In a brilliant reflection on Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, Nosheen Ali exposes how the book constructs a patronising and misleading narrative of terror in which the realities of Northern Pakistan and Muslim life-worlds are distorted through simplistic tropes of ignorance, backwardness and extremism, while histories of US geopolitics and violence are erased. In this way the text serves to facilitate 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. The Conclusion of her insightful and masterful analysis of the book is reproduced below.
Third World Quarterly | By Nosheen Ali | 28 June 2010
Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in
Three Cups of Tea has not just been a phenomenal American sensation. The book has been very well received in Pakistan, as it tells a moving account of a foreigner’s dedicated service to rural Pakistanis. However, since 9/11, and partly because of their lack of exposure to northern Pakistan, many urban Pakistanis have also come to see their northern territories as normalised in Three Cups of Tea: the region is backward and wild, and needs to be tamed through education—a simple and seductive picture that seems intuitively plausible.
My purpose in this paper has not been to discount the need for and value of education and grassroots development work. Books are quite obviously better than bombs, and this demand has become a key rallying point for peace activists in the US and Pakistan alike. But one has to assess the nobility of a humanitarian intervention within the larger politics that it represents and perpetuates. Through the figure and work of Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea produces a narrative about the war on terror that is devoid of history, power and politics. It deploys and normalises particular, decontextualised constructions of culture and underdevelopment to displace blame, defining the American self as well as the Muslim other in ways conducive to US policy, and reassuring for the American public. Even as the text provides a more sympathetic account of Pakistani Muslims—particularly through memorable characters such as Haji Ali—its general depiction of Pakistan remains couched in an otherising narrative of terror that essentialises the country as a zone of ignorance, backwardness and extremism. Hence, as a rule, most Pakistanis, though ‘not all’, appear to be pitiable and dangerous. Further, Mortenson’s ethnographic approach and knowledge is precisely what gives this narrative an aura of realism. Finally, Three Cups of Tea has become implicated in a participatory militarism in which an ethnographically sensitive military strives to ‘listen’ and ‘build relationships’ to ‘serve people’—in order to occupy better, and longer.
There is surely a dire need for humanitarian work and for rebuilding in the wake of a devastating occupation. Hence the argument is not to exit and forget, but to acknowledge historical and contemporary aggression, be accountable for war crimes and pay reparations, work towards undoing the damage, and take steps at home and abroad so that ruthless foreign policies are not repeated. What needs to be practised is not a hawkish, colonizing humanitarianism but an ‘anti-colonial’, ‘historicizing humanism’ which acknowledges suffering but also the relational histories that have produced it. Moreover, this humanism acknowledges the social life-worlds of others in their own terms and voices, instead of apprehending them solely through the assumed prisms of imperial mercy or disdain.
Finally, we also need to question the affective politics of humanitarianism, particularly as it has come to be understood in situations of political conflict. The label of ‘humanitarian’ has become an exclusive preserve of Western saviours, who are deemed to care as they are building hospitals, schools and relief camps in darker nations. Simultaneously, labels of ‘extremism’ and ‘violence’ have become naturalised properties of poorer regions, as if the political economy of colonial exploitation, neoliberal dispossession and savage militarism—processes that lie at the heart of Western civilisation and its ability to be humanitarian—are not extreme and violent. One wonders why the poor and illiterate villagers of Korphe—who saved Mortenson’s life and nursed him back to health by sharing meagre resources and giving him their ‘finest’ possessions—are not considered to have ‘humanitarian instincts’, while those of Mortenson are readily assumed. After all, Mortenson embarked on his journey because he felt that he must repay the Korphe people for their extraordinary generosity. They had no such obligation.
Source: Ali, Nosheen(2010) ‘Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan‘, Third World Quarterly, 31: 4, 541 — 559.
See also: New York Times | Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice | 17 July 2010
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