’s books on how the US government, in the 1980s, sponsored the production of bilious textbooks for the jihadis, whose daughters Mortenson is trying to educate. Unless we understand this history, and how that history continues to haunt us today and provide the social and political conditions in which people like Mortenson become heroes, we may bring down Mortenson the person but not Mortenson the project.

SHAFQAT HUSSAIN is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. In 2008, he won the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer Award for his work, over the last eighteen years on social development and conservation in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, where Mortenson began his project.


Shafqat Hussain teaches anthropology at Trinity College. He is the author of Remoteness and Modernity. Transformation and Continuity in Northern Pakistan. Shafqat is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer Award.

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